June 27, 2016, Detroit Free Press
In a statement last month, Ridgway H. White, president of the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, called Flint’s water crisis “far from over” as he announced a new $125 million philanthropic effort involving ten local and national foundations. Earlier this week, White noted that the next phase of this commitment would be a partnership between Crim, the Flint Board of Education, and 30 public- and private-sector entities—to expand Flint’s community school model to all 11 public schools in the Flint Community Schools by the start of the 2016–2017 academic year, with Crim Fitness Foundation serving as project lead.
According to Mott, each community school will feature three core elements: A community school coordinator who will build community relationships with staff, students, and families within neighborhoods; A Genesee Health Plan health navigator who will assess students’ health needs and involve local agencies as needed; and YouthQuest, which provides afterschool programming focusing on leadership and community engagement.
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Two issues make the community school focus of this initiative particularly important. First, the dangers of lead exposure for children have been known in general terms for decades. High lead levels are especially damaging for young children under age six who are at risk of reduced neurological activity and neurobehavioral problems, according to “Educational Services for Children Affected by Lead,” a 2015 paper published by the CDC which provides guidance on symptoms, interventions, and resources for affected children. Second, a CDC statement this week addressing the Flint crisis emphasizes the importance of case management service along with healthy food and academic programs, which makes the comprehensive nature of this program timely and valuable for Flint families.
In announcing this new initiative, Mott highlighted the foundation’s longstanding commitment to community education beginning in 1935, when, according to the foundation’s 2014 annual report, “C.S. Mott and Flint educator Frank J. Manley launched a ‘lighted schoolhouse’ model, which made use of school buildings during non-school hours to provide educational and recreational programs for students, families and neighborhood residents.” The report also states that, building on this early framework, Mott has since awarded “more than $430 million in grants or more than $1 billion in today’s dollars to support community education in our hometown of Flint and around the world.”
As with the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the Flint water crisis has raised questions about how far philanthropic organizations should go in addressing municipal crises. In an essay exploring this issue that first appeared in Philanthropy News Digest, White wrote that the foundation’s immediate support to the city to switch its water source was “a no-brainer” and relates to what he termed “one of philanthropy’s most valued attributes: the ability to respond swiftly when disaster strikes to help people meet their most basic needs.” Still, he added, “Because Flint is viewed as a canary in a coal mine, Mott has received many questions about the role of philanthropy in funding infrastructure projects.” He continued, “My answer is always the same: government must be responsible for infrastructure that protects the health and safety of its citizens.” Even with major questions from this crisis still unresolved, with this latest commitment Mott is staying true to its goal of “repairing harm and restoring hope” in the midst of the water crisis as well as serving as a convener for a broader national and even international discussion of how philanthropic organizations and communities can learn from Flint.—Anne Eigeman