Isaiah Oliver refuses to become a stranger in his own community.
Named fifth president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint (CFGF) early this year, the north side native says he’ll remain accountable to friends and neighbors in the city that nurtured him.
“My life is in Flint,” says Oliver, “and every time I had an opportunity to leave there was something else here I was offered.”
Only five months into leading one of the community’s key organizations at a crucial time in the city’s history, Oliver wants others to recognize what it has to offer. Rebuilding residents’ trust in the infrastructure and boosting confidence in Flint’s return to prosperity will be critical to his support of CFGF’s nutrition, literacy and neighborhood revitalization goals.
“Trust is everything, man,” says Oliver, who, at 36, is the youngest president in the foundation’s 29-year history and its first from Flint.
“What I’ve realized is that people don’t need to get out of Flint. They need to get out in Flint.” -Isaiah Oliver, President and CEO, Community Foundation of Greater Flint
He recognizes in order to succeed there is a need for trust from both his CFGF team and those it serves.
“My goal, going into 2018, is to make sure the people in this building have the tools to deliver what we’re committed to bringing this community,” he says from his office, overlooking downtown.
Transitioning from a vice presidential role, Oliver had to align his initial goals for achievement as CEO with adjustments that came with what he describes as the “same building, different view.”
“The reality is you don’t know what you don’t know, and anyone in a new leadership role would be wise not to make concrete plans,” Oliver says. “I’ve left room to grow and it’s just happening.”
Among CFGF’s major initiatives are the construction of a $15 million, 36,000-square-foot early childhood development facility and the $2 million Flint Promise initiative, funded by Detroit Pistons owner and local native Tom Gores and the Consumers Energy Foundation. Flint Promise will make scholarships available to high school graduates.
Part of Oliver’s task is being intentional in “how we share the good news about what is happening” with segments of the community that tend to lack access to information, he says. Direct outreach and neighborhood engagement sessions are some of CFGF’s tools.
“Those types of conversations are ongoing because we have so many projects,” he says.
Promoting awareness of CFGF’s work has been a challenge.
“There’s a clear disconnect between what this institution is and how this institution affects life in this community,” Oliver says.
Some dialogue is much more personal for him, but just as important to his new role, especially when it involves Flint residents who’ve known him much of his life.
“You have the backdrop of the water crisis. You have huge racial healing and transformation issues in the community, and you have this young guy in this position, who has also been affected by it,” he says. “They feel like they can call me … I want people to feel close enough to me to ask questions.
“I don’t want to feel uncomfortable going to the grocery store, and I’m not going to the grocery store in Grand Blanc. I’m going to Mr. B’s.”
A dad to three girls, ages 6, 3, and 3 months, Oliver says he directly identifies with the community’s struggle to regain confidence in municipal resources. He still battles guilt from having mixed one daughter’s infant meal formula with faucet water later deemed unsafe, due to lead exposure.
Even years later, he says general community sentiment about water safety – using a one-to-10 rating scale – reflects more caution than comfort.
“That’s not only a good question, that’s a tough question,” he says. “I think we’re probably at a four. I don’t think we’re halfway there.
“My six-year-old daughter, my three-year-old daughter and my three-month-old daughter should not be fixing this when they’re adults.” -Isaiah Oliver, President and CEO, Community Foundation of Greater Flint
“I think four is the average. There are people who are at a one or two. There are people who would say, ‘Aw, we’re at a seven or eight,’ but I don’t think those are people who are familiar with the realities of poverty.”
While Oliver sees his low rating as a realistic number, he says no single government or civic institution is to blame. It’s the job of philanthropy and public education to “inspire hope” while community problems are remedied, he says.
“My six-year-old daughter, my three-year-old daughter and my three-month-old daughter should not be fixing this when they’re adults,” he says.
A trust factor also influences relationships between residents and business owners mutually affected by concerns about displacement as Flint’s downtown and regenerating neighborhoods attracting interest and investment, he says.
Oliver is working on new ways to spread the good news about what is happening in Flint with residents who otherwise would not receive information,
Pointing to the renovated Capitol Theatre, Oliver calls it “the community’s 70-inch TV screen” at the height of its popularity. He says interaction between families and households of different races and backgrounds at the Capitol helped forge lifelong bonds that should be replicated in today’s common spaces.
“So when Little Jimmy, who’s moved farther out in the city, tells ‘Day-Day’, who’s still living on the north side, he’s going to open a business downtown, Day-Day might remember their time at the Capitol Theatre and support him,” he says.
Too often a lack of trust and support between neighborhood investors and residents results in one-sided gain, he adds, saying, “The people who were poor are still poor.”
CFGF devoted a half-million dollars to improving neighborhoods this year, including about $100,000 to send grassroots leaders, community development corporation staff and block club leaders to conferences and events.
“It’s one thing to tell these people what they should be doing. It’s another thing to give them experiences,” he says.
With between 30,000 and 40,000 donors and $241 million in assets, CFGF has significant support to benefit neighborhoods and the broader city.
Despite ongoing issues and daily concerns, Oliver says there are benefits to staying rooted in the city as he discovered years ago when he returned from college.
“What I’ve realized is that people don’t need to get out of Flint,” Oliver says. “They need to get out in Flint.”
Editor’s Note: Isaiah Oliver was the recipient of the 2017 Art of Achievement Young Professional award bestowed by the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce at its annual event.
To learn more about the Community Foundation of Greater Flint visit: cfgf.org