October 11, 2016

Podcast: How Philanthropy Can ‘Dance Different’ in Flint

Like thousands of children in Flint, Mich., Isaiah Oliver’s two young daughters were exposed to lead-contaminated water that government officials had insisted was safe. "As a parent, I made a decision to trust the government," he says. "And I’m going to have to deal with that for a long time."

That personal experience now informs Mr. Oliver’s work as vice president for community impact at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which has raised more than $9 million to help families recover from the water crisis. As the foundation decides how to spend the money, he is well-positioned to understand the needs of his community, and not just as a parent and a native of Flint’s largely black and low-income north side. He has also seen a parade of do-gooders try to help the city over the years, without always listening to local voices.

"Philanthropy has, in the community that I’m from, a history of doing to and for, and not with," Mr. Oliver tells Amy Costello of the Tiny Spark podcast. As he did in a recent address to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the foundation leader uses dance as a metaphor for that relationship and what it could and should be: "You can be leading at times, and in other cases, you can be following. But it’s really about being in sync with the people that you’re working with."

In this interview, Mr. Oliver talks about how "dancing different" can achieve long-term gains in Flint, how grant makers are reckoning with Black Lives Matter, and his experience as an African-American from impoverished circumstances operating in the overwhelmingly white world of philanthropy.