Mott president on Flint: ‘You hit rock bottom multiple times’

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is at the center of recovery efforts in Flint, where inadequately treated water caused lead pipes to leach lead, a neurotoxin, into the drinking supply, potentially poisoning thousands of children.

Mott President Ridgway White spoke with Bridge about the challenges facing the city and its residents. (Disclosure: Mott is a funder of The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Magazine)

Bridge: What is the C.S. Mott foundation’s role in Flint’s recovery?

White: We pledged over $100 million over a five-year period, We’ve probably awarded $25 million or so. Some of that is retooling of existing programs, like after-school programs and early education; others are things like doubling the number of community schools and double-up food bucks (which allows low-income families to get twice as much healthy food).

Related: How long will Flint’s water chief remain unpaid?

Bridge: Give us a status update on recovery efforts.

White: We’re beginning to unpeel the onion. You have to understand what the Flint water crisis is. It was an emergency health crisis, and it’s a crisis of confidence in government and its ability to provide basic services. When you don’t have basic services, a lot of things in society start to fall apart. Fortunately, the nonprofits have been here to reduce struggles in town; society hasn’t completely broken down.

Depending on who you talk to, we may be two and a half years into the crisis. You have the repercussions of the long-term crisis, the continuing crisis in confidence in government combined with a new (city) administration that is getting its bearings. You have a lot of money pledged by philanthropies, government and celebrities, but some of those dollars haven’t been implemented. We’re really in the messy part now.

Bridge: You mention a crisis in confidence in government. Part of that seems to revolve around the city of Flint’s inability to conduct routine business. Have foundations considered stepping in and funding city employee positions so there is greater capacity to get things done?

White: We initially thought we would give a lot of money to the city for capacity building. We haven’t ruled it out but we’re sort of rethinking that. The issue is, the water crisis has taken a city that had limited capacity and completely broken it. So how do you help build capacity when capacity has been so broken as a result of the crisis?

We put in $120,000 (to the city) to get an extra special water czar, but, then they can’t collect the trash. Property tax bills went out a week and a half before they were due – they typically come out three months early. If we give money, will they (city officials) cut the budget elsewhere, so our extra dollars aren’t helping all that much?

Bridge: You sound frustrated.

White: We have studies that show that 50 percent of the city will be owned (by the city) through tax foreclosure in less than five years. People aren’t paying their property taxes or their water bills. You try to forecast five years out and you say, “How will city operations work?” That’s why this is the messy part.

Bridge: Foundations have stepped up. Has state government done enough?

White: We’ve done the initial things, the things that foundations know how to do. I think we thought the resources from government were going to come in a little stronger than they did. The government has approved certain dollars, but it sometimes seems slow to be implemented. I credit them for trying. The early child initiatives the state approved for Flint, that’s like $54 million dollars for early childhood, that’s pretty significant. The state bringing in (a total so far of) $234 million, that’s a lot of money in a year, for a city that only has a few staff. How much can you spend in a year or two?

Bridge: How is Mott involved in those early childhood and school initiatives?

White: There are 8,177 kids in Flint ages 0-5, but only 1,700 or so are in quality (early childhood) programs. So we’ve taken the initiative to try to build a couple centers with wraparound services and outreach, to raise the standard throughout the city.

One of the biggest requests from the (Flint Community Schools) superintendent was for community school directors. This year we’ll have community school directors and health navigators in 11 schools to help connect families to resources. It helps the schools be less isolated, so they’re not just about the child, but the whole family.

Bridge: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the direction of efforts today?

White: I feel cautiously optimistic about the interventions for youth and about some of the health and nutrition work. I would say the story is still unfolding on our economic future. I’m more pessimistic about ability of the city to figure out its resources and fiscal sustainability, not because of our leadership, but just because of the system. Without having water bills paid, without property taxes, with increased foreclosure rates and decreased property values, you compile those things together with the legal entanglements over the water crisis that will be ongoing, and it’s messy.

When I first met the mayor, she said, ‘We’ve hit rock bottom,’ and I said, ‘Don’t say that.’ If you live here long enough, you hit rock bottom multiple times. What’s next? Civil unrest? Knock on wood, we’ve avoided that.

I was more optimistic at one point feeling that the water crisis would provide an opportunity to spur some advantaged tax law, perhaps a federal corporate income tax break to encourage companies to come here. But I don’t see anything that’s going to happen there. State revenue sharing policy change, in my opinion, is the solution; that (decrease in revenue sharing) and school of choice have caused more damage to Flint than anything else.

Bridge: How much is a total Flint fix going to cost?

White: If you’re talking about infrastructure, then it’s $1 billion. if you’re talking about basic resources for response for children, there could always be more, but it’s more worrying about years three, four, five, 10 than now.

The state’s come up with a lot. But will people remember the scars of the water crisis five years from now? Will the next administration continue to be held accountable? We’re in uncharted territory. I think the scars of the water crisis will be deep and lasting, no matter the amount of money.

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Dorothy Batchelder
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 1:10pm
It is really a shame when city council is not aware that the $120,000 was donated for a water czar. I waa at the council meeting and several members said that they placed McDaniels name on that money. They did not him to be paid for work that he had done as a volunteer. They only wanted him to be paid for future work. I do not see that this council has any intention of working with Mayor Karen Weaver. They remained silent while children were being poisoned. Heartless and inhumane. Please help.
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 8:42pm
Heartless and inhumane pretty much describes state government throughout the handling of this entire situation. My heart grieves for this situation and like you feel helpless, since none of these men listen. They find millions to cover the governors legal fees, but not what it takes to replace pipes.
Wed, 08/31/2016 - 3:04pm
I totally agree with Mr. White when he says that state revenue sharing (the elimination of it) was the beginning of Flint's downward trajectory. I also agree with his assessment of the role played by schools of choice. Research shows clearly that the state of a city is mirrored in the state of its schools. Fix the schools, fix the town. These two are not that difficult to overcome if people of good will and positive intention at the state level are willing to return to past fiscal operation and share the wealth with the municipalities of the state. Flint is not the only community suffering from this decision to keep the money in Lansing.
Wed, 08/31/2016 - 7:45pm
I wonder if Kathy has thought about where the state would get the wealth she wants it to share with municipalities? Why from the residents of municipalities of course.
Wed, 08/31/2016 - 9:55pm
Kathy, Money isn't the panacea, you can see how the foundations are throwing millions at the City without any accountability and they are getting nothing for all that money. You and others have to stop thinking about money as the answer, the reality is that it is the kids decide whether they learn or not and we need to ask them why the do or don't learn before we will even know what to spend the 'money' on to change results.
Robyn Tonkin
Fri, 09/02/2016 - 1:02pm
Until I started reading comments from The Bridge readers, I had never encountered comments, which are fairly common here, that refer to children making choices. Children make simple choices--they like this toy, this entertainer (if they are a teenager) and this or that treat or food. They do not choose to learn or not. Asking a child why he or she is "choosing to not learn" would get nothing but a puzzled look from the child. Choosing a complex system of behavior that involves things such as deferring immediate gratification for a future benefit is NOT the province of childhood--it is higher order decision making that kids don't do. It's like having a teenage daughter who won't observe her curfew and deciding that she is "choosing" to not obey, and if she disobeys, deciding that she is "untrustworthy". She is actually in thrall to conflicted emotions and drives, the essence of adolescence, and she is in full tilt boogie emotional flooding, acts out on these emotions and drives. Of course she can't be trusted to do what you say, exactly as you say, when you say it, and making her "part of the process" doesn't change this. We have raised a daughter, and know about all this stuff first hand. I think a lot of people say that children make choices because they don't want to think about the problem with any depth or with any application of common sense. Money does improve education-- better teachers demand higher pay. Better teaching materials cost more, and more varied learning opportunities--better labs, better classrooms, and better extracurriculars--cost more, than antiquated or very basic permutation of such things cost. Beyond these inputs, you need children who can sit down and learn, because of parental modelling and intense parenting. Human beings are not one size fits all. I would think adults would not need to be told this--that children have to have virtually all decisions made for them, and reinforced by parents and other adults in authority--but I would be wrong. I have to think that a lot of the people who think children make such higher order decisions have virtually no useful internalized information in their brains about children, so that they are clueless about what children are really like.
Sat, 09/03/2016 - 12:44am
Robyn, Children choose to or not to learn, they do it at every age. Consider when they read a book they want, that is choosing to learn. If a child chooses to be part of a ‘Spelling Bee’ they are choosing to learn. As they grow the choices broaden. When children choose to do homework [not the choice I made, instead I went out to play] they are choosing to learn. You seem to want choosing to be complex in a way that only adults can understand. In reality choosing to learn is simple, it is based on interests/likes and what they receive for their effort. Our grandson was 7 when he began reading at night before going to sleep, he was choosing to learn. I asked him why, he said because his sister did, he was choosing to learn because he had a model to follow. I learned that same lesson from our oldest daughter after her first year of college. We had move while she and her sister were in high school and we asked what did she consider as a significant difference between the two schools, ‘At _ _ _ I went to school with the same kids I went to college with.’ She had the academic reinforcement of her peers; they were models of learning for each other. Our grandson like his sister created a habit of reading that he and she still practice 4 years later, they are choosing to learn. If you listen you will discover that their peers, their micro-cultures, are reinforcing learning, and that habits such ending your day reading is learning. There is a lot to learn by simply asking and listening [hearing what is be said not just what one wants to hear]. You learn from students based on how you ask the questions; you ask about why they do things such as reading, such as homework, ask about what they participate in and why, and as they get older you ask the question more appropriate to what they are doing/learning. You ask them about school, do they like it why or why not and you explore those answers. You ask about what they like to do and have them describe in detail what it is and how they do it, who else is doing it, you ask about things they are not doing and why, etc. You ask the questions in such a way that they are telling their story [no ‘yes’ and ‘no’, no multiple guess, no ‘either’ ‘or’ questions] and you listen [by asking follow-up questions on things they have said showing them you are listening]. You don’t judge their answers, you don’t expect them to give a ‘eureka’ moment of insight to fix the way adults present education. You listen. By the way you framed your comments suggests a lack of appreciation of the intellect of the students. You seem to only see them as blank slates for the teacher to write on, to pour their knowledge into students’ heads. In reality students are thinking and learning and adapting to their environment. If we don’t try to understand how and why they are responding to the current education system and learning then nothing will change, not how we do things or who learns or doesn’t learn in school. Growing up is complex, learning is only a part of it, and even that can be narrowed to habits, feedback, and expectations [goals]. If anything the classroom academics can become a safe haven from all the complexity of growing up, as long as they relate to what and how subjects are being taught. Don’t delude yourself, children are watching and listening to adults and deciding what their futures could be and what they will need to do to get there. If children have all the decisions made for them then they never learn to make decisions for themselves and become dependent on others for the rest of their lives. A reality is that parents that see their responsibilities as parents to help their children develop into mature successful adults think a lot about the problems of childhood and how they need to help children learn to make choices, how to think about problems, how to be responsible for their choices, how to recognize the potential consequences before acting. Childhood needs to be a place where children grow and test and make mistakes and have success so they learn about life/living and build a foundation for their adulthood.
Gloria Woods
Sun, 09/04/2016 - 8:57am
Duane, I don't think you read this article without bias. Mr. White gives reasons for the lack of good response from the city, lack of capacity, lack of staffing lack of adequate revenue sharing from the state. These issues are in large part money-driven. Further, you can't blame kids for the lack of schools, Scholls staffing or their anxiety over the issues they and their families face. It's up to us-members of Flint's extended family-to support and give the assistance they need to get back on their feet.
Sun, 09/04/2016 - 10:35am
Gloria, My concern with Mr. White is that the purpose of those who work at the foundation is to give money away, so all they look for is place where to give it and who has the most appealing cause because their only metrics is money [the IRS is the ones that are monitoring and enforcing their donations with a specific minimum expectation]. When they talk about their donations to the City of the generations Mr. White never talks about how they evaluated the programs and causes to ensure that the people [the ones spending their donations] were spending that money effectively. Guess what the longer you give people money to spend without verifying results the strong you build in the spender the view that it doesn't matter. I wonder when Mr. White learned that the donation for 'Flint's water chief' whom it was donated for. Do the people who will disburse the money even care, is it such a small sum that neither those people care or Mr. White/his staff care? People have to choose is it results or the giving/spending of money that is what matters. My whole career was about spending other people's money, but I was require to describe the results that were expected and them regularly report on the results being achieved. If the results weren't achieving expectations I had to explain why and how we would change what we were doing to deliver the expected results or the program/project was shutdown/replace and that money supplied ended. We were very effective, but we also had to end certain efforts because of results. We saw money as part of the tools and purpose was results, we got better results than most. I have doubts that most foundation staffs appreciate [may nit even care] how the money they donate to causes was earned, there sole focus is giving it away. That is what is disappointing. Do you think that Charles Mott earned that money be giving it to organizations like Flint that have broken even the capacity of their system to spend the money? The Mott Foundations seems willing to continue to give to Flint, and I suspect others with out concern for the results or even capacities. I think you read my comments wrong, I do not blame kids. I am simply offering an opportunity by raising the part kids play in their own learning process. The kids have to learn everything, we are not an instinctive species [with the possible exception of trying to manipulate parents] we have to learn everything. I am no denying that money is needed, nothing happens for free, but to start with money instead who is to be learning ensures that nothing will change. I can't imagine the on told dollars spent in the name of education and what are the results we are getting? Has those results in the past generations of all that spending? Haven't you ever wonder why in every classroom [where all things money buys is equal] there are still those that succeed, those that fail, and those in between? Don't you wonder why the individuals do differently? Do you think it is talent? The reality is learning like everything else we do takes effort and until we understand why kids are different in the effort they are willing to put into learning we are simply leaving the results to chance. For me it is about results, but when the focus first and foremost is about the money the result won't improve, whether it be kids learning or Flint providing a safe and enjoyable place to live. If the educational battle is about how much money, the kids become simply an excuse. If the Flint battle is about money for 'broken' system of service, a safe Flint becomes simply and excuse.
Gloria Woods
Sun, 09/04/2016 - 8:58am
I agree with you, Kathy.
Fri, 09/02/2016 - 11:00am
Now that the national cameras are off, Gov. Snyder goes back to ignoring Flint children. I pray Motts goes into the schools the first week and ask teachers, "How can we help?" The first day of school Gov. Snyder should be at a Flint school offering support.
Sat, 09/03/2016 - 11:47am
Cat, Is it really the Gov's job, any Gov, to be the parent of everyone's kid? I for one never wanted the Gov to be the parent of my kid. That was my job! Nor do or would I like what they did. I recognize that many in the age of Obama and (It takes a village) Clinton, think the state is every woman's husband and every kid's parent. Good luck with that! The hard cold fact is like it or not the Gov has other duties and maybe it's part of the answer of where we find ourselves today.!
Thu, 09/08/2016 - 1:34pm
Matt, The brain has a negative bias as discovered by neuroscientists. The automatic response is for us to look for evidence to support our own positions, which you seem to do well. I read your comments often and find them very narrow in their scope and understanding. It takes time and energy to really understand an issue and it's complexity.
Ted Jankowski
Mon, 06/03/2019 - 2:03am

How come no one ever asks them about their funding and support of the EFM law? Or their Track record for their Sugar Company and the water in Florida? Or how White benefits and benefited from the EFM law and the EFM who was formerly a board member at the Mott Foundation? Just so many questions no one ever asks and we'll never get answers to. I'll be surprised if this isn't deleted by morning.

Ted Jankowski
Mon, 06/03/2019 - 2:03am

How come no one ever asks them about their funding and support of the EFM law? Or their Track record for their Sugar Company and the water in Florida? Or how White benefits and benefited from the EFM law and the EFM who was formerly a board member at the Mott Foundation? Just so many questions no one ever asks and we'll never get answers to. I'll be surprised if this isn't deleted by morning.