Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic and Building Long-Term Solutions to Promote Equity in Communities: Why Philanthropy Matters

By Isaiah M. Oliver, President and CEO

Community Foundation of Greater Flint

We see 2020 in the rearview mirror, a year that left many of us physically empty, mentally drained, and emotionally depleted. And 2021 presents more challenges. But what have we learned from this tempestuous time? What can we salvage? What should we carry with us as we move forward addressing persistent, new, and developing challenges?

Nothing could have prepared us more for last year than the past decade. Before a global health pandemic, economic decline, national racial reckoning, and political polarization, Flint had faced multiple crises. The closing of General Motors plants and associated businesses left a city filled with hard-working, strong-willed people to figure it out.

The decision to switch our municipal water supply from one of the world’s most beautiful aquifers, Lake Huron, to the Flint River marked yet another turning point. One that would place the city and its nearly 100,000 residents in harm’s way.

We navigated the Flint Water Crisis in large part because of our ability to rapidly form multi-sector partnerships to address the city’s needs. This is action above and beyond the local, state, and government response and resources needed to restore the city to whole. Philanthropy’s role was filling the gaps that mattered.

For four years I have had the honor of leading the Community Foundation of Greater Flint (CFGF), a public charity focused on engaging people in philanthropy. We leverage our social capital and organize community to give the trifecta, “time, talent, and treasure.” We have committed to “go all in” on community leadership by insisting on racial equity, amplifying community voice, and influencing public policy and systems. We lean into the lived experiences of those who are marginalized the most and bridge that with donors as we live into the promise of being in and of community, connecting generosity to community needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed excessive hardship in cities like Flint that were already dealing with structural inequalities and extreme health and wealth disparities. In March, Flint saw tremendous racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths, with African Americans representing less than 60% of the city’s population, but an astounding 85% of COVID cases and 91% of COVID deaths. Again, we found ourselves faced with the task of meeting our city’s needs and getting resources out to the community quickly and equitably.

In March, I catalyzed the establishment of the Greater Flint Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Inequities with the goal to bring awareness, analysis, and action to the root causes of disparities to ensure racial equity within and across organizations and systems to reduce the disparities we saw early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The work supports individuals and organizations to develop and implement processes to challenge existing patterns of institutional power, jettison the hierarchy of human value, and to promote equity.

The Task Force includes multiple sectors and stakeholders representing health, business, government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and community activists. We addressed the many systemic barriers related to inequitable access to COVID testing and treatment in the health care system, a gap in resources to support individuals and families in being able to shelter in place and remain solvent, and community-wide dissemination of information from trusted and credible messengers across multiple platforms.

As a community we eliminated the African American COVID-19 disparities in Flint by mid-July. The relative risk of COVID infection went from a nearly eight-fold disparity in March to an under-representation of African American COVID cases in July. These statistics have persisted through the present.

Through summer 2020, CFGF distributed nearly $2 million to primarily grassroots community organizations through the Greater Flint Urgent Relief Fund; and in November we granted more than $2 million in Cares Act rapid relief funds to community organizations to address our community’s most pressing needs. We kept our focus on the long-term systemic barriers residents face in having equitable access to what they need to be healthy and thrive.

CFGF leveraged these efforts to create a larger and more sustained impact that includes city-wide implementation of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process. TRHT is a comprehensive, national, and community-based process for bringing about transformational and sustainable change, addressing the historic and present-day effects of racism by focusing on ways for all of us to heal by building mutually respectful relationships across racial and ethnic lines. Diverse community relationships that better reflect our common humanity develop at the speed of trust built, and that trust-building takes time and consistent action. The relationships and trust that philanthropy has built-in this community over time has been the key to our ability to garner community confidence and demonstrate consistent action.

COVID-19 has presented us with an unparalleled opportunity nationally to reimagine the role of philanthropy and bring integrity to our work as true partners in equity. Flint is one example of where we have elevated equity through the crisis. The larger opportunity is to bring this approach and equity lens beyond the pandemic. This will be critical as we address new and developing challenges in 2021. Ongoing conversations about the urgency of community vaccination will also require leveraging multi-sector relationships, trust-building, and trusted messengers to support information dissemination.

The Community Foundation’s vision is centered in racial equity — an equitable community where everyone can thrive — deepening our role beyond grantmaking and becoming a more effective partner in building an inclusive and widely prosperous community. Demonstrating why philanthropy matters will continue beyond this pandemic as it holds the greatest promise to ensure equity for the long haul.

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