Ridgway H. White

Ridgway H. White ’02

Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

Four years after the Flint water crisis began, Ridgway H. White ’02 is still helping his hometown rebuild as the president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The city, like many, is striving to define itself beyond its most famous tragedy, making White the best person to ask:

Q: What do you wish more people knew about Flint, Michigan, today?

A: “It’s an interesting phenomenon, a onecompany town. We were the Silicon Valley of the turn of the 20th century, with a tremendous growth story as the birthplace of GM. When that main employer leaves though, you have to almost rebuild that ecosystem, retool opportunities to suit a population that’s been left by society and make sure the resources left by a legacy institution like GM are available to the people here. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but Flint is a community anchored by its citizens and non-profits and educational institutions. It’s a place where people can make a difference.

One thing we focus on at the Mott Foundation is connecting people to their communities, to see them come together in new, innovative and meaningful ways. When I started working at the Mott Foundation as a program assistant focused on revitalizing Flint, about 80 percent of the storefronts were boarded up. There were zero people downtown, zero people on the streets after 5 p.m. and on the weekend. Now, there are more than 1,000 people living downtown. We’ve enabled more than 50 businesses to come downtown, and the majority of our buildings are occupied.

The macroeconomic headwinds facing Flint over the past decades have been challenging. There’s a large section of the population that struggles daily, and when a crisis hits, that’s the population that struggles the most. Our biggest challenge in Flint is trying to ensure that all people in the community can take advantage of the great opportunities here, which is why we’re chasing small companies and sparks of ideas that can lead to employment over a long period of time.

There’s a rich history of entrepreneurship here that’s amazing for a town of this size, and between the University of Michigan-Flint, the Mott Foundation and other institutions, we have a background infrastructure to provide opportunities for a community well above the size of the 100,000 people living here. Coming out of the water crisis, we’ve focused on trying to provide support to the most atrisk populations in Flint and connect them to institutions and non-profits that empower them to engage and create change. We’re building a cradle-to-career education continuum that connects children and families with high-quality education opportunities from early childhood all the way through schooling and into their careers.

In my opinion, we won’t be able to say the Mott Foundation has been truly successful until we can demonstrate from a statistical standpoint that children born in Flint are just as likely to succeed as those born elsewhere in our state or country. When the government and private sector fail, the non-profit and independent sector has to be there — and we are.”

The Game Changer

When one’s basic human needs are not met, it’s hard to function. When an entire community is poisoned and can’t drink or use the water for over 1,000 days, its criminal. And when this occurs in your own hometown, it’s devastating,” says Ridgway H. White ’02.

White is referring to the Flint water crisis, which occurred when a state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to switch the city of Flint from using Detroit’s water system to drawing water from the Flint River. Failure to treat the river water properly caused lead to leach from pipes and into the community’s water supply.

As president of the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, White has rallied local, state and national foundations to help the community recover and rise from the water crisis, which he calls his “most important challenge to date.”

Leading one of the nation’s premier philanthropic institutions, White oversees operations as the foundation leverages its $3 billion endowment to propel national and international projects that support civil society, education and the environment, as well as initiatives focused in the Flint area.

Historically, the foundation has invested resources in lifting up the Flint community, but in the aftermath of the 2014 discovery of lead-tainted public water, the Mott Foundation redoubled its local presence under White’s leadership.

“When the elevated lead levels in Flint were discovered, I was in my office and said I have to do something, so I decided to call the governor,” says White, who joined Mott in 2004 and was named president in 2015. “But I didn’t know the governor, so I had to figure it out the old-fashioned way. I Googled Governor Snyder’s number, and after talking to about 10 people, I had him on the phone. I said, ‘Number one: people are really fearful, and number two: scientists say the problem will correct if the water is properly treated.’”

That conversation led to an initial $4 million commitment, which helped the city switch back to the Detroit water system two weeks later.

From there, White and the foundation brought together 10 major foundations that committed a total of up to $125 million to help Flint recover and rise from the water crisis. Mott led the way in that pledge, committing up to $100 million over the course of five years. Supporting work in six areas — safe drinking water, health care, early education, nonprofits, community engagement and economic development — the initiative’s end goal is to rebuild the community with “a major focus on children and families.”

“There are about 10,000 households still relying on bottled water because there’s still a lack of trust in the system. State health officials recommend drinking only filtered water, but State testing suggests that the water quality has returned to pre-crisis levels,” White says.

In the meantime, the Mott Foundation and other public and private partners continue recovery efforts, including the 2017 launch of Educare Flint, a state-of-the-art early childhood school designed to “create a network that goes beyond the walls of the school, to elevate the impact of that education by involving parents and grandparents,” White says.

As the recovery continues, he is focused on these kinds of ripple effects that result from bringing citizens and resources together, “whether we’re working in South Africa so people can truly interact and have a voice in their society, or on economic development and building an entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Flint.” –Andrew Wickenden ’09


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.