Isaiah Oliver: Young, black, homegrown, and just getting started

FLINT, Michigan—Isaiah Oliver could be anywhere. He is here. 

He is at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in a back room that comfortably holds 15 people, but is filled with closer to 30. Half of them are the young Alpha Esquires, who have just minutes until they mark the official start of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Youth Tribute. The other half are mentors. Oliver is front and center. 

“Reset it,” he calls out to the boys clad in white and black practicing their choreographed step routine. Let’s be clear, Oliver isn’t actually in charge here. He is one of many. 

He is also that one, though. 

He is that one who says it’s not good enough or that it is. He is that one who talks to each of the soloists: “You ready,” Oliver says in a way that makes it both a question and a statement, and to which each of the young men nods in agreement. He is that one who says it’s time to go and everyone follows.

"Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring; Ring with the harmonies of liberty; Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies"

Oliver is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. He is the youngest, first African-American, and only person born and raised in Flint to be named leader of the community-building organization with more than $245 million in assets.

After a nationwide search, the foundation Board of Trustees selected Oliver to lead the organization following the retirement of his mentor, longtime Community Foundation President Kathi Horton. He took over in May 2017, after three years serving as vice president for community impact.

Since then …

• For the first time, Flint high school graduates (or those who earn their GED) are guaranteed access to higher education. Regardless of need, every Flint graduate starting this year can earn an associate’s degree from Mott Community College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan-Flint—free of charge. 

Flint Promise launched after Oliver accepted $1 million donations each from Tom Gores, a Flint native and owner of the Detroit Pistons, and Consumers Energy.

• EduCare-Flint opened. It is a new, 36,000-square-foot, $15 million school that provides free early childhood education to 250 Flint children age 2 months to 5 years old. The Community Foundation owns the building and manages the partnership that operates the school. EduCare-Flint also provides training for other childcare providers on early childhood education best practices as part of the communitywide response to Flint Water Crisis. 

• The Community Foundation of Greater Flint also has received commitments for more than $15 million in gifts and tax credits; launched a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation initiative; awarded $253,000 in student scholarships; and in 2017 invested $9.1 million in Flint and Genesee County through community grantmaking.

In his seven months as president, Oliver also met with Bruno Mars, drank whiskey with Dave Chappelle, and delivered a few dozen speeches or keynote addresses—primarily focusing on the importance of changing the philosophy of philanthropy.

Oliver’s homegrown perspective on philanthropy is that it’s not about starting or leading or doing. 

It is about creating true partnership.

In a town that is majority black, majority poor, and majority ignored, Isaiah Oliver titled his keynote speech for MLK Day, “Shut up and listen.”

"Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us"

See, this part of Isaiah Oliver, the part in which he is president of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, is really only a small part of his story. 

The young Isaiah didn’t know he was poor, because so was everyone else he knew. He grew up here and there in Flint, moving when the family needed to but always to another street, another neighborhood that wasn’t much different than the one they had left.
He knew his mom couldn’t work more hours because their food stamps would be cut if she did. He knew no matter where they lived, there was a barber nearby. He knew he could also find juice boxes for sale at the corner liquor store.

And, he knew what really mattered in life. 

It’s quite simple really, but also difficult to summarize in a word. Maybe it could be called family or more broadly relationships. Maybe it’s being present. Maybe it’s being real. Maybe it’s being loyal. Maybe it’s just caring. That’s what matters to Oliver, a combination of all those things and more. It is core to who he is and what he does. 

Young Isaiah’s biological father lived in town and was rich, at least Oliver figured he was since he had a GM job. The father and son never had a relationship. He calls Albert Smith—the man who married his mother, who is father to two of his brothers, who worked as a janitor at Arby’s and on lucky days would bring home a bag of curly fries after his shift—his dad. And, that’s who came to Flint Public Library on MLK Day to see his son give the keynote speech. 

Oliver and his biological father made their peace just before he died, but Oliver always considered Smith his “real” dad—even though young Isaiah also was keenly aware that after his mom and dad split up, he stayed with his mom and his brothers went with their dad. Their dad.

For several years, it was just Oliver and his mom, Tonja Oliver, and he without a doubt reveres her. Oliver doesn’t know how he became driven, how he built his other relationships, how he became committed to community, how he became the father he is. All he knows is that’s who his mother raised him to be. 

And, to this day, calling a woman momma is his highest term of endearment. He calls his wife, Shay, and their three girls—Zaiah Rene, 7; Carrington Elyse, 4; and Chelyn Elizabeth, 7 months—momma, because to him momma is everything he ever had and everything he ever needed growing up.

They are his everything. And, they are a relentless dose of reality. 

They are the ones who tell him how proud they are of him for winning Young Professional of the Year, but the garage stinks because he forgot to take out the trash. Again. And, that MLK Day speech was nice, Carrington says, but the best part was her dress and when he talked about her.

(And that is also why she wants to know if she and her sisters will be in the article about their dad. By name. Twice. ... And, of course, we're happy to oblige with the girls' full names—Zaiah Rene, Carrington Elyse, and Chelyn Elizabeth—for a second time.)

Momma growing up also was his reality check. She is the one who told him it was time to choose. What did he want from his life? And was he willing to work for it? The choice for the 1999 graduate of Flint Northwestern meant giving up basketball his junior year in high school.

He instead spent his time studying and making sure he got into college.

“I didn’t know I was poor. I didn’t know until high school that we were poor, and then I knew I didn’t want to be,” Oliver says in one of many short conversations, jammed between other meetings piled throughout his day.

He wanted to be an artist, but also wanted to make sure he could make a living. So, then he wanted to be an architect. Oliver graduated from Central Michigan University with a bachelor of applied arts in graphic design. Today, he says, “I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.”

Oliver knew college was the first step toward whatever it is that he would be, and he also found himself in a totally unfamiliar place. Here, he was one of the few people of color. Here, the barber didn’t know how to cut his hair. Here, MLK Day was just another day.

That first year away was one of realizing just how little he knew about the rest of the world, realizing just how little the rest of the world knew about his world, and wearing the most ridiculous haircut of his life.

The second year away, things were different. The second year he joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The second year, he and other fraternity brothers went all over campus doing popup recitals of King’s “Dream” speech to make sure campus and students recognized Martin Luther King Day. The second year, he was one of a group of students who asked the university president to set aside MLK Day as a day of service and cancel classes to allow students the opportunity to honor the day. The second year, he helped gather every black fraternity, sorority, and campus organization to support the effort—and he also went to key student leaders outside the tight-knit, and very small, black campus community. “The allies are important,” Oliver says as he drives toward his third MLK event of the day. 

By the time Oliver graduated, his alma mater had officially adopted that proposal to make MLK Day a day of service. 

“Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last; Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast”

Isaiah Oliver first rose to prominence as president of Flint Community Schools Board of Education. He ran for the office in 2011 at age 30 after his first daughter and namesake, Zaiah, was born. He was the top vote getter and quickly became board president. He identified a $20-million deficit and helped develop the plan that eliminated it, instituted new district leadership, and helped secure $40 million in funding that benefited Flint Community Schools and students. 

That was just seven years ago. 

Today, Oliver remains an endless critic and eternal cheerleader for Flint. And, sometimes, is openly surprised by the life he is living. The truth is he never planned this, as he calls it, very blessed life.

“People pay me to do all the s--- that I like and that I’m good at,” Oliver says, his tone somewhat flabbergasted. “I’ve moved a lot further and faster by not planning out what I wanted to do. If I had done that, I wouldn’t be where I am. I would have never imagined this.”

His job, he says, is to bring people together. 

Philanthropy traditionally uses a top-down approach to community development—making investments in the community instead of with the community. Oliver, one of only seven black men to lead the 800 community foundations nationwide, sees it differently. 

“It’s about relationship building,” Oliver says. The core of every community—and especially Flint—is its people, Oliver says. They are the leaders. They are the developers. 

“I want to create beautiful things with my friends in the community that I love,” Oliver says to describe his goals as Community Foundation president. “I want to do amazing things. I want to do something that my kids can enjoy, something your kids can enjoy.”

He is, he says, just trying to “make the best of the unforgiving minute.” It is a nod to Oliver’s artistic side, a reference to the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If.” Written as a letter from father to son, the poem is a tribute to unwavering determination and stoic perseverance. 

Oliver memorized every line of it that second year of college. 

And, lives it every minute today.


Disclosure: The personal insights contained in this article come in part from years of personal friendship. As with all articles in Flintside, every effort has been made to ensure its truth and accuracy. Find out more about Flintside at our About Us page.

Read more articles by Marjory Raymer.

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