Skillman's community builder - past, present and future

When Skillman Foundation President Carol Goss announced she was stepping down at the end of this year, the foundation’s board didn’t have to look far for the perfect person to take her place. Tonya Allen, the foundation’s current CEO, who has been with Skillman since 2004, will be stepping into Skillman’s top role. 

A Detroit native, Allen was making an impact on the lives of children in the city well before she joined the Skillman Foundation. She founded and served as executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative in Detroit, and was a program officer of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Thompson-McCully Foundation. While at Skillman, she created the Good Neighborhoods Initiative and launched Excellent Schools Detroit. 

With that experience, Allen is uniquely well-positioned to guide one of the city’s most influential foundations through Detroit’s tough times ahead. Allen sees the city’s current financial straits as an opportunity to refocus the city government on the needs of the residents. In an interview about a week before the city filed for bankruptcy, she says, "I think there is a big opportunity, as we’re thinking through this financial restructuring as a city, that we actually begin to ratchet up our expectations, not lower them -- that this is the time if we’re going to restructure (the city), let’s restructure it with an expectation that we’re going to provide a set of service to its residents that are basic. I think that that will be a big force for us."

The restructuring allows the city a chance to serve the ordinary Detroiters who work every day to keep their communities viable, often well out of the spotlight, Allen says. Putting those people at the center and supporting their efforts should be an important focus for the leaders trying to right the city's financial ship.

"I think that we have this force of the resilience of Detroiters that I always rely on," she says. "There are just tons of Detroiters in this city who are doing good, and they wake up every day doing that. And, unfortunately, we relinquish the news and relinquish our expectations to the people who don’t do any of that."

Of her many accomplishments at Skillman, Allen is most proud of the foundation's high school initiative. It began several years ago when the foundation was interested in recognizing with a cash award schools that had shown at least 10 percent improvement in one or more academic areas. The problem? They couldn’t find even one, nor could they when they revised criteria down to 5 percent improvement. It was so bad that they would have had to give the award to schools that suffered less than a 10 percent drop. 

Rather than reward mediocrity, the Skillman Foundation set out to end it. An all-out effort toward attracting partners and building capacity to turn around schools, create brand-new schools and invest in other schools led to the launch of 15 to 20 new college prep high schools that are either open now or in the process of launching in the next year or two. The first classes to graduate were last year and this year, and had graduation rates and college going rates between 80 and 100 percent, in contrast with the citywide rate of just fewer than 65 percent.

"I'm extraordinarily proud of that work, because these kids' lives will be significantly altered because a few caring people decided to take on the status quo, and we won," she says.

Another point of pride is the Good Neighborhoods Initiative. The foundation identified six neighborhoods throughout the city: Southwest Detroit, Chadsey-Condon, Brightmoor, Cody-Rouge, Northend-Central and Osborn and pledged to put the full force of their resources behind those neighbrhoods.

In the eight years since the program launched, Skillman has leveraged its already signficant $65 million pledge into $425 million invested by partners in those communities. More to the point, Allen says, the communities are determining their own future thanks to improved abilities to do so.

"Money attracts other money, but so does capacity and community leadership," she says. Brightmoor in particular – a neighborhood all but left for dead a few years ago – is drawing attention for creative solutions to community problems and may even be poised to be the next big success story.

"If you can take the best about what you know from the corporate world," Allen says, "and then take what you know best about community building, what you are able to do is to create a bit of magic." 

While Allen says that Skillman's mission of creating better futures for vulnerable children will not change, some of the ways they do the work will evolve under her leadership. For example, with Skillman’s approach of partnering with communities on specific projects (versus doling out checks at a remove), they are poised to build bridges between the "Old Detroit" of longstanding community activists who have experienced a lot of loss with the ups and downs of the city, and the "New Detroit" of mostly young newcomers to the city who are bursting with fresh ideas but don’t always know the best way to execute their plans.

"I think that is extraordinarily important that we create a bridge so that there is an 'our Detroit'," she says. "We believe that the foundation can play that role and we have done that through some matchmaking between the people who have some of these new ideas and new practices that are untested, so that they can actually work in communities where people are interested in those ideas and make sure the solutions are relevant, and that they are practical and have benefit to the community."

For example, they have connected the D-Tread project, which recycles tires into environmentally productive products, with community leaders in the Osborn neighborhood, and helped Detroit Nation start a mentoring program for young people to complete their college applications. 

They're also moving into the social innovation arena by investing in smaller, riskier projects that are grounded in good practice and go beyond traditional methods that might not be the one true path to success.

"It's when you can combine what you do know with new ways of doing the work that you can be successful at solving problems," Allen says. Expect Skillman to be moving into program-related investments, where they’ll give some money to a promising project as in investment, not a grant or a loan. Similarly, a social venture fund is possible on the horizon. 

That fits with Allen’s goal to make Skillman more results-driven and, "If we're failing, that we're failing forward," she says. She characterizes her leadership style as open, authentic, and inclusive; it's worth mentioning that the CEO of this nationally known foundation is referred to by her staff as simply "Tonya." Levity is important to her too, she says: "I aim for a jerk-free environment."

While Allen’s career has been devoted to helping children, she's a mother herself of three girls, ages 7 to 23. Being a parent makes the work more personal to her, she says, and highlights how crucial the Skillman Foundation's work is.

"I really feel that my children remind me that all of the good things that I want for them is what I want for other children," she says, "and that the life and the world I want them to exist in can never exist if we don’t create that world for poor children."

Detroit-based freelancer Amy Kuras writes about education for Model D. 

The Skillman Foundation is Model D's partner for the On the Ground series.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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