Our Next Chapter: An Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Youth

I began my philanthropic career at the Skillman Foundation in 1989. This February I returned after 17 years, as the organization’s vice president of program and strategy. When friends and colleagues heard the news, many asked why I chose to come back. My reasons are manifold. The Foundation’s mission to serve Detroit children still speaks to my heart. It has a terrific leader in Tonya Allen. It has continued to attract a cadre of smart, talented and passionate team members.  

John ziraldo

John Ziraldo

But the most compelling reason for me to return was the recognition that both Detroit and the Skillman Foundation are at the beginning of a new chapter in their history – one in which the chance to make a significant positive difference in the lives of the city’s children has never been greater. 

The Foundation has evolved through the experience and learnings of its 11-year Good Neighborhoods Initiative (GNI), which concluded in 2016. For the last year, our Trustees and staff have been deeply engaged in a planning process that will set the course for our future work. We have been thoughtfully considering how we can have the most meaningful, long-term impact on the well-being of children citywide. Our planning efforts have considered how the Foundation, its partners in the community, and the environment we work in has changed since our last deep strategic planning process in 2006. We have sought to learn from our own experiences as well as the knowledge of community partners and other philanthropic organizations so that we may bring lasting solutions to the challenges faced by Detroit children and families. 

Life in Detroit has shifted dramatically since we launched GNI in 2006. Over the past 11 years, the city and its people have lived through the Great Recession, municipal bankruptcy, and more recently, the resurgence of business and residential growth in the downtown and Midtown areas of our city. The Foundation acutely recognizes that economic turnaround is only being experienced by some and has not yet reached most, and that disparities in educational and work opportunities that hinder our youth thereby hinder our city and state. 

As we move into the next chapter, the Skillman Foundation has committed itself to creating an opportunity agenda for Detroit’s children. We know that Detroit’s comeback will not be fully realized nor sustainable until opportunities to prosper reach families in every corner of the city. As such, the Foundation created the following Results Statement as part of our planning process: 

Detroit children are prepared for and connected to opportunities in an ever-evolving economy, and are making significant contributions to our city’s recovery.

Detroit will be stronger when all of its residents are prepared for and have access to the new jobs created from an expanding economy. But Detroit will be strongest when its youth are prepared and positioned to be the drivers of future economic and social progress. 

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Detroit youth contributes his perspective at a local leadership conference.

Our emerging strategic perspective focuses on the importance of creating opportunity in three interconnected Impact Areas: Economy, Education and Equity. This new framework calls for us to direct our changemaking and grantmaking efforts citywide, and at system level. 

Within our Education Impact Area the Foundation will support students and create environments that enable them to be present, prepared, and progressing through school. In this Impact Area we want to be sure students are Present & Ready to Learn, that they have the Literacy & Numeracy skills they need to succeed, and that Detroit has an Educational Ecosystem Reset to create stable, supportive conditions that allow all schools to become high performing. 

Because we recognize the importance of creating greater economic access and prosperity for Detroit youth, our Economy Impact Area will focus on supporting youth and creating environments that connect them to an ever-evolving economy. Our efforts in this Impact Area will assure that students have clear College & Career Pathways, that they gain critical work and life experience through Youth Employment and that they receive supports and services that lead to Financial Empowerment

Our Equity Impact Area will support youth and create environments where their perspectives and experiences are heard and integrated in decision making at every level – community, city, state and nation – in both policies and practices. Our work in this Impact Area will include three strategic approaches that emphasize citywide system building: Safety, Youth Development, and Community & Youth Leadership. 

The Skillman Foundation has also decided to continue the important work begun previously in our four Community Initiatives: Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, Detroit Children’s Fund, My Brother’s Keeper and the Cody Rouge Project

While we have been thoughtful about what we will support, the Foundation has also carefully considered the question of how we will do our work in the future. Our changemaking tool box includes the grant resources we steward, our role as a civic leader in Detroit, our deep understanding of the needs of kids and families, and the relationships we enjoy with those who care deeply for Detroit’s children and youth. 

The Foundation’s staff will continue to work closely with partners on the ground in Detroit neighborhoods, the philanthropic community, and a diverse set of public and private sector leaders in Detroit. We want to ensure efforts are mutually reinforcing – within the Foundation’s own work as well as with other organizations that are working on behalf of Detroit children. The Foundation will continue to seek out opportunities to support broad and diverse coalitions of people who care for and are actively working on behalf of Detroit’s children. 

Your interest in and support for the well-being of Detroit children is a key ingredient in the future success of our shared work and the prosperity of our city. Please check in with us over the coming weeks as the Foundation continues to share more details about our future direction through our website, newsletter, Facebook and Twitter. If you have any questions or comments, please pose them below for our response.

John Ziraldo is vice president of program and policy for the Skillman Foundation, overseeing the Foundation's programmatic vision and strategy, and supporting the development of program team members.  

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