We have a window. And then it closes.
Nearly sixty days into the role as President and CEO with nearly sixty days left in the year of 2021 as I write this letter – and the plan for how we 1) build on The Skillman Foundation’s past important work and 2) live into this moment and our values – is beginning to form.
Through conversations with Detroiters, from young people, teachers, principals, administrators, community and civic leaders, and cross-sector partners near and far – there is clearly a call at this moment to understand how systems work, to enact racially just remedies and reforms, to change ourselves as people and institutions and to this time, this time, go bigger and bolder and do something that can really result in massive change for Detroit children and youth, not just incremental shifts.
But how? What of the mounting fatigue for all the past efforts? What of the past good work that kept some children quite literally alive by providing passports to higher education and thriving careers while others could not survive? What of our partnerships? Our plans? The backlash surfacing against discussing race and unpacking systemic racism?
While the last two years have left us vulnerable and isolated – the next few years must be a time for strength of character and connected action across the region and state. Recently John Rakolta, chairman of the Detroit-based Walbridge company and recent U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates during the Trump administration, was quoted in Crain’s with this summation of Michigan’s education landscape.
Our education policy here in the state of Michigan is nearing a crisis mode. We’re going to be 200,000-300,000 new jobs short in the next four or five years. The bottom line is that the whole state needs to get reformed right now. I wonder what will it take to galvanize the public. Right now we’re 39th in eighth-grade reading, 33rd in fourth-grade math. we’re in the bottom quartile. Without those kinds of skills, businesses aren’t going to come here. They’re going to go to the states where they can hire and put to work the kind of skilled labor that they need. This is what worries me a lot that we just don’t have that crisis. I’ve been racking my brain, how do you create that crisis to galvanize liberals, conservatives, suburbanites, urbanites, rural? How do we pull them all together that we can make Michigan a Top 10 state? We are a long, long way from there.
Wow. I mean, hard to breathe after reading that, right? While we take an asset-based approach in our analysis of issues and communications about it at the Foundation, the direness of this message must be heard and given its due. There is no doubt a crisis is at hand – and while The Skillman Foundation focuses on Detroit, the truth of Rakolta’s words is that this is an education issue that expands all communities across Michigan – all children, be they Black, Brown, White – all are not receiving the tremendous support they need and without radical change, we all suffer today and far into the future.
And with radical change comes justice for all our youth.
Last Friday, we saw Kyle Rittenhouse acquitted of murder after shooting BLM protesters in Wisconsin. The messages our justice system has sent over the last few years have been clear: the system does not serve the will of Black and Brown Americans. Still, despite all of this, I am hopeful that change is inevitable when I see young Detroiters take to the streets to stand up for their lives and the lives of their peers. I’m optimistic when I see them engaging politically and socially in the fight for justice. Our youth are some of the most aware, compassionate, and dedicated that we have seen in generations, and their efforts and voices will not only ensure Detroit’s future but the future of our nation.
So, nearly sixty days in with sixty left in the year – here’s what we can no longer do and what we must do.
We can no longer only try to only patch a broken system.
We must patch and architect anew simultaneously.
We can no longer try to catch up to other states.
We must try bold, innovative, wild systems change models knowing that we will fail on the road to new systems.
We can no longer only talk about “DEI” (Diversity-Equity-Inclusion), “systems change” and “centering youth”.
We must know exactly what this means, looks like every day and we must be able to all show receipts that tie to real action we are taking so we can be held accountable.
We can no longer dance around the exquisite design of racism in our systems and institutions. This isn’t an ending point, but a starting point. This is where we begin to build anew in a way that includes everybody and centers those most harmed as designers – understanding this doesn’t just help black and brown people but in every instance where racism is dismantled in every community – especially rural white communities – benefit. Anti-racist systems are built on harming those without power. This is a portable fate and happily a reversible one. Anti-racism work liberates every human to live in dignity and abundance. The old tropes pitting small town against city, white folks against people of color don’t hold water – but people bathe in them anyway.
We must be bold in our analysis of racialized systems but not rest in analysis alone.
We must connect the dots across Michigan and link arms with unlikely suspects to make change.
We have a window. And then it closes. New liberating systems where we all are connected in each other’s fate and invested in each other’s success must be our collective focus.
Inside The Skillman Foundation, the way we are approaching this is by committing to “walking the mission.” This means conducting racial equity audits of every penny we spend. Studying racial justice and power building. Studying education systems change. Linking arms with our partners near and far, across Detroit, across the region, and across the state. Centering young people to lead – and let’s be clear: to check us, too.
Over the course of the next year as I continue my listening tour with folks across the city, region, and state – we will share with you what we are learning and later, what we will do with the learnings.
What do you think we need to know? Click here to share your thoughts with us on Detroit, on education systems, on our work at The Skillman Foundation, and more. Each response will be responded to, and each response will shape us.
Walking with you. Always walking with you.
President & CEO
The Skillman Foundation