Resolved to continue and continuing while unresolved
Recently with news of a winter storm on the horizon, a group of community leaders from late teens to mid-seventies gathered for dinner and discussion in Detroit. The group was called together by the creator of The Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhood Initiative (GNI), former President & CEO Carol Goss, and by me, the Foundation’s newest President & CEO.
We hatched the idea in August. Before I began my role at The Skillman Foundation, I reached out to Carol Goss and Tonya Allen—both past presidents, stalwart leaders, and visionary women. I knew the path ahead was laid by their footsteps behind. I wanted to learn and carry their hearts with me into this next chapter.
Carol and I dined al fresco on Woodward Avenue that late summer evening. Over shared salad, entrees, and vino we learned about each other’s histories and work. At some point, we shifted from presidents to people. By the end, Carol suggested hosting a group of Detroit neighborhood leaders to help me think through how The Skillman Foundation can continue to root itself in the community and rise to meet what the current unprecedented moment demands.
We gathered six months later in the violet dusk of a February night.
The group included Adriana Alverez and Maria Salinas from Congress of Communities, Lamar Curry and Pastor Larry Simmons from Brightmoor Alliance, Kenyetta Campbell and Damon Thompson of Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance, Quincy Jones of Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, and Deborah Nobles and Lisa Johanson from Central Detroit Christian CDC.
The yearlong Listening Tour I am on includes one-on-ones and curated group conversations. I’ve been gifted with time sitting with teachers, principals, afterschool providers, youth organizers, and education systems influencers. These conversations, all done via Zoom, shaped our thinking and broadened our understanding of the work ahead. The gathering this evening was the first to occur in person.
There is a chemistry to being in physical proximity to each other. With each of us learning how to be in person again, the night began with hugs accompanied by quick calls of, “I got vaccinated!”, “I’m boosted!”, “Is a hug okay?”
I noticed there is not only a grace to Carol Goss’ way in the world – there is a reverence from those who surround her. She is not just respected – but revered. With electric blue nail polish gleaming to match the twinkle in her eye, she takes the reverence in stride, deferring attention to others.
We asked what the future of Detroit will look like and what role philanthropy needs to play. We had a few other questions in the queue but never got there. The conversation grew organically. We covered many things: educators talked about aging school materials and punitive approaches; the call to work on full-systems change.
We talked about violence, and we spoke of a shadow industry of illegal drugs, welcoming and paying young people without requiring a degree from an educational system not made to serve Black and Brown children. What alternatives to belonging and prosperity are we providing to extinguish this allure?
We spoke of limited funding to smaller neighborhood organizations that confront the trauma in young people daily and how those big nonprofits get most of the funds. And not only were young people in the mix—everyone at the table asserted that young people must be in the driver’s seat. Let youth lead, see their vision and power, give them resources, and get out of the way.
At one point, I looked across the table where we sat huddled and blew out a deep breath. My mind likes to organize. Make meaning. Understand. I looked at the faces around me and shared that I was suddenly feeling overwhelmed. There isn’t one issue. There are many. There isn’t one solution. There are winding possibilities. All are interconnected and expansive.
“This is how you feel every day,” I said as the realization hit me. They nodded; we sat quietly for a moment. “This is what you are teaching me.” Nods and perhaps compassion as I walked in their worlds with them momentarily. “Two years into this pandemic, what do you need?” I asked. “Obviously, grants are good, but as people who carry this complex burden and keep creating magic every day, what do you yourselves actually need?”
A sabbatical. Self-care, regularly. A car. The chance to build generational wealth. A 401k. To have funders ensure nonprofit workers are paid well and have benefits, too. To have neighborhoods prioritized in funding. To keep this conversation going.
After we said our gratitude to one another and urged each other to get to our homes before the storm began, we lingered. We stood and laughed, exchanging information, hoping to talk more about this idea or that concept.
Together in person, the lessons get passed through stories, and the stories spark other stories. They weave around us and fill the air; the words travel and land. The feeling and the meaning, the council and the care felt in our molecules.
The Skillman Foundation is similar to this. While it has eras and chapters, the people who have and will fill it are the stories and souls that keep it alive; President to president, program to program, people to people. We are one organism connecting with many organisms across the complexity of our city. Together we create plate tectonic shifts that bring us closer, closer. To each other. To ourselves. To what is to come tomorrow as we—story by story, person by person—create each day the future of Detroit.