Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

An Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children

Melissa Butler (Cass Technical High School graduate) worked on Wall Street before moving home to focus on her lipstick line, The Lip Bar. She struck out with investors on the reality TV show Shark Tank, but kept grinding and created her own lane. Now, you can pop into Target stores across the country to purchase the vegan and cruelty-free line.

Dr. Tolulope Sonuyi, an emergency room physician at Sinai Grace Hospital, wanted to do more to treat the violence he had become accustomed to seeing. So he started DLIVE (Detroit Life is Valuable Everyday), a program that puts intervention specialists directly in the ER ward to assist victims, their families, and their friends in creating lasting lifestyle changes that help break the cycle of violence. DLIVE has become a national model, providing training to medical facilities across the country and receiving accolades from former President Obama.

Tommey Walker (Cass Technical High School graduate) created the Detroit Vs. Everybody brand that sparked national attention across the sports, news, and entertainment arenas; and influenced eminent Detroit rappers Eminem, Big Sean, Danny Brown, DeJ Loaf, Trick-Trick, and Royce da 5’9, who named their 2014 collaboration after the slogan.

Zay Hilfigerrr (Tyjuan Peoples) and Zayion (James) McCall were 15- and 17-years-old respectively when they produced “Juju On That Beat.” Their music video went viral on YouTube, getting shared by a deluge of celebrities including LeBron James, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Waka Flocka Flame, and Ellen Degeneres. As of fall 2018, the video has attracted 362 million views. The single climbed to the number five spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list and earned the duo a contract with Atlantic Records. While these examples showcase Detroit as an incubator of dreams, the city remains, for many, a place of limited opportunities. A place where you can live your entire life within a few blocks of your home, constricted by lack of transportation and safety concerns, leading to a strangled sense of hope and self. As one young Detroiter put it, “You shouldn’t have to be afraid of your own city, or your own neighborhood, or your own streets where you grow up.” That statement is indicative of the stories we reflect on as we think about our role and responsibility to Detroit children. Detroit is, indeed, a city of opportunity. But it will only live up to its promise if every child growing up within its borders can connect to its greatest possibilities.

In 2017, The Skillman Foundation spent time with youth, other community members, neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits, listening to and discussing the concerns that were top of mind. Simultaneously, we were reflecting on the many lessons learned from the Good Neighborhoods Initiative, our 10-year program that focused on improving conditions and outcomes for children in six Detroit neighborhoods. These reflections and discussions led us to a conviction that Detroit children must benefit from and contribute to an opportunity-rich Detroit. From here, we developed the Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children, an initiative dedicated to ensuring youth are met with meaningful learning and leadership opportunities that will allow them to have a presence in the city’s recovery. Skillman Foundation Program Directors David McGhee and Punita Thurman provide greater detail of this changemaking strategy.

In 2017, the Foundation crafted a new strategy for its grantmaking and changemaking. How does its new vision differ from its work in the past?

David McGhee: We’re taking what we learned over the past decade while working to improve the lives of children in six neighborhoods and applying those lessons citywide. That expansion of scope magnifies the questions philanthropy often asks itself: How do we grow our impact and how can we sustain positive outcomes over the long term?

Take our youth development work, for example. We want every child in Detroit to be able to attend high-quality afterschool programming, but we can’t achieve that through our funding alone. So we’ve extended beyond funding individual programs to work toward building a network of out-of-school providers that better serve youth because they have access to training, data, and the ability to share best practices and services with one another. We’re also working to expand the funding available to youth development providers, including advocating for dedicated public funding.

Punita Thurman: Our work has evolved beyond that of a funder to also consider how the systems that impact children can be improved or rebuilt; we’re acting as a convener toward this end.

In addition to David’s example of youth development, I would mention our work with the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a diverse cross-section of education, nonprofit, community, government and business leaders that came together in effort to stabilize and improve Detroit’s schools. The Coalition was able to influence the creation of the new, debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District and the return of local control to an elected school board and a board-selected superintendent. No single organization could have achieved this alone.

Convening a multitude of partners and perspectives to move collectively toward a shared goal is very much our way of working now. It will take all of us working together to make real change for kids.

What is the Foundation’s vision for Detroit youth?

Thurman: We want young people to have a voice, to have access to good schools and good opportunities, and to drive a continued positive trajectory for their city.

The quality and reputation of Detroit schools has suffered for a long time. How can this be remedied?

Thurman: There is no shortage of brilliance in Detroit. Of course, it’s easy to get weighed down by the negative headlines, but pockets of remarkable progress exist. University YES, a k-8 school in northwest Detroit, rose from being in the bottom five percent of Michigan schools to being in the 40th percentile in just two years under new leadership. Detroit Edison Public School Academy and Cass Technical High School have reached a 100 percent college acceptance rate with their students. Part of the work for the Foundation, and for the city, is to re-think the narratives we surround our children with by lifting up what is working and being solutions-oriented about what is not.

In regards to addressing quality, we have good reason to be hopeful. There’s an immense focus on school improvement coupled with a responsiveness from local leadership that we haven’t seen in decades. In the Detroit Public Schools Community District alone, the shift from emergency state management to a locally elected board and board-selected superintendent has begun to improve the lines of communication and accountability between school leadership and Detroit families. In the charter sector, high-performing schools are providing proof points of what’s possible, and some are expanding to serve more children.

Overall, Detroit should celebrate and learn from areas of progress, while holding a relentless commitment to a long-term turnaround.

What would you like people to know about The Skillman Foundation’s efforts to help improve Detroit’s education system?

Thurman: One thing we’re often pressed about is whether we support Detroit Public Schools Community District or public charter schools. We support both, and that’s because our allegiance is to Detroit children, not to a particular school governance type or school leadership. We are beholden only to the children of Detroit and work to improve the places and policies that affect their lives.

The Skillman Foundation has been a long-time supporter of out-of-school youth development programming. What benefits do these programs play in the lives of children?

Thurman: Kids only spend about 20 percent of their waking hours in school, so what they do after school and during the summer matters. Our youth employment work connects young people with paid summer jobs, but it also introduces them to adults in the workforce with whom they have a chance to build relationships. For youth who may have never spent a day downtown, it can expand their outlook on what’s possible for their future and expose them to a diversity of people, while also growing their sense of the world and sense of self.

McGhee: Another great example is Detroit PAL’s Team Up program that places local police officers as quasi-coaches on the team. So, not only do young people have the opportunity of experiencing the sports that they’re interested in, they are also building a relationship with a local police officer in a healthy way and in a healthy environment. When the game is over and they bump into each other on the street, they now have that connection.

The Foundation’s Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children calls out three impact areas: Education, Equity and Economy. What does the Economy impact area entail?

McGhee: We want Detroit youth to have a prosperous future and reach the highest levels they aspire to. To this end, we invest in programs and systems that enable youth to develop job readiness and entrepreneurial skills, explore career possibilities, forge relationships with employers, and learn how to manage their personal finances.

What does equitable change look like in Detroit?

McGhee: It really boils down to all of us recognizing one another as assets. To really understand our problems and develop effective long-term solutions, a diversity of experiences, values and ideas must be considered. This is how we build a more equitable Detroit and a stronger Detroit.

What does equity look like within the Foundation?

Thurman: Equity is at the heart of our efforts, from increasing public funding for afterschool programming to decreasing barriers like harsh disciplinary policies in schools. We also use our position to insist residents, including youth, have a seat at the table. What we’ve come to realize more recently is that a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion should not only be an ethos, it should be made explicit. To this end, we’ve held numerous trainings with our staff and trustees as well as inviting a diverse set of education, business and community
leaders to learn along with us. Some of this content has also been shared on our blog, with a more thorough account of our learnings to come. We also adopted a DEI policy statement this year and are actively working to ensure these values are present in every level of our work.

What is your message to Detroit youth?

Thurman: You are brilliant. You are valuable. You are loved. Know that there are advocates who will continue working on your behalf.

McGhee: We acknowledge that you operate in a world where adults and systems have failed you. Yet we see you get up and go forward every day. You possess a perseverance and resiliency that many of us adults couldn’t even fathom. Keep going. You will achieve great things.

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