Walking the mission
As I enter my fifth month as president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation, I am reflecting on how we build on the Foundation’s past important work and use the current context and our values to determine our future.
Conversations with current and former Foundation leadership, staff, cross-sector partners, and civic leaders have taught me something: there is an evident urgency to understand how systems work, enact racially just remedies and reforms, change ourselves as people and institutions, and to always go bigger and bolder beyond making incremental shifts to create massive change for Detroit children and youth.
There is no doubt a crisis at hand that extends well beyond the city limits of Detroit. John Rakolta wrote, in Crain’s Detroit Business, a grueling reminder of Michigan’s educational landscape and the potential effects if we don’t make meaningful change now. The truth of Rakolta’s words expands to all communities across Michigan—all children, be they Black, Brown, White—all are not receiving the level of support they need. Without radical change, we all suffer today and far into the future.
Below are seven steps that I, and The Skillman Foundation team, are committed to. We will be holding ourselves accountable, ensuring every decision we make advances our mission, and pushing ourselves to take bold steps to be the best champions of Detroit children we can be.
7 steps for 2022 and beyond
Racial Equity Audit. While The Skillman Foundation has been quick to host conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve yet to integrate standard practices and tools necessary to fully operationalize racial equity work. Once integrated, we will not only ensure our message matches our machinations, but also learn where we are on the journey. Our big question is: Where are our dollars going and to whom? This means tracking every penny as a means of knowing where our dollars—grantmaking, operations and investments—are going in our majority Black city. Once we know, we want to set a goal set collectively and rally our partners to follow our lead. We must be able to model what we are recommending.
Racial Justice Comprehension. Racial justice is different from racial equity. Racial equity is about shifting dollars and authority in existing systems. Racial justice is building momentum to drive system change from grassroots to grasstops. We have started conversations internally about what our racial justice work could and should be. While this is critical work for us internally, it will also allow us to work in new ways across the philanthropic community. Today, we are a collective of partners. Tomorrow, we will move more intentionally toward being agitators, orchestrators, and innovators—each play critical roles at different times.
Youth Power. The best thing about our work is that we get to be proximate to Detroit’s young, brilliant minds through our grantmaking and the trust-building work of our staff. Youth power is not a new concept to the Foundation; it shows up across the intentions and investments of the Opportunity Agenda. Our President’s Youth Council leaps at any opportunity to have a more profound role within our work. They are here to teach us and to help steer the Foundation. Our young people are READY. Now we see if we are too.
Systems Change. We’ve heard calls for radical education systems change, but what does it mean? Many factors from the federal, state, regional, and local levels play into the education system, and education plays a critical role in the housing, health, economic, and criminal justice systems. In 2022, we will take a deep dive, working to understand the education system, how our past funding fit in, and how our future work can help those caught in a broken system while working collectively to reinvent it.
Our Role and Leverage. We have an opportunity to leverage our influence for radical improvements that impact Detroit children. We talk about punching above our weight, but we believe clarifying the unique lane occupied at the Foundation will also define our role with nonprofit, business, public and philanthropic partners.
Share Power. Philanthropy has a history of creating and implementing solutions without those impacted at the planning table. This can no longer stand. Our goal is to be transparent and reveal our questions and fallibility as we seek to build trust, repair harm we may have unintentionally done, and value impact over recognition. The only way to move in new directions is to build coalitions across Detroit based on trust, rooted in innovation, and goaling toward systems change—which means sharing authority and resources differently for a collective benefit.
Accountability. How do we know we are moving closer to racially equitable and just systems? It requires accountability to allow everyone to be beholden to the other. Whether we are reviewed by the community, reporting on where each penny is, or creating transparent data systems across Detroit that democratize information and allow for action, we are in service to Detroit children and youth. They are our bosses, and they will let us know if we’ve found success.
These seven items are a road map we will follow in 2022 and beyond that will guide us through our Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children. You will see these show up in our grantmaking, in our budget, in our investments, and in our daily policies and practices. We will wrestle through how to make this a reality. This is our commitment to 2022, to you, and most of all, to Detroit children.