The World Changed. So did we.
The world changed.
So did we.
The Skillman Foundation has invested in youth and education for more than 60 years. We operate responsively, listening to what’s needed most and looking for the best opportunities to invest and act in the interests of Detroit youth.
From 2017-2022, we worked a strategy dubbed the Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children (transition grants from this strategy began in 2023). At the start of this timespan, there was a great deal of revival happening in Detroit. We wanted to ensure Detroit youth were prepared for and connected to the economic opportunities it promised. Staying true to our historic lanes, we pursued this by supporting educational equity in the K-12 and afterschool systems as well as onramps to college and career.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We moved swiftly to alleviate immediate needs, supporting massive community efforts like providing tablets for at-home learning, safe spaces for kids to learn under the careful eye of loving adults, and mental wellness supports for youth and the adults who serve them.
All the while, we held our eye on big-picture indicators of youth well-being and academic achievement, namely: Third-grade reading proficiency. High school graduation. Youth perceptions of hope and opportunity (via a survey we piloted). And public funding increases in Detroit’s afterschool system.
Organizing our work around these massive outcomes suggests that if we pour dollars and influence into moving the needle on them, it will move. And sometimes it does, with great input and alignment with many, many others. But why won’t the numbers stay up? What’s the next move after a pandemic rolls back years of progress?
What’s the next move after a pandemic rolls back years of progress?
In 2022, while continuing to make grants under the Opportunity Agenda strategy, we reflected on what the Foundation has done over the decades and what might we do differently to radically change the odds for Detroit youth.
We reviewed our history of K-12 system efforts, noting the context these efforts were situated within and the lessons they provide.
We listened intently to students, educators, parents, and community leaders.
We marveled at young leaders who were effecting change in their schools, neighborhoods, and world.
And we focused on a few key priorities:
Community-Informed Systems Change
Over the past few years, a rallying cry swelled across Michigan, demanding overhaul to the education system. This emergency siren was sounded long ago in Detroit, a canary in the coal mine. Over time, communities across the state rang in.
What will it take to transform the education system? To what end? And what’s The Skillman Foundation’s part to play among the many collective efforts afoot?
In 2022, we assessed how our past efforts fit in and listened to how we could most effectively support the transformations most critical for Detroit youth going forward.
We’re dedicated to building coalitions based on trust and pursuing solutions rooted in community input and innovation. For us, this means sharing authority and resources differently for a collective benefit.
What does it look like in action?
In 2022, we provided seed funding to the Institute for AfroUrbanism to develop the Black Thriving Index, which asks Detroiters what they need to thrive. The Index better informs government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and others working and advocating on behalf of Black Detroiters to what is most needed and wanted by them. It’s the creation of Detroit-native, Lauren Hood, an Afrourbanist working at the intersection of Black aspiration and city change.
We also provided operational funding to the Black Executive Directors Alliance of Detroit (BEDAD) to support its power building, systems building, and public advocacy efforts among Black-led youth-serving nonprofits in Detroit.
Another example came out of a listening session with Black charter school leaders. Ralph Bland of New Paradigm for Education, Danielle Jackson of Detroit 90/90 University Prep Schools, Maurice Morton of Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, Erica Robertson of Promise Schools, and Alice Thompson of Hope Academy spoke of the effective and innovative approaches they take to help students excel. Between them, these leaders head up 21 schools that educate more than 8,700 students. But success doesn’t come easy. We heard about their struggles to attract and retain teachers amid the national educator shortage, compounded by getting fewer dollars from the state education budget than traditional public schools do, even though they operate as nonprofit public schools. Hearing their plight, we provided grant funding to help these school leaders further their teacher talent solutions and to collaborate on public policy advocacy.
We see young people as the change agents we need and we’re moving our dollars and influence behind their ability to shape a more equitable future for us all.
The consciousness of today’s youth has been shaped by a global pandemic, online identity formation and community building, active shooter drills (and instances) in their schools, divisive politics, the rise of global warming and artificial intelligence—and this has caused them to be, on the whole, incredibly activated citizens.
It’s estimated that 50% of young Americans, ages 18-29, voted in the 2020 presidential election, an 11-point increase from 2016 and “likely one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation since the voting age was lowered to 18,” according to a Tuft’s University study.
Here in Michigan, young people led the nation in youth voter turnout for the November 2022 election, with nearly 37% of 18-29 year olds casting ballots.
Research on Gen Z reinforces this: Young people feel ignited to solve persistent social issues. They tie personal responsibility with government responsibility. They see how our public systems help and how they hinder, and they call people in power to action.
So how do we transform the education system into one that better serves young people? Start by listening in earnest to students.
What does it look like in action?
In 2022, we elevated our President’s Youth Council, ramping up from four to eight meetings per year and traveling to remote islands and grand canyons. Our Youth Council made over $300,000 in grants, conducted a youth forum, co-managed a youth strategist initiative with eight organizations, became the youngest presenters in the history of the Mackinac Policy Conference, authored op-eds, and informed our youth council nomination criteria and interviewed candidates for next cohort.
An example within our grant funding is our support of 482Forward’s Youth Organizing Collective, which helps young people learn how policy change is made and advocate for issues they care about. The Youth Organizing Collective was part of a successful campaign that yielded $150 million for mental health supports in Michigan’s education budget that year.
In 2022, we also began a landscape scan of youth organizing organizations that would guide our increased support of young people’s capacity to lead change.
The Skillman Foundation had been on an internal learning journey on diversity, equity, and inclusion for several years, but we had yet to integrate standard practices to operationalize racial equity in how we work. Our big question was: Where were our dollars going and to whom? This meant tracking every dollar—grantmaking, operations, and endowment investments—and assessing the data by race.
What does it look like in action?
The Skillman Foundation is a BIPOC organization, with two-thirds of our staff and our board of directors being people of color and four out of five of our executive leadership team being women of color.
In 2022, 54% of our grants went to BIPOC-led organizations, which we define as an organization with a leader who is Black, Indigenous or a person of color (BIPOC) and with a board of directors where more than half are BIPOC. These grants accounted for 47% of our grant budget. Our 2022 grantmaking marks a 20 percentage point increase in grants and 13 a percentage point increase in grant dollars to BIPOC-led organizations since we began analyzing this data in a 2019-2021 Racial Equity Audit.
In terms of our endowment, we challenged our outsourced investment officer (OCIO) to increase the racial diversity of our investment managers while maintaining excellent returns, which they began to make headway on. We also asked that our 401k investment partner include racial equity analysis as part of its due diligence process in determining fund offerings available for our staff. This analysis resulted in an increased selection of funds from firms that have a demonstrated commitment to racial diversity, higher historical performance, and lower fees for participants.
We’re not legally compelled to gather or share racial equity data, but as an organization whose mission is to change the odds for Detroit kids, the great majority of whom are Black, we are ethically and tactically compelled to back up our words with our receipts. We will continue to monitor and publish this data and share how racial equity shows up in our decision making and actions.
Clarifying Our Role
The Skillman Foundation commissions a grant partner survey every few years to request anonymous feedback about how we’re doing as a funder, partner, and youth advocate. In a 2022 survey, our grant partners gave us high marks in understanding the challenges Detroit kids and communities face, in convening and connecting, and in our policy and advocacy work. However, partners asked that we clarify our objectives and priorities.
What does it look like in action?
In 2022, we set out to get clear about the unique lane The Skillman Foundation could play alongside nonprofit, business, public, and philanthropic partners toward equitable education systems change. We solicited input through our listening tour about where the Foundation should focus, and we shifted our thinking on how we should measure our impact.
Moving ahead, under a new strategic framework we’re in the midst of developing with input from Detroit youth and community, we won’t only track population-level indicators of well-being (like high school graduation or reading proficiency), we will also name goals that are within our ability as a single organization to influence and to control. This will help us be clearer—and more accountable—to our contribution to education systems change and the futures of Detroit youth.
The Skillman Foundation has a long history of investing in education systems change and in youth and community leadership. How we marry these two going forward is the difference.
Going forward, we will amplify the voices of people who are most impacted by the system—Detroit youth, educators, and residents—and help forge connections between them and the policy and system leaders who make decisions on their behalf.
We believe there are many ways we can and must improve public education—with the key ingredients being people and policy. In particular, people closest to the issues guiding the policymakers who have outsized impact on systems. We believe community-driven solutions are the key to creating an equitable education system that provides positive experiences and outcomes for all students.
Stay in the know as we develop our new strategy and grant opportunities by signing up for monthly updates or revisiting skillman.org.