Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards
Ground Building

Community Conversations on Ground Building

At Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC) three teenage best friends who have attended DHDC’s youth programs together for years enter the room laughing, with their arms around each other, searching for the best spot around the table where they can all sit together.

At MACC Development, a mother enters with two kids in tow, a five-year-old who clings close at her side and a seven-year-old who has developed the brazen walk of being an older brother. They make a beeline for the game table where mom helps them settle in and makes sure her kids have an even number of game pieces before joining the conversation circle.    

Fifteen people, eight under the age of eighteen, all residents of Detroit, joined us at these two community centers, one in southwest and the other on the eastside. They shared their time and their territory, welcoming a few members of our team to sit down with them for 90 minutes and talk about what it means to be a Detroiter, what they want for their schools, and where they see power being held.  

During these conversations we also shared the driving theories and ideas behind an emerging strategy of The Skillman Foundation’s to support Detroit youth and community to have a leading voice in education policy and systems change, which we refer to as Ground Building. Folks pointed out what was resonating and where they have questions, helping us check and further our thinking. 

What follows are questions explored and themes that emerged from these two conversations.  

The Detroit story 

The Detroit story is a constellation of lifetimes and generations, of genealogies and geographies. It is not singular, but multi-faceted and ever expanding. 

Our community conversations are meant to explore nuances, multiple truths, and complexities. Working on systems change and social issues takes massive group effort, where the truest understanding only happens by broadening the circle of voices and putting those closest to an issue in the center. 

In asking these 15 Detroiters, “What is Detroit to you?,” we heard: Home. Resilient. Worthy. Strong. Alive. Love. Exciting. Kind. Passion. Diversity. Determined. Unique. Dope. 

What does equitable education look like?

While remarks about Detroit were overwhelmingly positive and prideful, the conversation about educational opportunities in the city was more divergent. The importance and impact of education was stressed, but whether or not people feel the city’s schools are strong was mixed.  

There was a good deal of talk about a high-quality education leading to big dreams backed with the encouragement and the tools to make them happen. It was said that education can add to one’s self worth and can help people improve themselves. One person stated: Good schools help you set and accomplish goals. They encourage you to have a vision and give you support to build toward it.  

A vision was shared for schools as safe, encouraging, and supportive places with access to technology and supplies. We also inferred, through the challenges they shared, a hunger for learning environments that respect people’s identities and nurture their potential at every age.  

Many of the youth talked about the importance of feeling a sense of belonging and connection to others, saying they wanted school to be a place for this. They also lifted that they often found belonging through community development organizations and centers like Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and MACC Development. 

One adult raised that they learned most beyond the four walls of the classroom. They said: I’ve learned through walking through my community and seeing the worst and the best of the city. Education became one of the pathways I could take in my life. Education, crime, or death were the options in my community. Education became the lifting of restrictions. I don’t think of formal education. Experience gave me an education so many have not had. 

Many parents in these groups talked about the disparity between schools, both between city and suburbs and well as within the Detroit itself. The importance of equitable funding and resources for all students across Detroit and the region was raised several times.  

A parent expressed worry about school budgets falling short when COVID stimulus dollars run out. They said: School staff are stretched thin but the district cannot afford more people. You can see who cares but also that they are stretched to a point that is not healthy for them.  

Who has power?

“Education has been part of giving me a voice. If you aren’t educated, you can only listen.” 
“A lot of pressure is on principals. Teachers are lower (on the decision-making chain), doing the best they can.” 

“I love the image of young people having a bullhorn. But it’s sad they have to have one.” 
“Not the people doing the work.” 

These are answers to the question of who has the power to change the education system, revealing a seen disconnect between those who hold power to write policies and the students, teachers, principals, and community members who have the lived experience to know what is needed and what will work.  

Community conversations continue

There is no end to us listening to, learning from, and marching behind Detroit youth and their allies. We will continue to share what we’re learning and how its guiding us, as we did with our 2021-22 listening tour that brought us to the strategic framework we’re building with Detroiters today. Stay tuned on our blog and newsletter. And if there is something you want us to know, please share in the comments section below. 

The Skillman Foundation

The Skillman Foundation is a grantmaking organization established in 1960 by Rose Skillman. We have granted out more than $730 million and have served as a vocal advocate to strengthen K-12 education, afterschool programming, child-centered neighborhoods, youth and community leadership, and racial equity and justice.

We are in the process of developing a new strategic framework, co-designed with Detroit youth and their champions.

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