Ground Building: A first layer
Imagine a young girl, her hands full with soil, a bright green plant sprouting out, extending toward a bright sky. As she gently lowers the sprout into a cradle of earth, a pair of hands surrounds hers. These hands are larger than the girls, but they are the same deep shade. They help her guide her seedling into place to be rooted, cared for, and grown, just like the girl.
This is an image of our ground building work. Young people planting the future, surrounded by their parents, caregivers, teachers, and neighbors. The caring adults helping youth develop their green thumb for cultivating life. Life that is new and nourishing to whole communities and continents.
In our version of this story, that bright green hope that can grow to nourish future generations is our education system. Schools as well as afterschool programs, created anew through the brilliance of the fresh eyes and hopeful hearts of our young people.
It’s a beautiful vision. But can it happen? What will it take?
Our Ground Building team—Carmen Kennedy-Rogers and Lindsey Barrett—talk about The Skillman Foundation’s emerging strategies to support Detroit youth and community to redesign education systems to better nurture young people’s brilliance and power.
Q: In a nutshell, the concept of Ground Building at The Skillman Foundation right now is investing in Detroit youth, educators, and community to influence education policy change. Why is this important?
Carmen: The education system needs to change, and policy is potent. We believe that if Detroit youth and adults have the resources, capacities, and infrastructure they need to support their individual and collective development, wellness, and leadership, then young people and adults who are best positioned to determine solutions can organize to influence the education system and policies. Unequivocally, young people and adults who are most impacted by educational systemic inequities must be fueled to influence and design systems anew. Our aim in Ground Building is that young people and adults will build power to advance a more racially just, youth-centered, Detroit.
Q: What do you mean by “building power”?
Carmen: Power is about people having access to and activating resources, capacity, and infrastructure to determine their own future. At The Skillman Foundation, we’re looking at Detroiters power to influence policy changes that lead to positive, sustainable outcomes. We’re paying attention to individual power, collective power, and governing power. Individual power is people discovering and embracing their own power through leadership development as well as by tending to personal wellness. This journey unlocks the ability for individuals to become change agents. Collective power is power in numbers, where individuals and groups come together to move toward a shared vision and purpose. This activates governing power, which includes the creation and activation of shared policy agendas.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how The Skillman Foundation is thinking about supporting youth power.
Lindsey: In order for systems to deliver better supports and outcomes for youth, we need young people at the table designing solutions. There’s no other way to do it. We’ve spent time with our partners, in community listening sessions, in a youth summit hosted by our Presidents’ Youth Council, and we’ve heard time and again that youth organizing is an important strategy to transform our education system.
Youth organizing is about young people being supported individually and collectively to build and activate their power to make change. It’s about young people developing their leadership. It’s about young people being at the table setting policy agendas. It’s about young people designing solutions to our toughest challenges. And it’s about young people being able to build social networks and collaborate with others to achieve a shared vision.
One way we’re thinking about supporting youth power is by supporting a pathway of youth engagement experiences that support young people’s leadership development, civic engagement, and collective organizing efforts to be the designers of systems change for a more equitable and just education system.
Q: Carmen, as someone who taught in schools and became a leader at the school and district level, and is very connected to current Detroit educators, what’s driving your ideas around educator power?
Carmen: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) educators are not at the policy table. They are not invited into the decision-making conversations. Yet, they are the receivers of the inequities in our education system. To ensure our education system serves all children well, including Black and brown scholars, the voices of BIPOC educators must be front and center in policy conversations and decisions that happen at the local, county, and state levels.
One clear advocacy agenda item being led by Detroit educators is the recruitment and retention of BIPOC educators. There is momentous energy around this that we are following, offering our support as educators lead the way. We aim to provide Detroit educators with the resources, capacities, and connections they need to have a leading voice in the redesign of education systems.
Q: The Skillman Foundation has a history of investing in youth and community leadership, neighborhood groups, and community development organizations. Are you thinking about future grants in Neighborhood Power in different or more specific ways?
Carmen: Investing in children and youth has been The Skillman Foundation’s mission since day one in December of 1960, and education has always been at the core of that. It’s not despite this but because of this that we know the deep influential role played by the caring adults who surround children in their homes, their schools, and their neighborhoods.
Detroiters advocate hard for their kids, whether those kids are of their bloodline, their block, their church, or beyond. We know this and its importance. What we need to better understand are Detroiters’ power building goals and how they wish to contribute to education policy and systems change. That’s the step we’re at and it’s a beautiful place to be. We look forward to continued conversations with parents, community groups, and residents at large and will share what we’re hearing and how its forming our grantmaking in this area.