Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

Learning from Detroiters through community design workshops

The Skillman Foundation has been deeply engaged in listening, learning, and co-designing with Detroiters. We’ve heard young people paint bold visions for their future, teachers share the joys and heartache of the profession, grassroots leaders reflect on how philanthropy has both helped and harmed change efforts, and education and civic leaders recount sobering truths of stretched resources and infrastructure.

To shift a complex system like education, learning from and with Detroiters is essential to drive meaningful change. More than just gathering insights, transforming systems involves collaborating with people most affected to define root causes and develop solutions that address real needs and aspirations.

Still, listening and learning are only the beginning. We must stay in dialogue with communities, make sense of information together, be transparent about the Foundation’s actions and decisions, and remain open to adapt based on feedback.

In November 2023, The Skillman Foundation hosted two Community Design Workshops to share how lessons from over a year of conversations with Detroiters are informing our emerging framework. The goals were to:

  • Dream together about what could be possible for education in Detroit
  • Test components of The Skillman Foundation’s framework and identify areas to clarify and improve
  • Deepen alignment and shared understanding with our partners on the journey to transform the education system

How participants engaged

Fifty participants joined interactive half-day workshops, representing youth, educators, policy advocates, community leaders, providers, and parents. During the workshop, participants imagined what might be possible for the future of Detroit education and whose voices should be centered in its design.

Situated around tables in the center of the room sat a group of education stakeholders; the space had an air of determination. One participant noted that the Community Design Workshops create a safe space for folks with different perspectives of the education system to share and learn.

Following welcomes and introductions, participants were asked to share moments of pride from their respective work in education. Then Punita Thurman, vice president of strategy for The Skillman Foundation, provided a brief historic review of big shifts in Detroit’s education system and acknowledged the tremendous work schools and youth-serving nonprofits have been doing for years.

A group activity, the DREAM Board, offered a creative pause for people to dream about future success. It gave participants the opportunity to imagine what an equitable education system will make possible for Detroit youth in school, out of school, and beyond school age.

One youth participant shared her dream that adults would take students more seriously, referencing a lack of respect she feels that adults often display for students’ ideas about in-school and out-of-school programming. “Kids can run meetings, organize after school activities, and more. Adults assume because we are students that we aren’t doing anything,” 16-year-old Charisma explained.

Ready to roll up their sleeves, participants next examined what is and what isn’t working in Detroit’s education system, naming and clustering themes as appropriate.

As participants contributed their thoughts, teachings, and concerns to the conversation, there was an energy shift in the room. They began uplifting sentiments that the education system was never intended to create free thinkers or entrepreneurs, and certainly not dreamers.

They began uplifting sentiments that the education system was never intended to create free thinkers or entrepreneurs, and certainly not dreamers.

A few compared a current school day to a day at the office or even a day in jail, suggesting that our current education system was “never meant to produce the outcomes we are seeking today.”

Daniel Washington of NW Goldberg Cares said, “give students the opportunity to explore how they learn best to build towards the future they want for themselves.”

A lot of conversation centered around youth voice and choice. Some suggested that schools should teach kids how to learn the things that interest them. A prominent theme that arose was the idea of Independent Education Plans. “The same shoe doesn’t fit every child,” stated Alice Thompson of Hope Academy.

The Skillman Foundation team members asked participants what the Foundation must learn and unlearn. One suggestion was measuring whether students are enjoying their education. Another suggested a shift from transforming the current system to building a new system altogether.

Four learnings from the community design workshops

We gained so much from the opportunity to learn alongside participants. Below are some of the takeaways from the day and the questions the Foundation is now exploring as a result.

1. Agency is at the center of an excellent and equitable education system.

Participants emphasized an excellent and equitable education system should nurture students’ sense of self and agency, fostering a love of learning. One participant described quality education as encouraging “healed, joyous, thriving people achieving dreams, and hopeful and optimistic about possibilities for themselves and their future generations.”

This theme continued in discussions about the aspirational vision statements for education and youth in Detroit. These statements reflect the shared hopes that many across roles and sectors contribute to. Through the distinct and aligned contributions toward a common vision, education policy and system change is made possible.

Participants affirmed the resonance of the vision statements, particularly highlighting their youth focus. One participant shared, “youth-centric; youth voice; youth needs addressed.” Another observed, “I like that it centers youth and calls for them to actively engage in the design of systems change.” We heard from participants following the workshops that a youth-centric approach must also consider how parents and other adults who care for youth are needed and supported in the Foundation’s strategy.

How can The Skillman Foundation remain accountable and aligned with the desires and aspirations of Detroit youth and the adults who care and advocate for them throughout the design and implementation of our strategic framework?

2. The desire for system change and comfort create tensions

Participants were clear: we can and must improve the education system for Detroit youth. However, the imperative for system change does not preclude apprehension. As one participant noted, “We are not prepared to lose what we have for something better.” Another reflected, “I am always concerned and fearful of how systems of oppression will get in the way of the work.” Participants posed questions about readiness, feasibility, and the potential tradeoffs of pursuing system change in Detroit.

How can we navigate the tension between the urgent need for systemic change and apprehension about the potential risks and uncertainties associated?

3. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t

Before you can change a system, you must understand how it operates. By engaging in community conversations and involving individuals with diverse perspectives, we are gaining insights into the functioning of Detroit’s education system, identifying both its strengths and areas for improvement. We shared our analysis of key areas where strategic shifts could yield better outcomes. Participants then collaborated to develop their own analysis. While participants agreed with the identified leverage points, their feedback emphasized the importance of language. One said the leverage points “[feel] like blame, not a call to action.” Participant suggested that we reframe them as positives to work toward.

As we move from strategy design to execution: How can we create regular opportunities to reflect and make meaning of the education system with partners?  

4. Mind the margins of our education system boundaries

The Skillman Foundation has defined its education system boundaries as K-12 and Out-of-School Time to focus its attention and resources, but participants noted the complexity and intersections with other systems like transportation and healthcare. As one participant said, “Our conversations often revolved around issues like transportation and public safety, which are crucial for education equity.” The boundary choice for the Foundation’s efforts does not negate the reality of intersections across multiple systems.

What is The Skillman Foundation’s role to engage beyond our system boundaries to address interconnected challenges that hold education inequities in place?

The biggest and best part of the workshop was getting to witness Detroiters’ agency, power, and belonging in how they envision a future education system. People Powered Education means listening, linking arms, and bridging differences with the people most impacted by the education system to pursue a shared vision. It means investing boldly in teachers and in students.

Comments (1)

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  • Michel Sohel -

    Ai changes education completely, we need to educate our teachers and students in working ing with Ai, learning with Ai and using it to achieve our goals.

    The second thing we need to do is bring in design thinking in our education system, that is something that Ai cannot do.

    This is a good initiative and should evolve.

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