Skillman Foundation President and CEO Tonya Allen tells SEEN about her efforts to invest in Detroit youth and how the city can benefit from uplifting underserved children and teens.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Boswell Hardwick
Name: Tonya Allen
Job Title: President and CEO of The Skillman Foundation
Tonya Allen, a serial “idea-preneur,” serves as the Skillman Foundation’s president and CEO. Her two decade-long career has centered on pursuing, executing and investing in ideas that improve her hometown of Detroit and reducing the plight of people, especially children, who live in under-resourced communities. In her current role, Allen aligns the complexities of education reform, urban revitalization and public policy to improve the well-being of Detroit’s and the nation’s children.
Allen has been instrumental in many successful philanthropic, government and community initiatives, including: the 10-year, $120-million Good Neighborhoods Initiative, which increased graduation rates by 26 percent, youth programming by 40 percent and reduced child victimization by 47 percent; the creation and expansion of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, which increased summer jobs for youth from 2,500 to 8,200 paid positions; co-chairing the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which successfully advocated for $667 million for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, return of an elected school board to the district, and more charter accountability; and serving the boys and men of color field as chair for Campaign for Black Male Achievement and co-chair for My Brother’s Keeper Detroit and Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color.
Allen was named to Crain’s Detroit Business 40 under Forty list, received the national Brick Award given to activists under age 30 by Rolling Stone magazine and was one of the first Detroiters to receive the prestigious Marshall Memorial Fellowship. She was named a Detroit News Michiganian of the Year in 2015, a Crain’s Detroit Business Newsmaker of the Year in 2015 and one of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “5 nonprofit innovators to watch” in 2013.
Allen was named 1 of 20 Bicentennial Alumni from the University of Michigan. She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degrees in social work and public health, all from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She serves on numerous boards, both local and national, including Oakland University, Council on Foundations, Council of Michigan Foundations, United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Campaign for Black Male Achievement.
Before joining the Skillman Foundation in 2004, Allen worked as a program officer for both the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Thompson-McCully Foundation. She founded Detroit Parent Network, a parent membership organization dedicated to improving educational options for children, and led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative in Detroit.
1. What are you currently working on?
I am trying to convince as many people as I can to get into “good trouble.” As Congressman John Lewis said, in order to strengthen our country we have “a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble.”
The best “good trouble” I can create is to ensure Detroit’s recovery is equitable. The exciting developments, investments and momentum happening in Detroit are unsustainable if we don’t recognize the city’s youth as an asset and start investing in them.
Other American cities that rebounded from a fiscal brink — like San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — curate important lessons for us. While they’re celebrated as thriving communities, they’re not at all thriving on the whole. They struggle greatly with disparity because they couldn’t resolve that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. I believe the possibility exists for Detroit to bring our residents along with the city’s recovery, preparing them to contribute to its continued rise. If we make intentional investments today, in a decade Detroit youth will not only be able to benefit from Detroit’s growing economy, but help to drive it.
2. What is your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest achievement is before me, not behind me. My professional objective is to make Detroit a great place to raise and educate children. We have a long way to go before our city can proclaim success. In the meantime, we have to celebrate wins, such as the Skillman Foundation’s work alongside community partners in six target neighborhoods that yielded a 26 percent increase in high school graduation rates, a 40 percent increase in youth programs, and a 47 percent reduction in child victimization. I’m also excited by the expansion of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, a program I’ve helped champion that’s near and dear to me. The program connects more than 8,000 Detroit youth with paid summer jobs each year.
3. What is an obstacle you’ve faced, and how did you overcome it?
One of the hardest things I’ve faced is convincing opponents to work together. Particularly in education reform, I’ve worked to stop folks from fighting against one another and instead fight together for children’s best interests. We were able to make a breakthrough by acknowledging our disparate views, challenging ourselves to see the issues from others’ perspectives, and working toward consensus on those issues we agreed were most pressing. This approach moved us quickly out of gridlock to a place of understanding, consensus and action in the service of children.
4. What motivates you each day?
Love. I love Detroit and its children. I think Cornel West said it best, “In order to save the people, you must serve the people. And in order to lead the people, you must love the people.”
5. What’s the biggest issue facing women today?
As women, we are often defined in comparison to men. I think this concept is best explained by a quote from Iyanla Vanzant: “Comparison is an act of violence against oneself.”
6. How can we address or resolve that issue?
We have to own our DNA, taking pride in our unique characteristics. We are new tribe, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
7. What advice do you have for other women?
Joy is your birthright. Plan your happiness. Plan fun. Plan to laugh. Plan to smell the roses. Do it first, not after you have given all of your time to everyone else.
8. What’s something others may not know about you?
I am not very comfortable with public recognition, like this one from SEEN! I do it because I believe it is important that women see each other celebrated. I do not admire my own work. The truth is, the greatest Allen women are yet to come. I have three daughters and I see their talent, their heart and their fire. I cannot wait to see them change the world.