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Tonya Allen to Leave The Skillman Foundation For New Pathway at Helm of McKnight Foundation

By Sherri Kolade

Tonya Allen, The Skillman Foundation’s president & CEO since 2014, will be leaving her prestigious position to lead the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she confirmed in a phone interview with the Michigan Chronicle recently.

The Detroit-based Skillman Foundation children’s philanthropy helps the city’s youth achieve their highest aspirations.

“Tonya has been a force at The Skillman Foundation and in Detroit. Representing the Foundation, she has held a laser focus on children and Detroit as CEO for the last seven years, including taking on leadership roles in the city and the state,” said Mary Kramer, incoming Board Chair for The Skillman Foundation, in a press release. “This is a big loss for us and for Detroit. But we understand and support this important move. As we search for a successor, we will look for a leader who can build on her legacy and that overarching goal of creating an equitable future for children in Detroit.”

The McKnight Foundation, according to its website,, is a family-based, independent private philanthropic organization geared toward helping others for a more “just, creative, and abundant future where people and the planet thrive.”

The McKnight Foundation is also fiercely committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values, the website added.

Allen said that her new role would be helping in the diversity, equity, and inclusion realm. She received a call late fall about the position to “talk about this opportunity” that, at first, she wasn’t interested.

“But what I was curious about what was going to be the consequence — what was going to be the lasting impact of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota,” Allen said. “That question was deep on my heart as I thought about it and listened to them finally.”

Allen said that Floyd [who died at the hands of a police officer in may in Minneapolis] moved to Minnesota looking for opportunity, and the Fortune 500-filled state has lots of possibilities.

“Yet, Black folks are still treated as second class citizens,” she said. “And I really believe that the place is trying to fix that. I feel called to think through that question and see if we can … turn that trauma and tragedy into transformation and triumphant.”

Allen said that March 1 would be her first day, and she will listen to multiple voices [including leaders in different sectors] throughout that local community about “how do we redistribute the power table and that everybody is included,” she said, adding that Floyd’s death is “emblematic of more than just police brutality. “It really just speaks to all the systemic inequities that exist for Black people, and I want to make sure we deal with all those things.”

Allen added that it was not an easy decision to make to leave Detroit, her home. But she is grateful for everyone’s support.

“The Skillman Foundation and Detroit are my heart,” said Allen. “Thinking about the impact our team has been able to make for children in Detroit fills me with pride. I never saw myself leaving, but when you are called you must act. I’m committed to advancing racial equity, and to do so from the site where our country lost George Floyd, Philando Castile, and so many others is something I could not turn away from. At the same time, I have confidence that The Skillman Foundation is well- equipped to continue its mission as a fierce champion for Detroit kids, after all they have done this over six decades.”

During Allen’s 16-year legacy at the Foundation, she has been critical in designing and leading numerous impactful, high-profile initiatives, including:

  • The Good Neighborhoods Initiative, a $120M commitment to improving conditions for children in six targeted neighborhoods, increased graduation rates by 25%, youth programming by 40%, and reduced child victimization by 47%
  • The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which successfully advocated for $667 million for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the return of an elected school board to the district, and more charter accountability
  • The creation and expansion of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, which increased summer jobs for youth from 2,500 to 8,200 paid positions
  • The Detroit Children’s Fund, a nonprofit that has assembled highly influential civic leaders to make high-potential investments in schools and educators to ensure more Detroit children can receive a quality education
  • Launch Michigan, a statewide partnership of business, education, labor, philanthropy, and civic leaders advocating for a high-quality, student-centered k-12 education system that helps every student succeed in school, in their careers, and in life
  • Serving the boys and men of color field as chair for Campaign for Black Male Achievement and co-chair of Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and My Brother’s Keeper Detroit.

Allen’s accomplishments are representative of the legacy of The Skillman Foundation, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this month. Its founder, Rose Skillman, a fierce advocate for children, established the Foundation in December 1960. As of December 2020, it has granted nearly $670M in children services and has assets of approximately $500M, allowing the Foundation to serve children into perpetuity.

“Tonya Allen stands tall among a long line of powerful leaders who have been at the helm of The Skillman Foundation. It has been an honor to support her and the critical work of the Foundation. Both will go on to continue to make meaningful impact,” said Suzanne Shank, Board Member and Chair of the Foundation’s search committee for the next president & CEO. Allen plans to step down in February of 2021.

The Foundation has an established succession plan, which appoints its Vice President of Operations & CFO, Maria Woodruff-Wright, as an interim CEO while a talent search ensues.

“We’ll have an aggressive search for candidates who represent the Foundation’s relentless commitment to children, to Detroit, and to equity. We also acknowledge that Detroit is talent rich; we’ve had great success at finding local leaders,” said Shank.

The Skillman Foundation is primarily known for its work in K-12 education; it also has a long history of advancing equity, the afterschool system, youth employment, juvenile justice, neighborhood safety, parent supports, and grassroots leadership, according to a press release. This work carries through to its current strategy, the Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children, which is focused on strengthening three youth-serving systems in Detroit: K-12 education, afterschool, and college and career pathways. The Skillman Foundation has a long-standing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Its Board of Trustees and staff of 23 team members represent and actively work to advance this pledge.

Visit the Skillman Foundation for more information

Appeared first in the Michigan Chronicle

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