One Detroit contributor and host of American Black Journal, Stephen Henderson, speaks with Tonya Allen, President and CEO of Skillman Foundation about getting kids access to learning now and in the summer, food security, as well as the importance of taking on the public policy issues that inhibit access to an equitable education in the long term.


Stephen Henderson It’s great to see you. So the Skillman Foundation spends so much of its time and it’s resources making sure that the kids in our communities get the educational opportunities that they’re supposed to. So give me your reaction to the announcement that they won’t have school, at least not in the traditional way, for the rest of this school year.

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation And while we are supportive of Governor Whitmer and her executive order, the first thing we need to do is make sure that our children are safe. But after we get beyond that, we know that there are some children who have access to more resources than others. And we believe that wealth or what your tax base is should not determine what quality of education you have. In this country, we’ve always believed that everybody should have a fair shot at an education, at prosperity, you know, showing up and trying to see what you can create. And we know that our kids aren’t having that. And so we have to figure out in the short term, how do we make sure our kids get the resources, particularly the technology and the connectivity that they need, so that they can have access to instruction and learning during this time period. But more importantly, we’ve got to make sure that we take on the public policy issues that allow this. So this is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that our kids, we will see like these inequities exacerbate it. And so we have to be prepared for this. That’s the only way as a state, we’re going to move forward and make sure that every child in this state has access to an education.

Stephen Henderson In a way, what’s going on now, just kind of shines a brighter light, I feel like some of the things that we were getting wrong already. And if you think of cities like Detroit, for instance, you know, very poor city, majority African-American, poor city in our country, and the way something like this will play out there versus someplace with a lot more resources. It’s it’s pretty stunning. I mean, if you think of the number of kids whom who will fall further behind if we don’t try to bridge that gap now, it’s a pretty scary prospect.

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation Right. Well, we’re going to have to try and figure out how to fill the gap now, but we also have to figure out how we program summer. So, you know, lots of the summer programs for young people have already been canceled because of this pandemic. And so we got to figure out how we’d make sure that young people, when when the weather changes, really are using their time well, and that they’re not distracted by negativity. And then we also need to figure out how are we going to facilitate learning then as well. So I think that the governor’s plan is an important plan for the short term but what I think it is that for our school districts who are working so hard and they’re doing such a good job considering the circumstances, is once they get past like building out what these education continuity plans are that’s required by the state, then we have to pass them. Now, what are we going to do during the summer? How are we going to start school earlier? How are we going to make sure that we double down and that kids aren’t just promoted to the next grade and and have huge gaps in competency or in an curriculum? We’ve got to make sure that kids both stay safe now and then when we come back into the school year that they get what they need. And if that means we as a community have to respond in a different way to make sure that resources are there to support educators, that we’re going to need to do that. And I think that’s going to be a stretch for us all. But we have to keep the pressure and the accountability on all of us to show up for our children.

Stephen Henderson So give us a window into how the Skillman Foundation and other philanthropy in town are are kind of responding to what’s to what’s happening. I would imagine there’s kind of a mad scramble for our kids.

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation Yeah, it definitely is a scramble. We all are. So I would just tell you a couple of things. One is that there is a Web site that many nonprofits and foundations in the city of Detroit have worked on called Covid313 and that That website has resources for parents and for children. So how to keep your kids busy giving them access to academic supports if they need health or mental health support? All of those things are in one place and so we hope families would access those. The second thing is, is that we are going to have to tackle this issue. Like I said before, devices and connectivity. So we are working with others on trying to tackle that issue and to help school districts fill the gaps where we can, because there are so many school districts who are pulling together, pulling all of their equipment out of their school buildings to make sure kids get those things. And that’s great. But we also need to make sure that those school districts are prepared in the fall to be able to reopen their school buildings and have the tools that they need. So that’s a priority for us. And then the last thing that I would share. Well, two last things I would share. One is high school seniors. We need to make sure that high school seniors don’t think that this is the end. They still have lots of things to do to prepare for college or to prepare for a trade school or work. So on our web site at, there is a blog there that talks about, a Q and A that talks about what do seniors need to do and what do their parents need to do. And then the last thing I would just say is that we need a check on our children. So if it’s us as individuals, nonprofit organizations, schools, we need to make sure that kids are safe. And one of the things that we know is that kids are, you know, are at home with their parents who are very stressed at these moments. And so we need to support parents, support kids and make sure that they’re safe. So let’s pick up the phone. Let’s check on our kids. Let’s make check in on their parents, too. And if they need resources, let’s figure out how to get that to them. And there are lots of nonprofit organizations are doing that. And we’re working directly with United Way who’s leading that. So families should call 211 and they will help direct those resources.

Stephen Henderson None of us wants to have this going on for a terribly long amount of time. But it could. And we don’t know. What is next school year look like if maybe we are still living in an alternate world. Other things we should start thinking about in terms of making sure that we saw gaps before they show up for us in September.

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation Absolutely. So one of the things that we’re thinking about is how do we make sure not just how do we get technology, it’s how do we actually use technology to help transfer it, transform learning? Right. So we don’t need school buildings to learn. They’re nice places for children to be in, safe places for children to be. But we got to make sure that this technology is integrated into our curriculum and that if it’s the Coronavirus or if it’s where we are at a school because of weather for a week, we should not be stopping learning. And so I assign to us all and that we have to address this issue, Stephen. And we have to keep our pressure on the state legislature who will be looking rightfully so to make cuts in the state budget because of the decrease in sales tax and income and revenue coming in. And this is a moment where they will be having to make tough decisions. And I would say our kids cannot carry the brunt of those tough decisions.

Stephen Henderson I also want to just ask about food and food security, which ties into education so tightly in communities like Detroit. I’ve been worried by everybody that there are kids who are hungrier right now than they would be, even though there are these extraordinary efforts to keep school buildings open and serving food, it’s more of a challenge to get there. What what are some of the things we should be thinking about doing to fill that role?

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation Well, I think that school districts have done a really strong job of making sure that food is getting out there. Detroit Public Schools is still distributing food at 17 sites. Gleaners is making sure that food, Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest, they are delivering food to sites. And so I would just tell families, go on to these websites or United Way website where you can find out where you can pick up food and some of those will actually deliver food to your homes. We just need to make sure that people know that they are being well thought of and that their systems are in place because that was the first issue that schools have tackled. And this is Detroit public schools to our charter schools.

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation We see activities like in Macomb County where honestly they’re they’re leading the pack and making sure that kids are getting food. I just think that educators are doing an amazing and awesome job. You know, I see in Macomb County, they deliver food on one day. And when they’re not delivering, they’re delivering it for Gleaners. This is a kind of collaborative civic leadership we need in this moment.

Stephen Henderson Before I let you go, I want to talk a little about where we start the conversation about the future. You mentioned earlier that, you know, a lot of these gaps are things that we deal with all the time and people are not as exercised about it as they have been because of Coronavirus. But we always have a hard time getting to this space where we’re actually talking about fixing those things. This is an opportunity. How do we make the most of it? Once we get out of this?

Tonya Allen, President and CEO, The Skillman Foundation Yeah. Well, I think I feel really strongly about this. You know, you often hear people say, like high tides rise all boats. Well, let me tell you, we’ve had some years in Michigan where we’ve had high tides and all boats have not been risen. So even though we’re in a crisis, yes, we are going to have a budget deficit, but we cannot let this go. We have to push hard and press hard on this. I am just adamant about it. Because if we don’t deal with it now, it’s never going to be dealt with. And so I think that we have to respect our elected officials. We know that they are going to have to deal with a lot of challenges. But this cannot be one that we allow them to take off, take their foot off the gas on. We need equitable funding every year. We got to make sure that schools have the resources that they need based on their student needs. And we see it exacerbated with technology and connectivity in food. But what we’re not talking about is that it’s exacerbated in the curriculum, it’s exacerbated in the supports around mental health and our kids are going to need more support. Every school district will need more support to make sure that kids are actually processing the trauma from COVID, from the Coronavirus. Right. We need to make sure that those resources are there. Not next year. I mean, now that we need them there today and we need them definitely to be there on, come September when we open school and hopefully that’ll be an August, quite honestly, so that we can make up some of those days.