Foundations open wallets to improve Detroit’s fortunes

While the discussion and legal wrangling surrounding Detroit’s bankruptcy filing continue, not everyone is waiting for a decision before rolling up their sleeves and opening their coffers to help rebuild and restore Detroit.

Fixing Detroit – on so many levels – is required before this city can truly thrive and benefit residents, while hopefully attracting new ones. And while many are on the sidelines waiting for the ideal time to contribute, at least two foundations are leading the way by taking bold leads and putting their money in areas where lies hope and opportunity.

Much is said about the Kresge Foundation, mostly about how much influence and control they garner with their heavy investments. But, understanding the reasoning and goals behind those dollars offers needed and appreciated clarity.

Detroit is where the Kresge Foundation was founded 90 years ago and as its president and CEO Rip Rapson has repeatedly said, represents “a stake of historic proportion.” The foundation takes a particular interest in entrepreneurship, the arts, transportation, commercial revitalization and early childhood education, which round out Kresge’s commitment to neighborhood stabilization and growth through the Detroit Future Cities initiative.

Kresge is currently in year two of a $150 million commitment over the next five years to align their Detroit investments with the Detroit Future Cities initiative; this not only reflects their support of the initiative’s development, but also the execution of what will comprehensively redefine and re-energize one of Detroit’s strongest but oft-forgotten assets, its neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods can only be as strong as its residents, especially the youth. Detroit’s literacy rates and graduation numbers continue to be abysmal and prevent residents from contributing to or benefiting from any new or growth-centered opportunities. This is where another big commitment kicks in, from the Skillman Foundation. Talk to new president/CEO Tonya Allen, and you will know that it is not business as usual. She understands that helping Detroit means comprehending and delving beyond the surface. The core of that commitment? Education.

“Our most important goal is to increase meaningful high school graduation rates in the city. Meaningful refers to young people being ready for college, career and life after they complete secondary education,” said Allen. This has long been part of many discussions, but without perhaps the necessary outreach and engagement to make it a reality.

“We believe that meaningful high school graduation is the best marker on whether or not we are preparing children in this city to fully participate in the social, civic and economic engines of society,” she said.

While Allen pledges more than just money to realize this goal, Skillman has committed to an $18 million investment this year alone, on top of more than $100 million over the past five years.

Risky? Yes? Necessary? No doubt. While there are several foundations currently working to help Detroit, each whose contributions are valuable, this multi-pronged but focused approach by local (Skillman) and national (Kresge) foundations represents what I believe is necessary to sincerely and effectively rebuild Detroit. One without the other will not nearly be as successful, as they stabilize the foundation upon which other areas and organizations can contribute. As Rapson said in a speech last year, “To turn our back on Detroit would be an utter failure of vision and deep moral abdication.”

A broken and uneducated or undereducated city can never flourish. And, while all investments come with risks, these two will surely yield a productive return of which we can all be proud.

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Fri, 04/04/2014 - 4:03pm
"Meaningful refers to young people being ready for college, career and life after they complete secondary education,” said Allen. I'm going to play devils advocate for a moment. Is it rational for an impoverished kid to spend the time and energy in school to get ready for college, if the kid's' perception is that a college degree is unattainable regardless of how well she prepares? And, even it is attainable, does she believe she will be wise enough or lucky enough to choose a curriculum that leads to a job after graduation? And, even if that's the case, will this education serve her for a lifetime or only until her acquired skills become obsolete? Finally, is the college education worth the decades of debt repayment required to repay the college bills? We often assume that impoverished kids don't perform in school because they're too lazy or their parents don't prod them enough or a myriad of other reasons. Maybe they're not performing in school because of the entirely rational belief that there is no attainable long term payoff for the effort. To perform well academically, you either have to love learning or be motivated enough to grind through the process. Maybe what's missing here is not great teachers and great schools, great parents, great neighborhoods, great mentors and the rest. Maybe what's missing here is hope. Maybe the solution doesn't lie with dramatically better early education, grade schools and high schools. Maybe the solution is a guarantee of an affordable college education for those who persevere. Maybe the solution is rational hope.
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 12:16am
Notice they said career and life. This isn't just about college readiness, it's about being prepared to take the next step after High School graduation, whatever that step is.
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 10:12am
EB, It is important to have/use that 'devl's advocate' approach, it is especially valuable when what the driver seems to be solely the 'good intentions' of others. The weakness in the supposed 'devil's advocate' is when they fall to using stereotyping and don't truly challenge the 'good intentions'. Why isn't there any discussion or even acknowledgement that there have been well intended people that have invest money for decades and all that has provide is a need for more money than ever? Who has been willing to say enough is enough and we need to do things differently, that haven't been harranged for innumerable 'sins'? Why are or should people be so willing to provide money and time without some accountability? Why are n'tthere 'devils avocates' that ask about results? You started on a path when asking about kids going to college, but then you invoke your version of 'good intentions' when say, "guarantee of an affordable college education ". How are you so sure people will value their education more, or love learning more? Is education anymore expensive then it was at any time in our history, is it simply measured by dollars or should we consider sacrifice? What is so wrong with students sacrificing to pay for their education? I have found that those who worked to pay for their schooling felt they ownership and were not as willing to waste time and effort on what wasn't contributing to it. If I were a 'devil's advocate' I would be asking what do we expect from all this investment in Detroit, does anyone even have a vision of what Detroit needs to be in ten or twenty years, does anyone care if it Detroiters have a part in the investment, what there role and responsibilities must be to make all the desired changes sustainable, how will we know what is working or not (what needs to be changed)? All I hear even from the 'devil's advocate' is 'good intentions' and nothing about what is to be achieved in enough detail to see if it is working. Why don't we hear about what Detroit needs to be before we hear about what people are doing for (to) Detroit? I wonder if Detroit will ever get better or how it will get better when I have no idea what Detroiters, those in Lansing, and the 'good intentions' see it needs to be.