Tonya Allen, one of Detroit’s fiercest advocates for Detroit children, is leaving the Skillman Foundation

Tonya Allen has been president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation since 2014. She is leaving in February for a job in Minneapolis. (Skillman Foundation)

Tonya Allen, who has helmed one of the most prominent nonprofits working to improve K-12 education in Detroit, is stepping down to take a new job in Minneapolis.

Allen will officially leave as the president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder) in 2021. Allen, who has held that role at Skillman since 2014, will lead the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis.

“The Skillman Foundation and Detroit are my heart,” Allen said in a statement. “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.”

The McKnight Foundation, one of the largest foundations in Minnesota, has recently evolved toward a “new mission to advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive.” In a statement, the foundation cited the global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and the climate crisis in saying Allen is “the right person to take the helm during this historic time.”

“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,” Allen said in her statement, referring to two Black men who were killed by police officers.

Maria Woodruff-Wright, Skillman’s vice president of operations and its chief financial officer, will become interim CEO as a search for a new leader takes place.

“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 Suzanne Shank, a board member and chair of the foundation’s search committee.

Allen said she is confident Skillman “is well-equipped to continue its mission as a fierce champion for Detroit kids, after all they have done this over six decades.”

Here are some of the initiatives Allen has been a key part of leading, according to Skillman officials:

  • Serving as one of the co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which advocated for the legislative initiative that created the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the return of an elected school board to the district, and more charter school accountability.
  • The Good Neighborhoods Initiative, a $120 million commitment to improve conditions for children in six targeted neighborhoods. 
  • Creating and expanding 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  leading civic leaders to invest 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 K-12 education system.
  • Serving 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.

The Skillman Foundation is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month. It has granted nearly $670 million since its inception in 1960 and has assets of approximately $500 million.

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“Tonya Allen stands tall among a long line of powerful leaders who have been at the helm of The Skillman Foundation,” Shank said. “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.”

Mary Kramer, the incoming chair of the foundation’s board, said Allen’s exit “is a big loss for us and for Detroit.”

“Tonya has been a force at The Skillman Foundation and in Detroit,” Kramer said. “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.”

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