Ford Foundation’s Detroit officer is ‘an encyclopedia’

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

A former Detroiter described by a colleague as “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met” will be the Ford Foundation’s new point person in the city.

Kevin Ryan, currently the program director at the New York Foundation will work out of another nonprofit’s downtown office as his new employer establishes a beachhead in the city for the first time since 1953.

Ryan, a University of Michigan alumnus in his mid-40s, will oversee the $15 million in annual grants the Ford Foundation has promised to Detroit.

“He’s an amazing guy,” said Kareem Alston, the New York Foundation’s communications manager. “He’s like an encyclopedia.

“For instance, if we’re talking about how to solve an issue in New York City regarding one of our grantees or housing, Kevin always starts with historical context. He’ll mention three or four books he read, or how this played out in another century.”

The $12.5 billion Ford Foundation has been based in New York since it left Detroit 64 years ago. Founded by Ford Motor Co. president Edsel Ford in 1936 and bolstered by the estates of Edsel and his father, Henry, it has a global reach and emphases that include human rights, economic empowerment, education and more.

Its grants have been used for projects as varied as fighting AIDS and helping to launch TV’s “Sesame Street.” It also pledged $125 million to the Grand Bargain that helped pull Detroit out of bankruptcy.

Media relations chief Joshua Cinelli emphasized that the foundation is not opening a Detroit office, but rather basing a program officer at the Kellogg Foundation office downtown. In Ryan, it found someone so Detroit-centered that he listens to Detroit radio at his desk in Manhattan.

“His affection for the city is quite public,” said Maria Mottola, executive director of the New York Foundation. “I would say it’s been in Kevin’s mind that his career would not end in New York. Some part of his work life would be dedicated to his hometown.”

Ryan has spent more than 14 years with the $61 million New York Foundation, which takes a neighborhood-centered approach to community organizing, local problem-solving and economic equality. He previously worked for a housing organization called the Community Training and Resource Center, and has chaired the New York City Youth Board.

“He has the capacity to be interested in lots of different things. Given what’s going on in Detroit, that’s probably really helpful,” Mottola said.

“He’s a lot smarter than I am, I promise you that,” said Alston, who has two degrees from Stanford. “You would think someone that book-smart would have some drop-off with TV, movies or music, but he knows all that as well.”

Beyond that, Alston says, “he’s very passionate — and he loves Detroit.”