Tonya Allen: Advocate for city schoolchildren


Tonya Allen originally aspired to save hearts.

The president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation applied to medical school aiming for a career in cardiology while attending the University of Michigan. But she changed her mind and found another way to work with hearts.

“I was talking to a friend and said, ‘I want to help individuals, but I really want to help a population,’ ” Allen said.

She detoured and earned a master’s degree in social work and a master’s in public health, and for the past two decades has been laser-focused on improving the futures of Detroit children who attend schools with declining enrollment and increasing debt. This includes Detroit Public Schools, charter schools and the Education Achievement Authority.

“This put me on the path to figure out population-wide solutions that could help Detroiters,” she said. “I love this place. It’s a great place with great people who have a perseverance and love that makes it a particularly unique and quirky place.”

While Allen’s not in the operating room saving hearts, she’s in the healing business. She’s trying to squeeze out as much love as possible from the hearts of Detroiters and those committed to changing the lives of students. She is one of five co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, whose goal is to make quality schools the new norm for Detroit families. It is, she said, the largest educational reform initiative in Detroit’s history. After three months of almost ’round-the-clock meetings, the diverse group of 36 members presented their recommendations to Gov. Rick Snyder, who is gathering input from stakeholders across the state in an ongoing effort to reform education in Detroit.

“The coalition derived from me being exhausted from us fighting each other and not fighting for the right issues,” she said. “I talked to others who were just as exhausted and who were willing to put down their weapons.”

She said the time was right because we have a governor in Lansing who might be interested in making some changes.

“But we can’t wait for Lansing to tell us what to do,” she said. “That’s our job. We have to define what we’ll do to deliver the best talent in the world. We have to decide how to have the best schools in every neighborhood.”

John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge, a construction company, and one of the coalition co-chairs, applauds Allen’s leadership ability.

“Tonya has the very rare ability to lead diverse groups of individuals in high-risk environments,” he said. “Her leadership style, making everyone part of the process, produces creative solutions that transcend disagreements that inevitably occur along the way.

“She is creative, persuasive and demanding. But she never asks others to do more than she is willing to do herself.”

Allen’s devotion to children was inspired by watching her grandmother and mother care not only for their own children, but also for the neighborhood kids, as well.

The wife and mother of three daughters walks the halls of the awe-inspiring Talon Center, home of the Skillman Foundation, with authority. But the road to becoming a CEO was challenging. The native Detroiter can’t claim one side of town as her own, because she attended nine schools over 12 years.

“I have a love for the whole city — not just one side,” she said. “I’ve lived all over the city.”

She joined the Skillman Foundation in 2004, previously holding the position of chief operating officer. She developed the foundation’s 10-year, $100-million Good Neighborhoods program, which provides services to meet community-established goals for improving the lives of children and families in a number of Detroit communities.

She also was the force behind the $200 million, citywide education reform organization, Excellent Schools Detroit. More recently, she is leading the efforts on President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative to change the lives of young men of color in Detroit, with $2 million in grants.

Allen said she wants to lift her voice for those who are voiceless.

“I don’t want praise for this work, I want results,” she said. “I want us to be the envy of the nation. I want our children to be sought after by everyone because of their intellect and their character. I believe that is so doable for Detroit. I just need others to believe it with me.”

Shawn D. Lewis

Tonya Allen

Age: 43

Occupation: President and CEO, Skillman Foundation

Education: Bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, University of Michigan

Family: Husband, Louis; three daughters

Honored for: Her efforts to reform Detroit schools and educational opportunities for Detroit children