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Bicentennial Award Recipient Emphasizes Importance of Distributive Leadership

Tonya Allen

  • President and CEO:
    Skillman Foundation

“It’s a great year to be a Wolverine!” said Tonya Allen, MSW/MPH ’96, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation.

Allen received one of 10 U-M Bicentennial Awards at the U-M winter commencement ceremony on December 17, at Crisler Center. In addition to receiving the Bicentennial Award, she delivered the keynote speech to those graduating from U-M School of Social Work on December 16. Allen’s two-decade-long career has centered on pursuing, executing and investing in ideas that improve her hometown of Detroit and reducing the plight of underserved people, especially children. 

“I was really surprised to receive a note from President Schlissel informing me of the award,” Allen said. “There are so many amazing, brilliant people who have come through U-M, they could give 2,000 of these awards. It’s incredibly gratifying and humbling to be given this honor.”

And, as if that isn’t enough, Allen’s maize and blue pride grew as she celebrated her daughter’s graduation from U-M earlier this year.

“I was the first person to finish college in my family. It is pretty amazing to have another generation graduate from the University of Michigan as well,” Allen said.

Allen was once asked why she studied sociology and African American studies. The question suggested that a college education should tie directly to a specific job. But Allen believes college is about the discipline of critical thinking and problem solving. She encourages educators to infuse into their teaching the elements that will prepare students for a new world economy, including confidence, collaboration, communication, citizenship, creativity and character.

“During the past several decades, we were taught to be ladder climbers, but today our young people need to be rock climbers. That’s what liberal arts education is about. Young people must learn how to navigate a very rough terrain with no straight pathways. It’s about being adaptable, resourceful and lifelong learners.”

As a student in the School of Social Work, Allen was encouraged to consider and gauge herself and others, as well as environments. “We were taught to selfreflect and assess for bias, and to respect diversity. The ambition was not to perfect oneself or remove all bias, but to understand that we all have predispositions that influence how we view, respond to and interact with others. This training helped me to build bridges and relationships with leaders across multiple sectors, and is evident in my work to help communities exhibit civic leadership on behalf of children.”

Allen’s two-decade-long career has centered on pursuing, executing and investing in ideas that improve her hometown of Detroit and reducing the plight of underserved people, especially children. She has been instrumental in many successful community initiatives, aligning the complexities of education reform, urban revitalization and public policy, so that these areas of work come together to improve the wellbeing of Detroit’s children. Allen was deeply involved in the development and design of key education improvement strategies including Excellent Schools Detroit, Michigan Future Schools and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. And she served as the architect of the 10-year, $120-million Good Neighborhoods Initiative. 

“We have to reinvest in human capital. The ingenuity of the American people has always been our competitive advantage and has enabled economic mobility.” 

The School of Social Work was selected as the academic and research partner by the Skillman Foundation at the launch of the Good Neighborhoods Initiative in 2006. This partnership allowed Allen to work side by side with professors and students to translate research and findings into practice at the neighborhood level, while creating a learning laboratory for all involved.

The trajectory of the Good Neighborhoods Initiative is captured in the recently published book, A 21st Century Approach to Community Change, written by current and retired U-M SSW faculty Paula Allen-Mears, Larry Gant, Trina Shanks, Leslie Hollingsworth and Patricia Miller. Additionally, the Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods Analytic Review shared promising results from this place-based child-focused improvement strategy, which include graduation rates improving by 16 percentage points to 81 percent, expanding outof-school programming by 40 percent, creating 8,200 summer jobs for young people and reducing crime rates by 40 percent and youth victimization rates by 47 percent.

Despite the encouraging results of Skillman Foundation’s work, Allen is cautious to declare success. “Unfortunately, as a society, we’ve stopped investing public dollars in the services that provide important developmental opportunities, such as schools, youth programs, libraries, arts and athletics,” Allen said. “In the past, kids could use these services as a stepping stone for their future, but today most of those don’t exist unless you can pay to play, and that isn’t always an option for families. Those in the top 25 percent income bracket have increased spending on extracurricular activities by 300 percent, while spending for low-income families has decreased. Having to buy opportunities like these widens the economic gap and ultimately reduces social and economic mobility.”

When asked about reducing the opportunity gap, Allen responds, “We have to reinvest in human capital. The ingenuity of the American people has always been our competitive advantage and has enabled economic mobility. We need to make big bets on education, training and services that enable people to develop meaningful careers and increase household wages.”

Allen believes the social work community is particularly well positioned to contribute to solve this and other civic problems. “Be it micro or macro practice, social workers are trained to listen, to lift the voices of others and to work with people to create change. In complex situations, the collective must take responsibility to resolve problems and posit solutions. Distributive leadership is anchored by this belief in a common aspiration, which is achieved through shared action, measurement, management and communication. These are the concepts that MSW students learn, and are also attributed to effective change agents.

“Social workers have the innate ability to help people understand multiple perspectives and encourage more effective problem solving,” Allen said. “The exchange and consideration of many ideas and perspectives creates a civil society.

“It’s important to spend time with those who disagree with you and find our commonalities these are the conversations that create leaders.”

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