One way or another, Kevin Ryan has had it on his mind ever since his college days at the University of Michigan that he was going to make a difference for his hometown of Detroit. A big difference.
Today, approximately one month after beginning his tenure as director of the Ford Foundation’s Detroit office – the first time the organization has had an office in the city since 1953 – Ryan is already swimming in the deep end of the pool as he begins designing strategies for how the foundation can best utilize its massive resources to assist Detroit in being a comeback city for all of its citizens, not just a privileged few.
“How can we contribute to that kind of Detroit that we want to envision and that we want to see. That inclusive Detroit where everybody is supported and everybody has opportunity, whether it’s work or education,” he said.
Currently Ryan is in the process of meeting with as many community groups as possible “to really hear from them about where is Detroit now, where do they see Detroit going, and how can Ford help to support an inclusive and accessible recovery, and not just recovery but help people thrive in the city of Detroit.
“To me what success would look like in a year is we at Ford would have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the relationships and networks and activity that exists here in Detroit that’s aimed at creating this new vision for Detroit. And that our grant making reflects these values around inclusiveness and around accessibility.”
Born and raised in Detroit, Ryan said his family lived in several different locations around the city, including near 6 Mile and Fenmore “right near the Southfield Freeway,” and also 7 Mile and Schaeffer, before his family decided to relocate to Southfield when Ryan was 11 years old. The move was mostly for educational reasons, but there were other reasons as well.
Specifically, Ryan’s parents found out that Southfield “was an intentionally integrated community, which was one of the rare communities that was actually more welcoming to black people”. Understandably, they wanted their family to experience an environment that held out the possibility of being more racially inclusive. Both Ryan and his brother attended Southfield Senior High School, which no longer exists. Ryan remembers his father instilling in him a pride in being not middle class, but working class.
“Detroit is so deeply ingrained in who I am. My father was an autoworker. My grandfather was an autoworker. A couple of my uncles were autoworkers. The whole culture of what in many places people would call middle class life. My dad always called us working class because of the blue collar work, and also because of the respect for that. And he always wanted us to remember where we came from and what that meant. No matter whether we were blue collar or white collar. So that always stuck with me.”
Once at the University of Michigan, Ryan said he went through several majors “but my goal was to become an urban planner for the city of Detroit. I thought at the time that the best way for me to give back to the city of Detroit was to think about how we could work with communities to think about the development of not only schools and housing but open space and local jobs and providing people access.”
Ryan ended up in New York after leaving college due to a relationship he was in at the time, but found out he really did enjoy the Big Apple. He had always been interested in the dynamics of how cities worked, and New York was an excellent laboratory to study that phenomenon where he worked in the non-profit sector for 23 years, in philanthropy and running a citywide housing preservation group. From his Ford Foundation bio:
“Prior to joining Ford in 2017, Kevin spent more than 14 years as program director at the New York Foundation, where he managed a portfolio of grants for organizations that use community organizing, advocacy, and community development strategies to create systemic change for a more equitable New York. He also oversaw the foundation’s Capacity Building Program. Before that, he was executive director of Community Training and Resource Center, a housing preservation organization, where he provided leadership to a staff of tenant organizers working to improve housing conditions for low-income New Yorkers.”
But still, as much as he loved New York, Ryan maintained his hope that one day he would be able to take what he learned in neighborhood and housing preservation work and bring it back home to Detroit. That wish came true in January when Ford announced they were hiring a Detroit program officer. As soon as Ryan found out about the position he applied, and after a rigorous interviewing and vetting process he was officially hired in late May and started work in New York on June 12 before transferring over to Detroit where he was provided office space by the Kellogg Foundation on Adams street downtown.
“They needed someone on the ground here all the time who could more deeply engage with community organizations and have conversations with City Hall, and conversations on the state level. It was difficult to really manage all of that work from New York,” said Ryan, who will oversee the $15 million in annual grants the Ford Foundation has promised to Detroit.
“Ford had really started investing significantly in Detroit 8-9 years ago. And we have seven program officers who participate in grant-making strategy here. …Ford is here for the long haul” working toward creating a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable recovery for Detroit.
“There’s a long-term struggle to create this kind of equitable city, and that there are gonna be ups and downs in that process. There are going to be a lot of political changes, mayors going in and out, but as long as we hold steady to the values that we are trying to incorporate into the strategy then no matter which groups we’re funding, we’re still holding true to this [standard] around equitable development, equitable and inclusive employment opportunities. We have to hold true to that standard.”
Which raises an immediate question:
“As 3,000 citizens return to the city every year from prisons, how do they gain access?”
Talking about inclusiveness for disabled, senior citizens, returning citizens, etc.
They are working with the city on certain projects such as Grow Detroit Young Talent. “We think it’s an important strategy for connecting young people with educational opportunities and access to employment that could lead to employment and career ladders.”