Equity Actions: From Grantmaking to Changemaking, the McKnight Foundation’s New Vision

December 1, 2023

What does it mean to have a deficit perspective vs. an asset perspective? How do we move from incremental to transformational change when it comes to equity? McKnight Foundation President Tonya Allen joins guest host James Burroughs for a conversation on these topics and more – including Allen’s one wish for our community.


Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: This is Talking Pediatrics, a clinical podcast by Children’s Minnesota, home to The Kid Experts, where the complex is our every day. We bring you intriguing stories and relevant pediatric health care information as we partner with you in the care of your patients. Our guests, data, ideas, and practical tips will surprise, challenge, and perhaps change how you care for kids.

Welcome to Talking Pediatrics. I’m your host, Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd. What does it mean to have a deficit perspective versus an asset perspective? How do we move ourselves from incremental to transformational change, particularly when it comes to equity? On this Equity Actions episode of Talking Pediatrics, guest host, James Burroughs, joins McKnight Foundation President, Tonya Allen, in a conversation about these topics and more, including Allen’s one wish for our community.

James Burroughs: Hello, welcome to Talking Pediatrics. I’m your host, James Burroughs, coming to you from the Equity Inclusion Suite of the award-winning Talking Pediatrics show. Today, we have as a special guest, Ms. Tonya Allen who is the CEO of the McKnight Foundation. Tonya, hello. How are you doing?

Tonya Allen: Hi, James. Thanks for having me, and thanks for allowing the McKnight Foundation to share its vision and aspirations for the Twin Cities.

James Burroughs: All the times when we have our Talking Pediatrics Equity Inclusion Suite, we want to start with who you are first, who is Tonya Allen? What are you all about?

Tonya Allen: So when I think about my grandmother, my mother, my father, all of the different challenges that they’ve had to overcome, but more importantly, all of the life lessons that they provided to me, I see myself as the person who manifests those things. With my grandmother, it’s courage, with my mother, it’s resourcefulness, with my father, it’s hardworking.

James Burroughs: Where are you from originally? Are you from Minnesota?

Tonya Allen: No, I am not from Minnesota, but I’m happy to be here. I’m from Detroit and I moved here about 20 months ago. When I was in Detroit, I led a private children’s foundation that worked on all kinds of children’s issues, which is why Children’s Minnesota is such an important institution to me personally because I know the good work that you do. And I moved here largely because I felt compelled to come and join the efforts of so many Minnesotans who were trying to figure out, “How do we advance transformational change post-George Floyd’s murder?” So I’m really glad to be here, but there are things that come from Detroit, along with me, which is a recent recollection of how you get through extraordinarily hard times and do complex things that seem impossible, but you can do them if you do them together and you’re focused and you’re targeted.

And it also comes with this knowledge of seeing deep disparity, but also excellence. A lot of times when we, in different communities, talk about people who are diverse, we’re often talking about them from a deficit perspective versus an asset perspective. So I come with a very asset-based focus, understanding that black people, brown people, indigenous people, whoever we’re referencing, they come with deep histories, deep context, deep aspirations, deep skills, and that’s one of the things that Detroit taught me is to never, ever demean myself or demean anyone else based on the disparities. Disparities inform you, but they don’t define you.

James Burroughs: I’m glad you brought your talents to the Twin Cities to work with the McKnight Foundation and more importantly, the whole community as well. Tonya, let me ask you this, when it comes to your work at the McKnight Foundation, I noticed that you had said something about you’re changing from grant-makers to being change-makers, and I like that. What does that mean though? What does that mean to be change-makers?

Tonya Allen: Well, the McKnight Foundation is a 70-year-old philanthropy, and if your listeners are from the Twin Cities, they know about McKnight Foundation. We have, as an institution, invested in so many good, important, amazing things. We have made resources available to community, we’ve shown up in important ways, but I would say we were leading with our grant dollars and of course, we were leading with some vision and ambition around that as well. I think when we think about change-making, we’re leading with that ambition with our mission and our vision. The grant dollars are important. They’re an important part of our toolbox and they’re an important asset or form of capital we have, but we have so many other forms of capital as well. We have our endowment that we can use against some of the problems that we see.

We have our social capital as an institution, we have our reputational capital, we have our intellectual capital, human capital. We want to make sure that every form of capital we have is deployed towards our mission, towards the good, that we do it consistently, not sporadically. So it’s not to suggest or to demean what McKnight Foundation was before, it just means that what we’re trying to do is to take that DNA and the fabric of the things where they showed up in the most important ways in the cities and in the state, and amplify that so that it’s more consistent and more reliable and more powerful as it accompanies the grant dollars we can put into communities.

James Burroughs: One of the things that I love about this show is we look at equity and we try to tie equity, whether it be health equity or racial equity, into all things that we do. We are a healthcare institution, but as I tell folks all the time, that doesn’t mean just doctors and nurses, that means the full person of who you are, your whole, your well-being. Tell me a little bit about how you look at those things and well-being of the community as it relates to the work that you do on a day-to-day basis.

Tonya Allen: I think about equity from the perspective of Brian Stevenson. Brian defines equity as to repair the harm. So our work is really about thinking about how you repair the harm, not how you bring people up to where other people are or you give them equal access to services or supports. Actually, we believe that because our society has created harm for some people, that we actually need to do more and that more must be reparative. So as the foundation, we’re really thinking about, “What are the systems in our state that actually prevent us from doing more and that actually prevent people from thriving?”.

We have a program area, which is vibrant and equitable communities. That work is really about trying to do that systems reform, particularly thinking about how to help workers thrive, how to help people thrive and have stability with their housing, be it affordable housing or purchasing homes. It’s also about making sure that capital is available because when we look at a lot of the disparities that we see in our state and across the country, they’re very much related to the wealth gap, which the primary currency in the wealth gap is capital. Do you have access to it and do you have reliable access to it? And does that access actually create the reparative conditions that will allow you to succeed?

So at the McKnight Foundation, we’re thinking about that as well as thinking about how equity plays in all kinds of issues that we care deeply about that have a lot to do with outcomes for people. The food systems across the world, we care about how we support and implement clean energy and climate resilient practices throughout our society as we make the shift in the world. And if we make the shift and we do it and we don’t address and support those who are most likely to be harmed or have been harmed by our bad practices and policies before, then we’re undermining our ability to show up in a reparative way across the board. So that’s how we approach it and think about equity.

James Burroughs: Sounds a lot like what we call the social determinants of health in healthcare. And people don’t know only 20% of your well-being and healthcare is related to your doctor’s office or what your nurse is telling your clinicians. The rest of it is relating to things such as your environment. A lot of that relates to your housing condition, the food security you talked about, whether there are food deserts in your neighborhood or grocery stores in your neighborhood. A lot of times, whether there’s an economic viability or jobs in community as well.

And that goes to what we see all the time, our children, our young people need to see environments or be in environments where climate and also the environment itself is clean for them to grow and develop in a healthy way as well. We have disparities in well-controlled asthma, which sometimes is caused by environment. We have disparities in sometimes vaccinations, which sometimes are caused by environment as well. Do you see ways in which your work and those social determinants of health intersect and can partner or work together in solving some of the challenges in Minnesota?

Tonya Allen: Absolutely. You made the point for me. And that is simply that all of these things are interconnected. And when we solve some of these societal problems, we actually add years of life and vibrancy onto people. We know that people live longer, they’re going to probably experience less trauma, they’re going to experience less disease, they’re going to have more years to live. So as we’ve been thinking about a lot of these issues in an effort that we’re working on called the GroundBreak Coalition, it’s been really important to us to include hospitals and healthcare systems in this conversation about how we address these issues because we know that if we can solve some of these problems, and I think that’s the reason we see leaders like yourself participating in GroundBreak is because you know that if we solve these problems, we’re going to actually solve some of the problems that you see that come into your hospital every single day.

And sometimes that create this kind of doorway where people keep coming back. It’s a circular entry and exit point because they don’t have the kind of stability that they need, to your point, around access to healthy food, access to places where they can walk safely if they wanted to exercise, access to places where they have stable heating and the heating systems are healthy and not adding emissions to our climate, but actually removing them. All of this is connected. And that’s why we really believe that the work of equity isn’t one sector’s responsibility. It’s not healthcare’s responsibility, it’s not philanthropy’s responsibility alone. It has to be all of ours. It has to be corporations.

We have to get them involved. We need financial institutions, we need government, we need nonprofits, and we all have to be aligned. We have to build this kind of civic diplomacy, in my opinion, that will allow us to get beyond incremental change to transformative change, which is what I think we all desire. But that requires behavior changes. It requires us to have a belief muscle as well as the civic muscle to tackle hard and really tough issues with intentionality and deliberateness.

James Burroughs: Can you say a little bit more about what is the GroundBreak Coalition? What are its goals? What are the things that it wants to accomplish?

Tonya Allen: When we look at racial wealth gaps that exist in Minnesota, and they are deep and they’re stubborn, and what we’ve found is that those wealth gaps in Minnesota are unfortunately leading the nation in the wrong way. So we know the trauma that we experienced when George Floyd was killed here, but we also know that George Floyd’s death was not the stark nor the end of our challenges in the region. So it just really revealed hard truths that we have to work through and to deal with these inequities. So what we are finding is that if we’re going to deal with racial wealth gaps, then we have to really think about all kinds of supports that go into how do you help people prepare, what’s the services they need, the capacity that they need to engage.

But the challenge, what we find, is we spend all of our time on that part of the equation. What does it take to get you ready? And we spend very little time on the second half of the equation is once you’re ready, now, will you get equitable access to capital without bias? And what we’ve found is that that is our biggest challenge. It is the way that entrepreneurs of color, the way that Black homeowners or Black purchasers, when they come into dealing with capital systems or capital deployers, their experience is inconsistent, unreliable. And that’s because we still have bias in the system. There have been lots of things that have been taken out of that where we’ve seen banks and financial institutions working on that. But when it comes to that discretionary space, that’s where you see the disparities show up.

So part of what we’re attempting to do is get institutions who hold capital or they can be capital deployers, or maybe they have capital on their balance sheets, how do we work together in a collaborative way to actually de-risk capital so that people of color can have access to it and that they can have equity, in this case, meaning they own something, they have value in their businesses, they have value in their homes and that will allow these systems to show up in a way that actually gets us to scale. So it’s not that we haven’t done these things in general across our region, actually, the Twin Cities has been very innovative with lots of amazing pilots. And the goal here would be how do we move from a pilot to a transformative system? And that’s what GroundBreak Coalition is all about, it’s getting leaders in the region to rethink the way that we do business.

And I call that using our power. And power simply is the ability to rewrite the rules. So if we can use our power in the region to rewrite capital rules, we can lead the nation in closing the housing gap for Black homeowners. We can lead the nation in having the most number per capita entrepreneurs of color in the region. So thinking about not just what we’re trying to fix, but what are we trying to create, especially as we see that our GDP isn’t growing in the state. We’ve always been a prosperous place, so if we want to continue on that trajectory, we got to make sure that every citizen in this state has an opportunity, a shot, at deploying their talents and their assets in a way that’s going to grow a society stronger for all of us.

James Burroughs: I do want to ask you this, and it relates to neurosciences, I was looking at your website, I was like, “I didn’t know McKnight Foundation was interested in neuroscience.” I’d love to hear more about that. We have a new IMRI, let me get it right, system that looks at brain function, other things for our kiddos, and it allows us to be the first in North America to have such a system and helps with, not only looking at brain function, but we have to operate on the brain. We used to have to go to different places and spaces to get that analysis done. We can all do it now at Children’s. But I was surprised that McKnight was looking at neurosciences that affected the brain as well. Can you say a little bit more about that aspect of the work?

Tonya Allen: So what’s so interesting is neuroscience is our oldest program area at the McKnight Foundation. In a couple of years, we will have made investments in it for 50 years. And it actually is the only program that we advance that comes from our founder, William McKnight. So during the latter part of Mr. McKnight’s life, he basically had signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s. So he basically asked the foundation to invest to try and help figure out what is happening in his brain and also to bring forward all kinds of brain technologies that we needed to know about. So as a result of that, we started a fellowship program for neuroscientists and doctors who work in brain technology. So we make fellowships and grants to scientists that work in hospitals, that work in the private sector, that work in universities to be able to advance their research and to bring that research to fruition.

So we have had so many outstanding neuroscientists who have created science that has helped us solve so many problems, including important insights and evolutions around COVID. So it’s been a really important part of our work and a part of our history. So we’re really grateful to be able to invest in these really intelligent, smart people. And part of that work is also now focused on diversity and equity. How do we make sure the neuroscience industry and the scientists that we support are diverse and come with different lived experiences and different insights about how you tackle neurological disease and understanding as well?

James Burroughs: I am allowed to do a couple of things in this show. One is to come on and talk to great people like you, but I’m also allowed to give wishes. Now, I’m not a fairy or I’m not a person who’s a prince that gives three wishes. I can only give one. So I would love to ask you, if you could change anything or you had one wish that I could grant you around either philanthropy, racial equity, making transformational change, what would you wish for the world to be able to do or get better at or transform into if you had one wish for me?

Tonya Allen: I would say I would ask that all children go to high-quality public schools, no private schools, no charter schools, that we all had to share space, learn developmentally around the things that we know are important for our humanity and ensuring everybody has access and that doesn’t do the kind of economic stratification that we see in our current education system, which just further exacerbates every challenge we have in this country. So I just think that if we can start young with children, which we can, to your point, environment matters, especially on the development of your brain and how it’s wired. So I would say let’s start there and let’s start there and creating equitable places for people regardless of income, regardless of race, and let’s keep those systems going so that it’s sustainable for the long haul.

James Burroughs: Well, on behalf of the Equity Inclusion Suite at Talking Pediatrics, I would like to thank my Detroit sister, my cast technician, fellow alumni, my Divine Nine member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated the best. And thank you for coming to talk to us today, Tonya, and thank you for all that you’re doing for the community and for the world. Thank you for coming on.

Tonya Allen: Thank you so much, James. And I want to take you with me everywhere. I feel so welcome and so privileged.

Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Thank you for joining us for Talking Pediatrics. Come back for a new episode with our caregivers and experts in pediatric health. Our executive producer and showrunner is Ilze Vogel. Episodes are engineered, produced, and edited by Jake Beaver. Amie Juba is our marketing representative. For more information and additional episodes, visit us at childrensmn.org/talkingpediatrics, and to rate and review our show, please go to childrensmn.org/survey.