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Washtenaw United: Shannon Polk shares her vision as the new leader of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation

Shannon Polk
Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation
Shannon Polk

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


With a deep commitment to serving communities at a local level, Shannon Polk brings expertise and passion to her role as President & CEO of the Community Foundation. Building upon her doctorate from Evangel University and law degree from Western Michigan University, Shannon has engaged across the nonprofit community, including roles at the C.S. Mott Foundation and the Michigan Breastfeeding Network and consulting for the Bank of America’s Neighborhood Builders Program and the Council of Michigan Foundations.

She has most recently led The Witness Foundation, working to develop the next generation of civil rights leaders, and consulted with the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area to facilitate staff competency in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Shannon is dedicated to creating systemic change through community engagement and equitable initiatives, as demonstrated by her leadership in the nonprofit sector.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to talk philanthropic vision and community impact. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Since 1963, the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation has been investing in community organizations, institutions, and people with the idea of enriching our collective quality of life. Now, the foundation is under new leadership, and, for the first time on WEMU, we're going to meet her. Dr. Shannon Polk was named president and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation late last year and is now on the other end of our phone line. Thank you so much for making time today, Shannon.

Shannon Polk: Thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: You not only earned a doctorate degree, but a law degree. And you have a long career in the nonprofit sector and community service arena. Most recently, you headed up the Witness Foundation, which works to develop the next generation of civil rights leaders. How did that work play into your decision to take on the leadership role at the foundation?

Shannon Polk: Well, since I was a child, I've always had an interest in philanthropy. I think what drew me to the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation in particular was they began to talk to me about their core values: prioritizing community, pursuing equity, leveraging knowledge. And as they began to share those core values, I saw a distinct alignment with my personal values.

David Fair: I've made note of just how accomplished you are. At some point, most all of us need some help--a hand-up, if you will. Is that a part of your story, too?

Shannon Polk: Oh, I would definitely say that's a part of my lived experience. Growing up in the city of Flint, I was able to see what happens in a community when there is historic and generational disinvestment and how that impacts our lives. One of the stories I like to share with people is I don't know how to play the piano. I took piano lessons when I was very young at my mother's suggestion, and then after taking those lessons, all of a sudden, I was no longer able to go to those classes. The program had shut down. All the programs shut down because the funding for that nonprofit had ended. And so, when I think about philanthropy and the impact of philanthropy, I always tell people it's really important to understand that we're not just giving out dollars, but we're impacting the trajectory of lives.

David Fair: So, when we talk about philanthropy, there's so many directions that can move. So, at what point in your upbringing and your education and personal experience did you recognize that investing yourself in endeavors that seek to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion would be at the fore of what you want to do?

Shannon Polk: Well, I think growing up in the church and being exposed to leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and others. When I was a child, I was really impacted by his book, "Strength to Love."

David Fair: Mm hmm.

Shannon Polk: And, in reading that, I became aware of just what it took to really build a beloved community and creating a place where everyone had access, and everyone belonged. And, even as a 16-year-old, that lesson really stuck with me. And I believe it's been foundational in the way I approach leadership and the way I see myself as a civic participant.

David Fair: How did prejudice impact you?

Shannon Polk: Wow. What an interesting question. You know, as an African American woman in the U.S., I don't know that you can talk about prejudice without understanding the impact that that has generationally. I am fortunate that my family within a generation of being removed from slavery actually own land. My great uncles were professors at Tuskegee and Fisk. And so, just understanding that, while prejudice exists, it certainly is not a point of finality in the outcomes of one's life. I had stories and examples in my family where, although there was racism and sexism and you understood that they were present, you also understood that that was not the end of your story and that it was incumbent upon you as a member of the community to demonstrate to other folks that all that could be accomplished.

David Fair: I want to now go in a direction of what some of the rest of your story will be, since it is not fully yet written. We're talking with Shannon Polk, the new president and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation as 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United continues. You began this job at the foundation while we remain in a pandemic. The global health crisis has touched every aspect of our lives. Have there been direct impacts on the foundation itself?

Shannon Polk: Certainly. I don't think there is a single organization that's been unscathed by the impact of the pandemic. Certainly, we felt it across our staff. And, as a result, it's helped us think more deeply about the ways that we need to interact with community and show up in community. When you understand particularly our work around the aging population, understanding how isolation was amplified during the pandemic. Those feelings of loneliness are because people are unable to connect. And so, we think about our work very differently and how we can begin to help address some of those issues as we come out of the pandemic.

David Fair: On an annual basis, how much money is the foundation pumping into the community right now?

Shannon Polk: Oh, my goodness. At least, I think last year we had over $9 million in grant making. When you think about the impact of the foundation over our nearly 60 years, it's been almost $80 million that's been put back into Washtenaw County.

David Fair: How do you go about determining funding priorities?

Shannon Polk: Well, one of the things we do is we listen to the community. We're definitely a data-driven and data-based organization. So, oftentimes, we'll look to those studies that are provided either by the county or by private consultants that we have commissioned to go and help us understand what's really impacting the community, what's happening at the grassroots level that we need to be aware of that we can begin to invest in to make changes. One of the reports that we commissioned around aging showed us that the rate at which Washtenaw County was getting older. This was a significant part of the population that hadn't had any kind of significant investment. So, we begin to turn our focus to that population, and we're doing that right now as it relates to economic empowerment and addressing the issue of racial equity.

David Fair: We're talking with Shannon Polk on Washtenaw United here on WEMU. She is the President and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. You bring a personal and professional perspective to the job that's yours and yours alone, but it is aligned with the mission of the foundation, as you've pointed out. But you have a new set of eyes and ideas that you can bring to the table. Have you or are you developing an updated vision for the mission of the foundation?

Shannon Polk: Well, you know, it's interesting that you would ask that question because it's definitely what I'm doing. When I look at the strategic plan that we have laid out for the foundation, I think the thing that I'm adding to that is really understanding the need for a sense of belonging to be spread across Washtenaw County. One of the things I love about this community are the deep resources that are here. I mean, we have wonderful educational institutions, whether or not you're talking about the public school system in some parts of the county or you're talking about the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan and other four-year institutions. And so, the question that has been raised in my mind is does everyone have equal access to all of the wonderful amenities that Washtenaw County has to offer?

David Fair: And you know the answer to that.

Shannon Polk: I would say that there are people that feel as though perhaps that's not for them, or they may not even be aware of all of the amazing opportunities that are available. So, as a result, one of the things that we are working toward is seeing how we can help bridge that gap and how we can support those nonprofits that are reaching out into areas of community that are either dealing with rural poverty, urban poverty, disconnected by transportation, and how we can begin to help them understand how this community, how the amenities in the community are available and accessible to them. And, if they're not, how can we bridge that gap.

David Fair: From a public facing perspective when people think of the foundation, how do you hope they define it?

Shannon Polk: I hope they see us as an institution that's using every philanthropic tool that's available to us to create a community that provides access to everyone and leaves no one behind.

David Fair: And before you leave the foundation, whenever that may be somewhere down the line, do you want to further refine and add to the definition of that perception?

Shannon Polk: I would hope that after ten or 15 years of working at the foundation that my legacy will be that we have widened our doors to an even greater variety of donors to the foundation that we work with, a number of not only established nonprofits, but help develop new nonprofits whose leaders are going to be on the cutting edge of determining how we best support the residents of Washtenaw County.

David Fair: Well, thank you for spending time with us today, Shannon. I'm very grateful.

Shannon Polk: Thank you so much. Been a pleasure.

David Fair: That is Shannon Polk, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on Shannon and the foundation, visit their website or head to ours at WEMU dot org, and we'll connect you with all you need to know. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.


Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation


Since the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation’s (AAACF) inception, they have worked with United Way of Washtenaw County (UWWC) on a number of projects to amplify the value of our community investments and extend our collective reach to create a place for all people to reach their full potential

Today, the AAACF and UWWC’s partnership continues, as they come together to invest in programs that have a positive impact in our community. Examples of these programs include: Catchafire, a virtual volunteer platform as well as a new pilot program, and UpTogether, which puts families in charge of their financial wellbeing and allows them to move out of financial insecurity permanently by providing direct cash assistance through local nonprofits and social capital building platform.

Shannon Polk, the new CEO guides the vision of the Foundation.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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