Support System

Common Ground’s Tony Rothschild reflects on 25 years of helping people move from crisis to hope

When Tony Rothschild retires as Common Ground’s president and CEO next year, he’ll look back on growing the crisis intervention agency from 20 to 200 employees and from a budget of $625,000 to $13 million. He also led a successful merger with Sanctuary, a youth shelter, and won a mental health services contract with Oakland County.

During the course of his 25 years with Common Ground, he even changed the food it serves from Hot Pockets to spinach pancakes and lettuce grown on-site.

But even more important, he changed the way the nonprofit’s board functioned — having meetings center on future-focused discussions rather than committee reports.

“It changed the whole energy level of the board,” says Trustee Kay White, a 30-year volunteer at Common Ground and president of its board when Rothschild was hired.

“He’s known as the premier collaborator among nonprofits in Southeast Michigan,” adds Gary Dembs, a Common Ground board member and founder of 4th Sector Consulting, a national consulting firm that works for social change.

Rothschild, who turns 67 on New Year’s Day, came to Detroit with his wife, Mona Scott, in 1970 from Los Angeles as AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, the domestic Peace Corps. Between his time at VISTA and joining Common Ground in 1990, Rothschild earned a master’s degree in social work, worked for the late U.S. Congressman George Crockett Jr., and ran in the state Senate Democratic primary against Gary Peters.

After Rothschild retires, he and Scott, a lawyer, plan to sell their home in Lake Orion and live in an RV. They’ll visit friends and family, returning for Rothschild to teach a class at the University of Michigan — and for Tigers baseball.

Hour Detroit spoke with Rothschild about working in Detroit for almost 45 years.

What were your early impressions of Detroit?

During our training at St. Patrick’s Church … this guy walks in and he says he’s Paul Ganson: “I play with the symphony and we hate Ford Auditorium, and we’re trying to use this place down the street.” He says, “Could you come with me and see this building [Orchestra Hall] that has perfect acoustics? They want to tear it down.” I remember a rat going down the side of the building, and water was dripping, and I just thought this guy’s a nut. That was one of the many times I’ve been wrong about something. It told me something about people who have a dream and passion, that maybe they can get something done.

You were a VISTA volunteer in the Cass Corridor. 

We worked with youth [and] published a community newspaper. It’s funny, there wasn’t a word for it then, but the area was a food desert. There wasn’t a place to buy food that wasn’t really expensive or any good. So we actually bused people to the suburbs so they could shop. I was the bus driver.

What was Congressman Crockett like?

He was just all about his beliefs and justice and civil rights and the Constitution. He was as incorruptible a person as you’d ever meet. It was a joy working for him.

Crockett sent you with a clerical delegation including Bishop Thomas Gumbleton to El Salvador, where government bombs had recently killed two children. Tell me about the Salvadoran soldiers who were blocking your way.

Gumbleton finally said, “OK, I’ve had it. We’re just going to go.” And he just starts to walk and says, “Who’s with me?” There’s three soldiers, and they just gave up.

You’re very open about your father’s attempt and his eventual suicide in 1985.

People find this hard to believe, but I didn’t even think of that when I applied for this job. In 1969 we had a family dinner and he said he did something stupid [attempting suicide] and wouldn’t do it again. Now we have these programs called mental health first aid for the emotions that give a lot of tools to lay people to ask what’s going on. If I had had those skills, we would have had a different conversation.

Common Ground had a role debriefing postal employees after the 1991 Royal Oak post office shooting by a fired employee.

We were getting calls from every post office from Port Huron to Kalamazoo because all of a sudden they didn’t trust who worked next to them. We didn’t get paid and we didn’t get recognized, which kind of got me a little bit irritated.

How is being CEO at a nonprofit different now than in 1990?

When I started we didn’t have an IT department, a quality department, or an HR department. We just had a couple people doing this work. I teach a class on social work, and the students don’t know about these jobs in quality improvement and data … and they’re well-paying jobs.

How would you like to be remembered?

What I’m most proud of is how many lives we’ve affected, and I was here at a time with such growth that we could help so many more people. I want to be known as [one who is] helpful and a collaborator. … We work really well with other agencies: We don’t always have to hold the channel changer.

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