Commentary

by Phillip Henderson, President, Surdna Foundation

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was at my first Independent Sector conference, and was a freshly minted foundation president. So I felt privileged to follow the “CEO Track” at the conference. One of the sessions that I thought might be amusing was one on storytelling. So I wandered into that windowless, basement conference room – you know the one—along with the other “CEO Trackers” to hear some stories. What I got instead completely blew me away. It was my first experience of the world of Andy Goodman. With humor, practiced ease, and airtight logic, Andy had me completely mesmerized for that hour, and I emerged from the session a true believer in the power of stories to communicate the messages we care about.

I went back to Surdna and instructed my staff to use stories at the next board meeting, sensing that this could be a transformative moment for me and for the organization. But subtly, slowly, inexorably our old habits of presenting tedious PowerPoint slides began to creep back. It turns out that telling compelling and illuminating stories is more than just important, it’s really hard. It requires training, concentration, and focused attention to do it right and to do it well.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself reading The New New Deal by Michael Grunwald. Grunwald’s book is a terrific read, a tour of Obama’s massive economic stimulus package in 2009. The book reminds the reader of just how much value was imbedded in this stimulus and how much promise the investments made through the stimulus have for the future of the country. The book also reminds us, in painful, intricate detail, just how poorly the transformative vision of this stimulus was transferred to the conventional wisdom of the population-at-large. It’s so bad that, for a while, the Administration stopped using the word stimulus at all. The jargon-heavy description of what went wrong ascribes blame to a hijacked narrative. But what they really mean is that the Obama Administration and its allies did a really poor job of telling a good story about the stimulus. And, it turns out, just as Andy Goodman has been telling us, stories matter.

In a way, the battle to define the stimulus, in fact to define what the future of our country can and should be, is a battle of stories. Sometimes we talk about competing visions, and, yes, sometimes about competing narratives. But in the end we are talking about stories. I think too often we believe that the work will speak for itself, and at some level it does. But if we want transformative change, we need to believe in our bones that communicating good stories, repeating anecdotes of small and large triumphs, and speaking in unison through these stories about what matters most to us is core to achieving success. Story telling is not a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.”

Surdna continues to advance the idea that stories and shared messages matter to us. We’ve been working over the past year-plus with partners in the environmental community to build a storybank and shared message platform about the clean economy, and are now working on a storybank about next generation infrastructure solutions in our metro areas. We know that merely having the stories isn’t enough. We recognize now, much as I recognized in the months after my Andy Goodman Experience, that just believing in the power of stories isn’t going to carry the day. We need to commit time, build expertise, share, and promote our stories in order to tap into their ancient and future power for transformational change.


Earlier  this spring Surdna staff and a Board member spent two days in New Orleans as part of our ongoing learning about our work there.  The trip coincided with the end of the Foundation's fourth year of a 5-year commitment to the New Orleans Fund.  Established in 2008, the Fund seeks to advance long-term rebuilding and resiliency efforts in New Orleans by supporting civic engagement in multiple issue areas, including economic development, education, arts and culture, coastal restoration, and worker's rights.

While our staff members  visit the city several times a year, this trip had a different flavor than most; our 3 programs jointly designed the trip to meet with current grantees and explore the possible cross-programmatic linkages in New Orleans that unite our programs' interests.  Over the course of the two days, our meetings with grantees, city officials, and thought partners provided the group with a deeper understanding of the evolving cultural and political dynamics in the city, and magnified the opportunities and challenges at this moment in New Orleans' rebuilding.

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Sunrise on Bayou Bienvenue
Through our meetings with grantees such as Committee for a Better New Orleans, Neighborhood Partnerships Network, the Power of a Million Minds Youth Organizing Coalition, and the Neighborhood Engagement Office, it became clear to us that work to develop a formal mechanism and process for resident engagement has made great strides in New Orleans, and continues to evolve.  For example, we view the establishment of the Neighborhood Engagement Office by the city as a sign of progress that demonstrates the value  the city places on connecting residents to City Hall.  Yet, it was also clear that this formal mechanism for citizen participation will not necessarily lead to robust two-way engagement unless the culture of resident engagement is nurtured in an ongoing manner.    Our visit with the Center for Sustainable Environmental Development in the Lower 9th Ward was a good example of that kind of ongoing sustained work, and a meeting with The Lens highlighted ways that open access to information about happenings in the city contribute to this culture.

We were also struck by a desire for collaboration among organizations in the city, local philanthropic partners, and national funders. This feeling was captured at a funder reception hosted by Surdna for representatives from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, The Foundation for Louisiana, and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation. Over the course of the conversation, there was enthusiasm from all foundations in the room to connect our grantees and figure out how national and local funders can work together in the region to ensure greater impact.

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Grow ‘Dat’s Mobile Market
Later in the trip we were privileged to experience impressive examples of collaborative thinking and sharing during two thought provoking meetings with sets of groups concerned with economic development concerns, and infrastructure development initiatives.  And, in our most touch-and-feel experience of the trip, we visited Grow 'Dat, a collaborative project of the Tulane City Center, the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, and City Park, through which New Orleans youth are engaged in transforming a corner of City Park into an urban farm to support public health, local economies, and a sustainable food system in South Louisiana.

New Orleans is a place where Surdna Foundation sees remarkable opportunities given our sustainable communities mission, and this trip served to further illustrate the natural overlaps that exist among the Foundation's programs' interests.   We are fortunate to have such strong partners in the city, and are eager to move into the last year of our five-year commitment to the New Orleans Fund, while looking ahead for future opportunities that intersect with Surdna's mission in the city.

 

By Kelly Nowlin, Surdna Board of Directors

October 2011


Surdna's New Orleans Fund seeks to advance New Orleans long-term rebuilding and resiliency efforts by supporting civic engagement in multiple issue areas, including economic development, education, arts and culture, coastal restoration, and worker's rights.  The fund is overseen by staff from across our program areas in partnership with a liaison from our board of directors.  From time to time board liaisons travel with staff to New Orleans to meet with grantees, thought partners, and colleagues in the city.  Kelly Nowlin recently completed her first year as liaison to the New Orleans Fund and traveled to the city last spring for her first taste of its irrepressible spirit.  Kelly reflects on her time in New Orleans in the commentary that follows.


kelly knowlinI had never been to New Orleans before.  As the current board liaison to Surdna's New Orleans Fund, I had the great opportunity to make this trek last April with a group of program staff.  After meeting with over thirty people from ten different organizations in just two days, I was left with a mix of sadness, hope and true admiration.  Sadness for those families that never returned or who still struggle to rebuild their lives.  Sadness for the hundreds of lost cypress trees in the bayou.  Sadness for the disappearance of coastal wildlife and for the distressed environment.  At the same time, a strong feeling of hope lingered.  Why?  Because of the neighborhoods.  There is a bond like no other that exists in these communities that is palpable.  Organizations such as the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED) put the power of those bonds to work by engaging local residents in processes that, with critical work by other Coalition members, reach up to the state legislature and seek to protect and restore the neighborhood and coastline.  Because of the youth.  There are groups like the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA), Rethink New Orleans, and the Fyre Youth Squad, all members of the Power of a Million Minds (POMM) youth organizing collaborative, who are developing relationships with city officials to ensure they have a voice in rebuilding their future.  Because of the leaders.  There are community and nonprofit leaders across the city who continue to persevere with limited resources, their unyielding commitment stemming simply from passion and strength of will.  The people of New Orleans are special.

 

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Anchor institutions are entities or facilities that, when established, typically do not relocate because they cannot easily pack up and leave. The most well-known anchors are universities and hospitals (the "eds and meds"), but they may take on different forms such as museums, sports arenas, municipal governments, and in certain instances, major corporations. Typically anchors are the largest employers in a metropolitan area and represent significant economic influence through their procurement of goods and services.

According to Community-Wealth.org, universities spend $350 billion annually and have a total endowment of over $300 billion. Nonprofit hospitals have assets over $600 billion and collect annual revenues greater than $500 billion.[1] If resources of anchors such as these were leveraged effectively, they could produce a multitude of economic multipliers that positively impact the places in which they reside and the city/region as a whole. As a foundation continually seeking innovative ways to strengthen local economies, Surdna sees anchors and the unlocking of their economic power as an important theme worth exploring.

Given the current economic outlook and continued loss of jobs, we are finding more cities and regions looking internally to uncover untapped resources. The question city and state leaders are asking is, "How do we keep more money in our local economy?" Procurement and hiring policies are essential in maximizing the potential in local businesses and, if anchors' policies and resources are aligned correctly, regions could take great advantage of the economic impact. To do this would require a measure of systems and behavioral change on the part of anchors to adopt practices committed to the procurement of goods and services from local businesses, and to the direct employment of residents from nearby communities. An anchor strategy of positioning their buying and hiring practices at this level can help create and sustain home-grown economies, and may be particularly significant for vulnerable regions confronting capital flight and disinvestment.

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, made up of small, employee-owned for-profit companies that are based in the communities in which their employees live, attempt to level the city's economic playing field by aligning their services with local universities and hospitals' procurement practices to effectively capture a sustainable percentage of the local market share. They are also pushing for the development of "local first" procurement policies to ensure that local businesses have access to the purchasing power of anchors. Small businesses such as Evergreen have the ability to expose the level of economic resources that continue to flow out of a city while highlighting adaptable strategies for anchor institutions in other cities seeking to support and sustain their own local small enterprises.

Local production, hiring and material sourcing are at the center of Surdna's Strong Local Economies Program's  thinking around how cities and regions can create or revive local economies. As a foundation that seeks to foster just and sustainable communities, we believe that finding ways for anchor institutions to promote and sustain local economies will be an important step in achieving this mission.



[1] http://www.community-wealth.org/strategies/panel/anchors/index.html

aaron_newGuest Commentary by Aaron Dworkin
Founder & President
The Sphinx Organization*

"The deepest defeat suffered by human beings is constituted by the difference between what one was capable of becoming and what one has in fact become." - Ashley Montagu

I have a bit of an unusual history.  My start might have made it challenging for anyone to determine what I might be capable of becoming. By any statistical norms, being born a bi-racial baby on September 11, 1970 to an un-wed white Irish Catholic mother and African-American Jehovah's Witness father in a small village of Monticello, NY, and being immediately given up for adoption did not necessarily set the stage for the highest expectations for my future capabilities. I was adopted, however, at the age of two weeks by a white Jewish couple, professors in neural and behavioral science at Rockefeller University, and given the too-rare gift of a fine education.

People ask me why I care so much about diversity and why I have dedicated my life to pursuits that further that end.  My response is: I am a Black, white Jewish, Irish Catholic Jehovah's Witness who plays the violin.  I am the definition of diversity.  I don't have a choice but to do what I do.

When I was five, my adoptive mother, who was an amateur violinist, inspired me to begin studying violin.  I remember sitting in Carnegie Hall at age 8, listening to Isaac Stern, and the impact that experience had on me.  However, I do not recollect seeing Sanford Allen around the same time.  Who, you might ask, is Sanford Allen?  In 1961, he was the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic in the orchestra's history.

As I continued to develop on my instrument, as the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Youth Symphony, student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, or concertmaster of the Penn State Philharmonic, I was either the only or one of less than a handful of minorities.

It was not until I was working on my degrees at the University of Michigan that I first learned that there were any Black composers.  I literally went into a lesson one day and my teacher asked if I had any interest in playing music by Black composers.  Completely shocked by his suggestion, I was to discover a rich plethora of works by William Grant Still, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and David N. Baker.  And it led me to question, why had no one told me of Joseph Boulogne St. George (an Afro-French contemporary of Mozart's) or George Polgreen Bridgetower, a well-known Black violin virtuoso, a friend of Beethoven's, who premiered his famous Kreutzer Sonata with him in 1803, and for whom Beethoven actually wrote the work?   Within the context of these questions and immersion in this newly discovered incredible music, combined with the lack of minorities that I would see in the audiences or on stage, I was led to found the Sphinx Organization.  Specifically, I envisioned an organization that would serve as an avenue through which one might bring attention and exposure to musicians and composers of color, both aspiring and established.  I saw Sphinx as a creative way to give voice to something that already existed, yet, remained unheard: decades of achievement in this field by those who had paved the path before my generation, like Sanford Allen, Dominique Rene De Lerma (one of the foremost musicologists and experts on composers of color), and Willis Patterson (acclaimed African-American vocalist and founder of the Symposia on African-Americans in Arts and Education).  I saw myself as one whose responsibility it was to make a difference.

In 1996, I found that the state of diversity in the field was alarming: Blacks and Latinos comprised less than three percent of American orchestras.  In launching Sphinx, I began to formulate its ethos and define what it would stand for: advancing diversity in all phases of classical music, and providing unprecedented opportunities for talented young people of color in the field.

Today, Blacks and Latinos comprise only slightly above 4% of our orchestras combined.  To give a further sense of the current scene, one must also look deeper, beyond the musicians: minority representation in the administrations of our orchestras boast a depressing statistical zero  The same statistic is true for works by composers of color performed today by American orchestras.  Our music schools and youth orchestras are faced with similar statistics, and our audiences are dwindling rapidly.  This lack of opportunity sits within a paltry level of public support for the arts: in a comparative survey, Germany's per capita spending on the arts is 2%, France's is 1%, the UK spends .8%, while the US allocates a woeful .5%.

Despite minimal public support, music has played a pivotal role in the lives of leaders of social movements throughout history.  During the Civil Rights Movement, there were marchers with "battle" hymns.  Frederick Douglass, the great statesman and freedom fighter leading the abolitionist movement, played the violin, as did his son; and his grandson, Joseph Douglass, was the first Black violinist to tour nationally and internationally.  Classical composers were encouraged to write revolutionary songs, such as La Marseillaise, composed by Claude Rouget de Lisle, inspired by Mozart's Piano Concerto No 25.

Recently, we have been able to bring about the beginnings of change: young musicians of color have been appearing as soloists in front of major orchestras 20 times each year for the past decade; the number of Blacks in top tier orchestras has doubled in the last decade; over two million annually are able to hear the Sphinx musicians through television and radio broadcasts.  However, this impact must merely be the beginning.  We have a long road ahead of us.

Borrowing ideas from the great Martin Luther King, Jr., "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.... History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people... Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."  Together, these words depict the very essence of responsibility that we hope to instill upon our young artists and all those who believe in advancing the mission of Sphinx.  I submit to you: this work we do matters!

 


*The mission of the Sphinx Organization is to increase the participation of Blacks and Latinos in music schools, as professional musicians, as classical music audiences and to enhance K-12 music education.

Guest Commentary by
Andy
Van Kleunen, Executive Director, National Skills Coalition

nsc2Economic times are bad, and the nation wants answers:  What should policymakers be doing to get millions of Americans back onto a path toward prosperity?  And what will the U.S. economy look like when it finally comes back from the Great Recession?

The media is on the case, and in its quest has recently given a lot of ink to the rarely covered topic of workforce development.  For those running or funding local workforce programs, such press attention has seemed long overdue.  With community college enrollments at unprecedented levels, and a near three-fold increase in clients at Workforce Investment Act (WIA)-funded One-Stop Centers and training programs, worker demand for new skills is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, much of the recent coverage has presented two contradictory pictures of the economy:  one in which targeted investment in workforce skills is a no-brainer, the other in which job training is dismissed as inconsequential or out-dated.

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by Cathy Calfo, Executive Director, The Apollo Alliance

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The oil-slicked beaches, out-of-work fishermen and devastated local economies along the Gulf Coast are a stark reminder of our nation's costly addiction to oil. While the Gulf States are now experiencing the most disastrous consequences, Americans nationwide bear the costs of this addiction.  Each day, we send more than $1 billion overseas to purchase oil, and the clean-up to oil spills like the BP disaster is an added financial burden to the American people.  Meanwhile, working people and their families here at home who live in communities without viable alternatives to cars and traditional fuels are dependent on oil and face the hardship of wildly fluctuating gas prices. This is not sustainable for our economy, and it's not sustainable for our environment.

As the world recovers from the current recession, and moves to lessen its dependence on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, the manufacture of advanced public transit and freight vehicles that utilize cleaner, more efficient technologies is emerging as a key growth sector in the new global clean energy economy. The goal of putting the United States at the forefront of the low-carbon economy, and assuming leadership in the design and manufacture of new world-class clean transportation systems, is yet another important reason for America to pursue new transportation policies that spur domestic demand for cleaner ways to move people and goods throughout our economy.

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By Bruce Katz

katzb_portraitIf there's a silver lining to be found in the Great Recession, it's that it has forced the nation to step back, take stock of where we've been, and begin to shift our priorities toward more productive, sustainable economic activities.  In the process, it has also brought long overdue attention to the older cities and metros of the country's industrial heartland, particularly those most impacted by the near-collapse of the auto sector.

On May 18, over 300 government, civic, educational, business, and philanthropic leaders from these communities traveled to D.C. to talk with members of Congress and the administration about how they can partner together to transform their long-struggling economies.  The Summit, entitled "Auto Communities and the Next Economy: Partnerships in Innovation" featured a stellar cast of speakers and panelists, and an audience eager to hear what they had to say.  The optimism in the room at the onset of the day was tentative (decades of economic decline tend to quell expectations).  By 5:00, however, the mood had radically changed. 

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In their recent report, the Economic Policy Institute offered some particularly alarming data for workers in those hardest hit groups and their families. It forecasts that unemployment in 2010 could reach 18.1 percent for African American workers nationally and a staggering 27.8 percent for African American workers in Michigan. According to the report, these high rates of joblessness could leave half of all the country's African American children in poverty.

At the Surdna Foundation, while we stand ready to leverage short-term strategies to help America's workers, we are also committed to investing in advocacy, policy reform, practice, and programs that support a longer-term vision and address the core of America's economic and workforce challenges to ensure that we rebuild in a manner that helps us realize a more sustainable and just future for America's workers and communities.  To this end, we are investing in infrastructure and place-making efforts that will not only help put Americans back to work but also strengthen the foundation on which the next, more sustainable economy to grow. At the core of these efforts, it will be critical to make sure those most affected by the recession have access to these jobs, and that the jobs created from these investments are quality jobs that lead to additional opportunities for further skill-building and career advancement.

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by David Foster, Executive Director, Blue Green Alliance

Copenhagen, COP 15, was my fourth United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference and provided quite a contrast from COP 11 in Montreal in 2005. That year I was the only representative of U.S. labor with an interest in supporting the UN process. By comparison, in 2009, the seven Blue Green Alliance union partners sent 28 representatives, including two national presidents, Terry O'Sullivan from the Laborers' International Union of North America, and Mike Langford of the Utility Workers Union of America. The rest of the delegation included ranking officers and high-level staff of the United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, Communications Workers of America, and Amalgamated Transit Union.

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