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Welcome to this site. It’s mostly a one-stop shop for almost everything I’ve written, at least in the period over the last twenty years when everything is digitally accessible, along with some videos, podcasts, oral histories and profiles. Though I’ve published hundreds of articles and columns, given dozens of published speeches, ran an active blog for many years, edited a book and written forewords or chapters in a bunch more, and been a chronic, if intermittent diarist (only one published example of which is available here), I don’t think of myself as a writer.
I think of myself as an activist and an advocate, with a few decades of experience as a sort of professional redistributionist in my work at two large global foundations and at the Democracy Alliance. Writing has been essential to all my leadership roles (in a 19th-century kind of way — I’ve never been much for the bells-and-whistles of PowerPoints and have stubbornly resisted the pleadings of a few generations of communications directors to allow for short attention spans) and often gives me great satisfaction, but it’s never been the way I define myself. Nevertheless, a lot of words have emerged from this non-writer, so here we are.
I wanted to pull them all together in one place, as much for my own convenience and obsessive archival tendencies as for anyone else. It’s kind of a 65th birthday present to myself, and I’m grateful to my son-in-law Ben Iturralde for designing the site. If you like what you find here, I’ll be glad. The material is organized in categories reflecting the major themes of my professional life in civil liberties, human rights, social justice, philanthropy and progressive politics. I aim to keep it current as I write more in the coming years.
Voluminous as it is, it’s not comprehensive, and not just because most of the earlier stuff would have to be scanned and digitized. For instance, there are a few examples of blog posts I feel particularly connected to, but if you have an appetite for more, you can check out the blog, Garalog, here and at the link above. I don’t write much on it anymore, but there are all kinds of book and movie reviews, travelogues (like the letters from the road on my 500-mile solo bike trip in New England) and personal essays (like paeans to my home town, a recollection of my youthful brush with the law, and reports from the land of patient-hood when I was dealing with a mysterious lung ailment in 2006).
TMI, you say? The age of social media, with all its capacities for good and ill, seems tailor-made for me, since for as long as I can remember I’ve been an oversharer, assuming that others will be as interested in reading my musings and opinions as I am in offering them. I got an early start when I was about 14 by sending letters to newspapers and magazines, and seeing them published whetted my appetite. The first, I think, was to our local paper, The Westerly Sun, defending an X-rated movie that was playing at the town’s one and only theater in 1971. I guess it was the launch of my life as a civil libertarian, but my father, who had no idea I was going to scandalize the family name in that way until he got home from work and opened the paper, had only this reaction: “Thank God your grandfather is dead.” (He came to be more supportive as time went on.)
Undeterred, I went on to publish, while still in high school, letters in Time Magazine (on getting old) and Esquire (parodying then-Vice President Spiro Agnew’s penchant for alliteration), and one in the New York Times a few months after I hit Columbia in 1972 (on low voting rates). If the child is the father of the man, these letters provide some evidence, since along with the Westerly Sun submission, they presage a few key themes of my later career: free speech, successful aging, and politics. When I was eighteen I sent the New York Times an unsolicited article on Jack Paar’s attempt to return to late-night television (pop culture being another big thread in my life, though never professionally), and a few weeks later got a call on the shared phone in my dorm room from storied editor Seymour Peck that they planned to publish it in the Arts and Leisure section the next Sunday. The thrill of seeing my piece in every fat copy of the Sunday Times up and down the #1 train the day it came out was like a drug to me. While in many ways, starting out at the top, it was the pinnacle of my writing career, I’ve kept writing steadily while working at a series of wonderful day jobs, serving on a bunch of boards, and, during most of the last thirty-five years or so, teaching.
As with any writer – or non-writer, as the case may be — rejection is a big part of the process, and I’m not sure I would have had the audacity to submit to the Sunday arts section had my first stab at the Times had I not been turned down so beautifully, as I recalled a few years ago in this blog post.
So thanks for visiting, feel free to share anything you find here, and since most of my writing over the years has been argumentative and opinionated, don’t hesitate to challenge any of it with some writing of your own.
If you like the work of the three people who helped with this site, give them some business! Ben Iturralde designed it, Jeff Zorabedian (my OTHER son-in-law!) took the headshots and Russell Craig did the painting above.
Philanthropy and Organizing: My Journey
Organizing is centered in the power of people and communities. Historically — and still, to a considerable extent, today —
The Social Justice “Talent Boom” – with Deepak Bhargava and Gara LaMarche
New progressive social movements are driving a huge boom of new talent. But leadership development efforts don’t have the funding
Foundations, the Solution to Our Democracy Deficit Lies in Plain Sight
The United States faces massive linked crises of spiraling economic inequality, structural racism, climate change, and authoritarian threats to democracy.
- Book Reviews
- Commencement Addresses
- Criminal Justice
- Global themes
- Human Rights and Civil Liberties
- Personal History
- Progressive Politics
- Talent and management
- Tributes and Memorials
- Video and Podcasts
I’m almost eligible for Medicare now, so have a more personal stake in these issues than I once thought I did, but my tenure at Atlantic Philanthropies, which among its key program areas was the leading global funder of approaches to healthy and engaged aging, taught me a great deal, particularly about the undertapped potential of a rapidly-growing aging population.
I read a lot of books, even as other forms of media, like streaming TV and podcasts, occupy more and more of my mental space. I find book reviews a great way to pull together my thoughts about an issue — the death penalty, philanthropy, free speech — and occasionally touch on what’s in the books themselves!
A peculiar form of communication, since you usually stand between restless graduates and their diplomas, and most often what you say is the least memorable thing about that day. But I was privileged to address Bard College graduates who came through its prison education program – in Eastern Prison, where I later taught – and young people who attended the Children’s Defense Fund’s summer program at Haley Farm in Tennessee.
I’m passionate about few things more than the injustices of our criminal justice system, particularly the death penalty, which I had an uncomfortably close view of when I ran the Texas ACLU in the 1980s. Some of my 1980s writings about it are here, along with more recent speeches and essays about mass incarceration, race and democracy.
I’ve been writing and warning about the dangers to U.S. democracy for a long time, and since no one paid attention to me, now it’s REALLY endangered! Kidding and not kidding.
I’ve been fortunate in my work over several decades to work in several international organizations, to get to know a few other countries reasonably well, and to have a number of terrific colleagues in rights and civil society organizations around the world. Here are some reflections on Ireland, South Africa and India.
Human Rights and Civil Liberties
I spent the first twenty years of my career with the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, and wrote frequently about free speech and privacy issues in the ‘70s and 80s, and international human rights issues in the 90s and again later when I worked for two global foundations that were among the leading human rights funders.
Not all friendly. I may even decide to put on my tombstone the closing lines of Michelle Malkin’s hit job on me: “Friend of Barack and Val. Bagman for Soros. Community organizer for progressive billionaires. Chances are, LaMarche and his operators have affected you, your statehouses, your businesses and your freedom, no matter where you live. Know your enemies.”
I like to read other people’s memoirs and diaries as much as anything, and from time to time I’ve veered into autobiography myself. Here is my 2001 diary of working with returning prisoners at the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, and a 2007 talk at Duke attempting to make sense of my life in several key institutions in the non-profit world.
Philanthropy is too often an opaque and unaccountable sector, and in a series of speeches and articles over the last few decades I’ve sought to demystify it and challenge it. What’s here includes thoughts on the compatibility (or incompatibility, at times) of philanthropy and democracy, the need to reclaim a moral center for philanthropy, and what has to be considered in spending down the assets of a $4 billion foundation.
My post at the Democracy Alliance moved me from the more political edge of philanthropy to the more philanthropic edge of politics. I have strong views about an approach to politics that is more grassroots-centered, in contrast to the dominant consultant-industrial complex, and what progressives need to do to counter the assaults on democratic norms in the time of Trump.
I don’t think you can understand America or the world without taking account of the central role of race, and I’ve tried to infuse that analysis in my work over forty years. The best distillation of the way I see it – and an account of my personal journey there – is in my 2008 talk at Georgetown University.
Talent and management
I’ve run or helped to run large organizations for forty years, and from time to time I’ve reflected on the lessons I’ve learned along the way. If you stick to the end of the Yale School of Management speech, you’ll find my ten top management secrets!
Tributes and Memorials
I guess one aspect of getting older is that many of those who came before me and have made an impact on my life have passed on, and I’ve paid tribute to their legacy. Here are some of those appreciations and remembrances, along with some introductions and celebrations of the very much living.
Video and Podcasts
I’m kind of a 19th century person when it comes to communicating what I think – I prefer to do it in a long speech, essay or book review, without any bells or whistles. But I’m often interviewed by others, and a few of those I’m most pleased with are featured here, like my 2017 talk with Irish activist Ruairi McKiernan on his podcast, and a short Ford Foundation video on inequality.
Gara LaMarche is a longtime advocate for human rights and social justice. Since 2013 he has served as President of The Democracy Alliance, a group of donors and movement leaders who provide millions of dollars to strengthen progressive organizations, causes and campaigns. During his tenure, the membership of the Alliance has grown and the group has played a critical role in aligning donors to focus on economic inclusion, democracy reform, climate change and equity, and established funding collaboratives to advance civic engagement in states by communities of color and grassroots campaigns for economic fairness and a healthy environment.