How Philanthropy and Society Tell America’s Story – And Their Own

DA President Gara LaMarche delivered the following keynote remarks to San Diego Grantmakers, a donor network helping grantmakers’ philanthropy have greater impact, on March 2, 2017. The video above was played before his speech.


Thank you. I didn’t start out that way because I am obsessed with watching myself on tape, like Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner. I wanted to begin in this fashion because what I had to say here sets up my theme, since embedded in this clip are two stories – mine, as a white man born in 1954, and the country’s. Asked by the Ford Foundation to speak about inequality, I was trying to tell a story about my own journey, the forward arc of progress in which the empowerment and inclusion of women, people of color and others excluded from the founders’ full vision has led to a stronger America.


To stick with my own story for a minute, I’m aware that an aspect of that story as what the program calls a “philanthropy guru” – I guess I should have opened with “Namaste” – is as a critic of philanthropy, even though in my career over the last twenty years I have helped two of the most generous and progressive living donors give out about $3 billion for social justice causes. I am known, it seems, as a person who bites the hand that has fed me, and often when I am asked to address philanthropy gatherings it is because my hosts seem to expect me to chastise and shame them.


I’m going to play against type and not do that today, sorry for all you masochists in the audience. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly enjoy scolding my fellow philanthropoids, and in the process, myself – but that’s not my only story. Another story line for me is that I have a life not only as a funder, and, in the first half of my career, as a civil and human rights activist, but also as a board member. I chair two boards and have served on a few dozen in the last thirty years. A number of the boards I have served on, including the two I chair, StoryCorps and The New Press, are public interest media organizations, and in the past I’ve been on the boards of others, like ProPublica and the Sundance Documentary Fund. When I was at the Open Society Foundation, we launched the most prominent fund to support documentary photography, and stepped up these efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


These commitments both reflected and deepened a passion for independent media and the unmediated voices of ordinary people, too often drowned out in our cacophonous public discourse. I want to talk today about why I think it is so important, as all throughout America people consider how to take a stand for what is most important to them – about their values, their communities, their country – to listen to those unmediated voices and to support the institutions which give them a platform.


That stories are essential to our understanding of the world, and to the way we act within it, is timeless and beyond dispute. The Bible is a series of stories that make meaning for millions on the deepest questions of our existence. Whether you believe in its literal truth of consider it as literature, the story is the essence. Christians remember the teachings of Jesus, for example, not as lectures, but as parables. I use Christianity because I am familiar with it as my own faith tradition, but every great religion, every corporation, every country, every family, has a story about itself.


Certainly every political campaign does as well. In 2008, following on his inspirational keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Barack Obama told a story of an America made stronger by diversity, in which he, descended from Kenyan goat herders and Kansan farmers, born in a year in which his parents’ mixed-race marriage was illegal in many states, could be elected to lead the free world from a White House built by slaves. Whatever you think of President Obama’s policies and politics, it was a powerful story that appealed to our better natures.


Think for a minute about the stories the 2016 Presidential candidates were offering. Donald Trump sold himself as a successful businessman so rich he could run the government without relying on the corporate money that compromises the loyalties and priorities of many officeholders. Having bought politicians and exploited the rules to his benefit, he could now “drain the swamp.” Hillary Clinton’s bio stressed her forty years in government and public service, highly admirable but quite mismatched to an electorate desperate for change. Trump painted a picture of a dystopian America – unrecognizable to me and many people but dramatically rendered – and offered to fix it: to “make America great again.” Hillary Clinton acknowledged that not everything is perfect, but was dealt the challenging hand of telling voters they were better off than they might think they are, and that things were getting better whether they realized it or not.


As the brilliant analyst Anat Shenker-Osorio has observed, Democrats often position policies like raising the minimum wage as “helping the economy.” “But extolling gross domestic product growth,” she writes, “reinforces the appearance that Democrats only swear allegiance to what the economy desires, as opposed to attending to the concerns and aspirations of working people.”


“I want to talk today about why I think it is so important… to listen to those unmediated voices and to support the institutions which give them a platform.”


I’d argue that any great nonprofit is based on a story as well. I spent my early, formative years in the nonprofit sector with one of the great voluntary associations in the world, the nearly 100-year old American Civil Liberties Union, now rising brilliantly and courageously to this critical moment. In talking about the ACLU, I and its other supporters could rattle off a list of cases won and bills passed, but in the end the defining moment for the ACLU – the story which communicated its essence – came in 1977 when the organization came to the defense of a group of neo-Nazis who sued for the right to a peaceful march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, a community where a number of concentration camp survivors lived. Is there anything more American, anything that better conveys what the ACLU is about, than defending the thought we hate, understanding that in a legal system that sorts out some ideologies as more acceptable than others, no belief system, and certainly not democracy itself, is safe?


When twenty years ago I was fortunate to be appointed as the founding director of the U.S. Programs of the Open Society Foundations, we grew rapidly, as George Soros was eager to take on big challenges like drug policy, end of life care, education, criminal justice and immigration. In devising programs to address these issues, we did some of the normal things that foundations tend to do – we convened discussions, hired the occasional consultant, commissioned white papers and the like. But I also felt that we had an obligation, as a rapidly growing staff, with the power that those tapped to work in philanthropy have to shape the public agenda, and give thumbs up and thumbs down on proposals and social ventures, to consider how these issues affected us personally, for what every policy issue we dealt with had in common was its universality.


We all had experienced the loss of loved ones, and we would all, in time, die. We all went to school, or wrestled with decisions about where to send our kids to school. We’d all used some kind of drugs, or faced the challenge of substance abuse among our family members and friends. Most of us were immigrants, or descended from immigrants, or depended on immigrants in our daily lives. In short, we all had to navigate these universal issues personally, and we owed it to the communities we served, to the groups and individuals our funding would affect, to consider our own relationship to what can at times seem like abstract policy questions. We had to fit our own stories into a larger fabric. So we shared our stories with one another: how we came to terms with end of life care for an elderly parent; what factors we considered in choosing a school for our precious child; and even what role illegal drugs had played in our lives.

Full disclosure here: I know I may look like a fine upstanding elder citizen here today, but as a long-haired bellbottom-sporting teenager I was arrested, and spent a night in jail, for what I’ll call alleged possession of controlled substances. That experience, and what I saw of cops, jails and courts during it, played a powerful role in shaping the work I have done on criminal justice reform in the years since.



Over time we realized at Open Society that statistics, no matter how stark, rarely moved people or policy. A longtime opponent of the death penalty, I was quite attached to rattling off statistics. Did you know, for example, that the black killer of a white person is twelve times more likely to be sentenced to death than if the situation was reversed? It’s appalling, but didn’t move most people I tried it out on, and failed to move the Supreme Court in the McCleskey case.


We pushed a rock up a steep hill on the death penalty for many years, as more and more people were sentenced to death and executions became routine. Things began to change about fifteen years ago when advocates began to focus on innocence and share the stories of men and women who came close to execution but were released by legal and investigative work that proved their innocence. One of the big drivers of this change was an off-Broadway play, drawn entirely from the testimonies of death row inmates, called “The Exonerated,” and we funded performances of the play in key places where reforms were being considered. Today the death penalty is on the run, with seven states imposing moratoria – and in many more, fewer cases brought and fewer juries delivering the ultimate penalty.


My belief that the human story, conveyed through the human voice, can change impressions and ultimately policy and practice led me to StoryCorps, founded by Dave Isay – and here another shoutout to a foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which gave him a “genius” fellowship and years later recognized StoryCorps with its award for “Creative and Effective Institutions” – whose board I have the privilege to chair today. In fourteen years, hundreds of thousands of the stories of ordinary people – including the nation’s largest collection of Black and Latino stories – have been told in StoryCorps booths in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, and in mobile booths across the country, in partnership with community organizations wherever we go, and now in a mobile app that has doubled the number of stories we’ve collected in just a year. I’ve done seven or eight StoryCorps sessions myself, with important people in my life, but I’ve been most profoundly affected by those I have heard from others.



We are, I am sorry to say, living in a moment where powerful stories – untrue and selective ones to be sure, but no less powerful – are being used to stoke fears and restrict rights. These are the stories of “bad hombres” and immigrant murderers, inner cities that are dangerous hellholes, refugees who come to do us harm. You can counter these false narratives with statistics, and statistics surely tell a different story. But you must also counter them with better, truer stories.


Immigrants have been castigated throughout the election season and attacks on them have been front and center since Inauguration Day. But listen to the story Blanca Alvarez told her daughter Connie about her harrowing journey across the Mexican border in 1972, and the years of yard work and night-shift office cleaning that followed, as well as the times of hunger and hardship that made it possible for her children to attend college.



I find it hard to imagine that anyone could fail to be inspired by Blanca’s work ethic and courage. For the risks they took to come here, for their hard work and devotion to family, for what they contribute to our country and to our communities, most undocumented immigrants deserve a medal, not the hatred that is being directed their way.


The story of Yusor Abu-Salha is powerful testimony to the our best traditions as a welcoming country with no religious or ideological tests for membership in the American community. After Yusor and her husband were among those murdered in a shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015, we learned that she had come to the StoryCorps MobileBooth when it was passing through her community in 2014 and recorded a conversation with her teacher, Mussarut Jabeen. “Growing up in America has been such a blessing,“ Yusor declared, “even though I stand out in the hijab. Here we are all one.



Yusor understood the promise of democracy better than many of the strident voices who claim to speak for the “real America.” In these fraught times, it often seems as if loud, angry and fearful voices are all we hear. But it is in the quieter voices, from every ethnic and religious community and from every corner of the country, where we will find our best selves — who we are and who we want to be.


Though there is no one in a StoryCorps booth but the people talking – witnessed by a staff facilitator and a microphone, to preserve the intimacy of the experience – we began a few years ago to illustrate the stories, particularly for younger audiences. Images matter as well. My understanding of the dangerous passages so many immigrants make, and the human stories involved, was powerfully shaped by the photographers that Open Society featured in our “Moving Walls” exhibits, like these from “El Norte.”



Images matter. Think of the leaked photos of Abu Ghraib, of naked Vietnamese children fleeing napalm, of fallen students at Kent State, of the body of Emmett Till or the firehoses trained on civil rights marchers in Birmingham, of the lone protester facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square. If you have ever seen these images, and virtually all people of a certain age have, you can instantly call them to mind – you can’t get them out of your mind – and you know how powerfully they affected the way you thought about war and civil and human rights.


Documentary film, experiencing a renaissance thanks in part to the social justice funding from foundations like Ford’s Just Films initiative and the Soros Documentary Fund, now housed at the Sundance Institute, has played an outsized role in public debates on climate change, gun violence, obesity, charter schools and many other issues. Nonprofits like Brave New Films in Los Angeles partner with other progressive groups to make their messages more powerful. The incredible “Indivisible” movement sweeping the nation and holding politicians of both parties accountable was partly fueled by turning its how-to manual into a short film about how to make an impact in Washington, thanks to Brave New Films:



Of course, people still read – let’s celebrate the fact that independent booksellers are now growing, not shrinking – and what is on the page, what comes through in the intimate connection between writer and reader – can also move hearts and minds. Think of Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, Unsafe at Any Speed, by Ralph Nader, and today’s worthy successor in the line of great books that have shaped public debates and policies, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.


I’m proud to say that the New Press published that seminal book, and also that the Open Society Foundations, during my tenure there, awarded Alexander with the fellowship that enabled her to write the book in the first place.


The country is struggling to understand why white working class voters were moved to vote, and why they made a critical difference in key states. Arlie Hochschild, the eminent Berkeley sociologist, burrowed into rural Louisiana communities, formed respectful relationships and listened to her new friends, and produced the award-winning “Strangers in Their Own Land,” including stories like Jackie’s:


“Pollution?,” Jackie told Hochschild. “I don’t talk about it much with friends. This whole town operates off of oil. So I could be talking to two moms whose husbands work in the plants. They think government regulation will hurt jobs, or stop new plants from coming in. You don’t want to remind them of dangers. Or make them think you’re blaming them for the work you do. It’s too close to home.” Hochschild goes on:. “Many plant workers were indeed caught in a bind – as enthusiastic members of the Rod and Gun Club and lovers of wildlife, they feel remorse about pollution, but as employees, they felt obliged to keep quiet about it. And so, out of deference, did Jackie. One worker talked of seeing a sign in the men’s room ‘don’t drink the water’ … but you don’t hear much talk about why the sign was there.”


We are about to be plunged into another contentious debate about the social safety net, with health care for twenty million, including dental care for 7 million, at stake in the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act. What’s at stake here is chronicled in the new book, Teeth, by Mary Otto. Here she writes of a visit to a public dental clinic in suburban Maryland, where a little girl named Olivia is meeting Harper, a dentist, for the first time:

“…the worry on Olivia’s face just deepened. “Don’t be scared,” said Harper. “We’re not going to do anything to hurt you.”

“Why are you crying?” asked Harper kindly, peering into the child’s mouth. The dentist read the story within Olivia’s dental arches. About five years old. No adult molars yet, but her teeth were already carrying a record of disease. A deciduous or a baby molar and a canine missing, extracted. The three other deciduous molars, decayed.

“Are any of your teeth hurting?” Harper asked Olivia. The child just sobbed.


Harper gave her the purple plush lion to hug. The puppet, who wore a big toothy grin, was used to teach children good brushing habits.. “Hold Mr. Courage,” said Harper as she forged ahead.


I’ve been talking today about what can be conveyed to a wide audience through recordings, through reporting, and through films and still photos that make indelible impressions on our consciousness. But even more powerful is what we see and hear directly, so let me put in a final word for that most foundation-y of things, the site visit. As I think back on twenty years in philanthropy, what I remember most, and what affected my own thinking most deeply, is what I saw and heard myself: the immigrant bodies, fleeing a wave of ethnic violence, packed into every inch of floor and stairwell in Johannesburg’s Methodist Church; the immaculately groomed children, down to the crisp pleats of their school uniforms, on their way to school along rutted roads in Port Au Prince, Haiti, or dodging rats and drug dealers in the since-demolished Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago; the rotting teeth of Native children in Barrow, Alaska; the immigrant meat-packers I met in a church basement in in Nebraska, voiceless and voteless despite being the majority in their town.



In my side career of throwing spotlights on the excesses and shortcomings of philanthropy, I’ve often been critical of an overreliance on metrics and an underappreciation of moral values as the core of philanthropy. But of course I believe that policy change must be grounded in data, and government by anecdote should not be the rule.


But we are living in dangerous times, for our democracy and most particularly for the most marginalized and vulnerable among us. Isolated and often apochryphal stories are being used to drive policies that will cause untold real suffering to those like the Indian men murdered this week in Kansas, and to those like Blanca and her daughter. There will be more Yusors.


To close, is there a better example of the power of story, hitched in this case to music, than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking smash, “Hamilton”? One of the play’s most quoted lines asks: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Let’s take that as a challenge to philanthropy, and to all of us. Support public media, please. The stakes are higher than ever.


Thank you.