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Newsmakers: Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

September 21, 2015

Headshot_darren_walkerPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in December 2013. Enjoy.

In September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization's efforts to develop housing for low and moderate-income families in Harlem.

Recently, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation's activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?

Darren Walker: Although I've been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn't arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.

I'm a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university -- thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention -- so I know all about Ford's commitment to public education in this country.

After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of -- you guessed it -- the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization's founders, who had a dream in the mid-'80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.

I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation's board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn't sure how to respond, beyond saying, "Yes!" because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.

PND: The Ford Foundation has been a long-distance runner when it comes to addressing social issues like poverty. Today, we face some of the most serious social challenges we've seen since the 1960s -- both in terms of holding the line on the progress we've made and in putting forward new solutions designed to help low-income individuals and communities build assets and resilience. Are you discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges we face?

DW: It's easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving -- employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness, and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn't always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We've fallen back some, so it's particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again.

I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us.

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[Excerpt] 'When the Past Is Never Gone'

September 03, 2015

Guard_superdome_katrinaAs people around the country mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's entirely appropriate that many should feel the need to pause and reflect on what the storm and its aftermath reveal about our troubled racial past. The images broadcast to the world from a flooded New Orleans — of panicked families stranded on rooftops, of National Guardsmen ignoring pleas for assistance from the mostly African-American crowds gathered at the squalid Superdome, of armed sheriffs denying safe passage to New Orleanians trying to flee the city on foot — were a reminder in 2005, as they are today, that the past is always with us.

That suggestion, as Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, notes, has been advanced many times, by many people. In an essay accompanying the foundation's most recent annual report, Lewis, paraphrasing Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, writes: "[T]he policing of black bodies, and the legislated use of extralegal actions, has its roots in an earlier America, where every black person was assumed to be some white person's property and many whites presumed themselves deputized to reconnect property and owner." It is an observation that lays bare the immorality of America's "peculiar institution" — and one that many would argue has no relevance to our own "post-racial" century. Lewis, a noted social historian and Foundation Center board member, isn't one of them. Like an "apparition out of time," he writes, "slavery's ghost — and the specter of race and difference — never seem to leave us."

One way to make sense of "slavery’s lingering presence," Lewis suggests, is to ask and try to answer questions about the institution through the scholarship of the humanities and the arts. For half a century, the Mellon Foundation has been one of the important private sponsors of such inquiry. Indeed, under Lewis's leadership, it has reaffirmed its commitment to scholarship and the humanities. Why? Because, in a world characterized by rapid change, the humanities matter — maybe more than ever. Foundation Center, for its part, collects and analyzes data related to how foundations like Mellon address social challenges deeply rooted in the past, from black male achievement to education reform to diversity in philanthropy. Philanthropy, by itself, can't solve these problems, any more than it can erase the legacy of slavery. But without a solid grasp of what it has done to address racial inequities in the past — and is trying to do in the present — it cannot expect to achieve its aims in the future.

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Katrina 10: Recovery, Resilience, and a City Back From the Dead

August 29, 2015

In Post-Katrina New Orleans, Do Black Lives Really Matter?

August 28, 2015

Katrina_steps_guardianHurricane Katrina laid bare the lack of value attached to black lives in the U.S., a reality that New Orleans residents and the nation are still wrestling with a decade later. Recent events suggest that Americans are at a crossroads in terms of how they think, talk about, and deal with race and racism — but are still a long way from agreeing that black lives do indeed matter.

Ten years after Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees, the outlook for the city's African-American community is as grim as it was before the storm hit. According to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, an estimated 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the city are disconnected from education and employment. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, which jails nearly 40,000 people per year (66 percent of whom are African American), as many as one in seven black men in some New Orleans neighborhoods are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. What's more, fully half of all African-American children in New Orleans live in poverty — more than in 2005.

As we mark another anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a fateful turning point in the city's and nation’s history, a critical question remains: How has so much racial and economic inequity been allowed to not only persist but worsen?

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5 Questions for...Kevin Washington, President/CEO, YMCA of the USA

August 26, 2015

When Kevin Washington talks about how the YMCA shapes children's lives, he speaks from experience. Growing up in a tough section of South Philadelphia, the Christian Street Y was Washington's refuge from the gangs that roamed the streets of his neighborhood. At the same time, the Y helped foster in him a love for learning and basketball, which in turn enabled him earn a scholarship to Temple University.

In February, Washington became president and CEO of YMCA of the USA. A thirty-six-year veteran of the organization, Washington served as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston from 2010 to 2014 and was credited with doubling that organization's membership to more than forty thousand households and forging a common identity for the region’s thirteen different branches. He also has served as a member of the Y-USA board of directors (2004-09) and chaired an advisory committee that guided the development of the national organization's new strategic plan.

Earlier this summer, Washington, the first African-American president and CEO of the national organization, sat down with PND to discuss the organization's Hop the Gap campaign and the ways in which the organization has changed its approach to donor cultivation and partnerships.

Headshot_kevin_washingtonPhilanthropy News Digest: We're both reading Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, in which Putnam examines the class-based opportunity gap that has emerged in America over the past forty or fifty years. What role does an organization like the Y play in helping to address opportunity gaps of the kind Putnam describes?

Kevin Washington: Well, our Hop the Gap campaign is expressly designed to fill gaps for kids during out-of-school time related to hunger, health, learning, water safety, and access to safe spaces. It's part of our larger commitment to ensuring that all children, regardless of income or background, have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

For example, many of the more than one million kids in the U.S. who attend the Y's resident and summer day camps are from low-income communities. During the school year, kids learn things at a certain age and at a certain rate. But the summer months, and summer learning loss, are a problem. We know, however, and statistics show, that kids who engage in the Y's summer learning loss prevention programs gain on average two to three  months of reading and math skills over a six-week period.

Looking at nutrition, kids who receive breakfast and lunch at school lose the benefit of that program during the summer months. The Y, with support from the Walmart Foundation, is focused on making sure that the food-insecurity gap is addressed by providing four and a half million healthy meals and snacks to nearly two hundred thousand kids this summer.

Last but not least, all kids need to know how to swim. The CDC has found, however, that African-American kids are three times more likely to drown than white kids. So our water-safety initiative is vitally important.

PND: Wow, I had no idea the disparity was so great. What's behind it?

KW: In many low-income communities, there are no pools where kids can learn how to swim. It's also a family thing -- if your mother or father never learned how to swim, chances are you won't, either. We know that if kids haven't learned to swim by third or fourth grade, they likely never will.

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Criminal Justice: Letter to POTUS From Executives' Alliance

August 15, 2015

In a letter sent to the White House earlier this month, the presidents and CEOs of twenty-seven foundations called on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring federal agencies and contractors to treat job applicants with arrests or convictions fairly in the hiring process.

The letter was signed by members of the Executives' Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, which works to reform the criminal justice system, and was issued as proponents of "fair chance" hiring reform have, in recent weeks, stepped up their campaign, including a rally at the White House in late July that drew hundreds from around the country.

The White House, for its part, appears to have arrived at a similar  conclusion and, as Alan Schwarz reports in today's New York Times, is taking steps to address some of the damage caused by over-incarceration and harsh sentences for minor drug offenses that became the norm after a war on drugs was declared in the 1980s.

With the alliance's permission, we've reprinted the letter in its entirety below....

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Weekend Link Roundup (June 13-14, 2015)

June 14, 2015

Bigstock-graduation-cap-diplomaOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content from and about the social sector, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Criminal Justice

On the site, Shawn Dove, CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, argues that mass incarceration of young men and boys of color "is a symptom of a larger disease that is prevalent both before and after arrest and imprisonment occur." 


A new report from Crain’s New York Business, in partnership with the Association of Fundraising Professionals, finds that 57 percent of respondents to a spring 2014 survey said they expected to raise more in 2014 than in 2013, while a majority — 52 percent (compared to 29 percent in 2013) — said their organizations planned to hire development staff in 2015 to take advantage of the more generous giving climate.

"Generation Z, the heirs to the digital empire built by Generation X and expanded by Millennials, is made up of people who don’t just spend time online — they live there," writes Beth Kanter on her blog. "And despite their youth... kids in Generation Z are regularly rocking social media for social good. Well-informed, constantly connected, and more tech-confident than your aunt Jan, they're taking on the world's problems, one online fundraiser at a time.


Where do nonprofit boards fall short? The Nonprofit Law Blog's Erin Bradrick shares some thoughts.


On her Social Velocity blog, Nell Edgington chats with Mary Winkler, senior research associate with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, about measurement as a "necessary practice" for nonprofit organizations, the difference between measurement and evaluation, and the challenge inherent in finding funding for measurement work. 

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Narrowing the Excellence Gap Requires a Multifaceted Approach

May 22, 2015

Natalie_jansorn_for_PhilanTopicAs globalization continues at breakneck speed, the United States needs to increase the number of talented individuals — tomorrow's innovators and leaders — in the workforce in order to remain economically vibrant and competitive.

Changing demographics means we will be able to tap the most diverse workforce in the history of the world to fill many of these critical positions. However, we continue to overlook one of our most promising talent pools: high-achieving, low-income students.

In part, that's because many public education reformers over the past few decades have been fixated on the "achievement gap" and have advocated for significant resources to be dedicated to helping as many low-income students as possible reach minimum academic standards. While that effort has met with some success and is certainly worthwhile, we believe it has come at the expense of the highest achievers among the population of low-income students, resulting in an "excellence gap" — the disparity in the percentage of lower-income students who reach an advanced level of academic achievement compared with those from higher-income households.

The reasons for this gap are many. While there are gifted students from poor backgrounds who pave their own road to success, they tend to be the exception; for every low-income student who forges his or her own way forward, there are dozens with comparable abilities who don't get the attention they need. In fact, a recent study found that more than one million school-age children who qualify for free or reduced lunch rank in the 25th percentile academically; that's about eighty thousand very smart but poor students per grade nationwide.

Fewer than half of these students take at least one Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) course (compared with 71 percent of their wealthier peers), while only 22 percent apply to college, even though their academic abilities and achievements more than meet the admissions requirements at many schools, including highly selective ones.

What's more, this gap appears in elementary school and persists as students move through middle school, high school, college, and beyond. This makes closing the gap doubly challenging. There is no "silver bullet" solution to the problem; instead, it needs to be tackled from many different angles. With that in mind, our team at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation would like to share the following key strategies and recommendations:

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (April 2015)

May 02, 2015

PhilanTopic hosted lots of great content in April, including opinion pieces by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation in Detroit; and Peter Sloane, chairman and CEO of the New York City-based Heckscher Foundation for Children; Q&As with Bill McKibben, co-founder of; Karen McNeil-Miller, president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina; and Judith Shapiro, president of the New York City-based Teagle Foundation; a terrific book review from the formidable Joanne Barkan; thought-provoking posts from regular contributors Mark Rosenman and Derrick Feldmann; and a great Storify assembled by our own Lauren Brathwaite. But don't take our word for it...

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that made you think? Share your finds in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Weekend Link Roundup (April 25-26, 2015)

April 26, 2015

Ss-150425-nepal-earthquake-09Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content from and about the social sector, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Disaster Relief

In the aftermath of a major natural disaster like the powerful earthquake that struck Nepal yesterday, early assistance -- in the form of money -- is the best and most effective kind of assistance. On her Nonprofit Charitable Orgs blog, Joanne Fritz shares other ways to help victims of a natural disaster.

Nearly $10 billion in relief and reconstruction aid was committed to Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake in that impoverished country. Where did it all go? VICE on HBO Correspondent Vikram Gandhi reports.


Has the education reform movement peaked? According to em>New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, "The zillionaires [who have funded the movement] are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity." Which is why, says Kristof, it might be time to "refocus some reformist passions on early childhood."


On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Johanna Morariu, director of the Innovation Network, shares five grantmaker and nonprofit practices "that undermine or limit the ability of nonprofit organizations to fully engage in evaluation."


What is social fundraising? Liz Ragland, senior content and marketing associate at Network for Good, explains.

Nonprofit With Balls blogger and Game of Thrones fan Vu Le has some issues with the donor-centric model of fundraising. "When [it's] done right," he writes, "it’s cool; when it’s done wrong, we sound like the used car salesmen of justice...."

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Classroom Saints and Fiends

April 21, 2015

Cover_teacher_warsThe Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

Dana Goldstein
Doubleday, 2014, 368 pp.

Reviewed by Joanne Barkan

The crusade — now more than a decade old — to remake K–12 public education in the image of a business enterprise moves on two fronts. One is private management of public resources: convert as many "regular" public schools as possible into privately run charter schools while also setting up voucher systems that allow individual students to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The second front is transformation of the teaching profession into...what? Here the stated goals and actual policies of the market-model "ed reformers" are a tangle of contradictions.

Ed reformers, whose political identities run the full gamut, claim that putting a great teacher in every classroom will offset the disadvantages suffered by poor and minority children outside school and will close the academic achievement gap between these students and middle-class white students. Teaching, therefore, must become a highly respected, well paid profession that attracts the most talented graduates of the most prestigious colleges and universities.

Yet these same ed reformers have worked tirelessly and successfully to undermine the substance and reputation of the profession. They bear responsibility for focusing public school teaching on standardized test preparation and for using student test scores to determine how much teachers are paid (merit pay), who is fired, and which schools are shut down. They promote mini-length training programs to replace experienced teachers with lower-paid, non-union neophytes; they help to pass state laws that weaken collective bargaining and cut pensions and benefits; they advocate abolishing tenure (due process) so that teachers can be fired at will; and they've conducted a nonstop media operation to depict public school teachers as greedy, poorly trained, and ineffective to the point of endangering the nation's future.

The disrespect for teachers embedded in the ed reformers' policies is matched only by their overt hostility toward teacher unions. Not surprisingly, job satisfaction among public school teachers has plummeted in recent years.

The ed reformers' stance looks like a Madonna-whore complex: teachers are miracle-working saviors of poor and downtrodden children, or they are villains preventing these children from benefiting from a good education. According to Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, this kind of saint-fiend split has characterized Americans' view of teachers since universal public education first took hold in some states in the 1830s. Again and again since then, reformers of different stripes have tried to improve teaching with some of the same fixes — merit pay based on test scores, fast-track training programs, ranking teachers — with the same lack of success.

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Black Male Achievement: Seizing the Moment in Detroit

April 20, 2015

Headshot_tonya_allenAt a March meeting in Detroit, a number of stakeholders committed to improving outcomes for young men of color sat around a table, sharing the words that best captured how they are experiencing the beginning of citywide work on the My Brother's Keeper initiative.

They shared words such as powerful, encouraged, and committed. All good things to hear.

When it came time for the one youth participant, a senior from Detroit's East Village Preparatory High School, to share, he paused and said quietly, "I just feel loved."

That's one of the best things I've heard in a long time. I want all young men of color in Detroit and across the nation to know, without a doubt, that they are important to our future, worthy of our investment, and indeed loved.

As president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, chair of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and co-chair (with Bob Ross of the California Endowment) of the nationally focused Executive Alliance, I have the honor of being in a position to drive what's happening locally in my city of Detroit, as well as across the country.

And what I see – and work to encourage – is a growing momentum. In Detroit, stakeholders are meeting on an urgent schedule to create a citywide plan to improve outcomes for young men of color. That plan includes four platforms for action – education, health, workforce development, and safety. I'm encouraged to see who is at the table; they include not just longtime partners who have devoted decades to this work and know it well, but also new partners, including representatives from the city's business sector, bringing unique ideas, energy, and resources.

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Invest in Leadership Development to Retain High Performers of All Races

March 28, 2015

Leadership_diversityWhile people of color in the United States account for nearly half – 48 percent – of the total student population, leadership in nonprofit education organizations doesn't mirror this demographic fact. In a recent survey, From Intention to Action: Building Diverse Leadership Teams in Education to Deepen Impact, Koya Leadership Partners and Education Pioneers found that at the director level within education nonprofits, only 39 percent of leaders are people of color. At the vice president level, the number dips to 18 percent. At the CEO level, 25 percent of leaders are people of color.

Through our collective research, we concluded that while most nonprofits have the right intentions when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many don't have practices in place to build and retain diverse leadership teams.

The absence of tools for ensuring "fit," a lack of retention initiatives that support employee and career growth, and not enough time spent building strategic partnerships that help attract candidates of color are leading to a less diverse workforce and to poor hiring decisions across the board.

Among other things, our survey found that nonprofits often put too much focus on recruiting, rather than investing in, diversity at the leadership level. While recruiting is necessary to bring talent into an organization, a healthy organizational culture depends on leadership development from within. Without it, nonprofits – including education nonprofits – can expect to continue to experience high turnover.

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Weekend Link Roundup (March 7-8, 2015)

March 08, 2015

Daylight-Saving-TimeOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sectorFor more links to great content from and about the social sector, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Criminal Justice

"For years, punitive policies...have conspired to reinforce injustice and inequality [in America]. Together, they have produced an overrepresentation of people of color in our prisons and jails. Today, more African Americans are part of the criminal justice system than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War," writes Ford Foundation president Darren Walker in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee. Walker goes on to mention some of the things Ford is doing to bring change to the criminal justice system and urges policy makers and his colleagues in philanthropy to do more to address the root causes and systemic issues that contribute to the shameful pattern of mass incarceration in the U.S.


In the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton reports that New Jersey governor Chris Christie's plan to remake the Newark public school system with the help of a $100 million investment from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has run aground.


In a post on LinkedIn, Wounded Warrior Project CEO Steve Nardizzi applauds the Humane Society of the United States'  suit against Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who, according to Nardizzi, "has waged a public war against the HSUS, accusing the organization of exorbitant fundraising costs for misleading solicitations and untruthful advertisements."

On the other hand...a new report (“Pennies for Charity”) shows that for-profit telemarketers operating in New York in 2013 retained the majority of the funds they raised on behalf of charities.


Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jim Thaden, executive director of the Central Asia Institute, offers a staunch defense of the organization's decision not to fire co-founder Greg Mortenson after a 60 Minutes segment in 2011 questioned  many of the "facts" in Mortenson's best-selling 2006 memoir Three Cups of Tea and raised questions about the organization's finances.


"Impact investing advocates can sometimes give the impression that they have 'outsmarted poverty' (and other societal problems)," writes Alex Counts, president and CEO of the Grameen Foundation, on the Center for Financial Inclusion blog. But "[i]t is important to remember that few if any social innovations besides microfinance have proven capable of reaching large scale and generating consistent profits – which should give people pause before they create a new impact investing 'bubble'."

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (February 2015)

March 04, 2015

For those of us who live and work in the Northeast, it was cold, really cold, in February. Fortunately, we were too busy serving up great content here on PhilanTopic to notice. So, while you wait for the next winter storm to roll in, pull up a screen and see what you missed....

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that made you think? Share your finds in the comments section below, or drop us a line at


Quote of the Week

  • "We live at a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world...."

    — Steven Radelet, economist and author (The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World )

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