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105 posts categorized "Civil Society"

[Infographic] How Is Philanthropy Engaging With Legislatures?

November 12, 2016

This week's infographic — the third in our series highlighting Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy — couldn't be more timely. Legislatures, at the federal, state and local levels, are where elected officials write the laws and pass the bills that establish the rules by which we live, work, and play. They are to democracy what the heart is to the human body, the beating, messy source of its vitality and dynamism. 

At the same time, they are, as Tocqueville noted, the American political institution "most easily swayed by the will of the majority," subject, by design, "not only to the general convictions, but even to the daily passions, of their constituents....[N]othing prevents them from accomplishing their wishes with celerity and with irresistible power, and they are supplied with new representatives every year. That is to say, the circumstances which contribute most powerfully to democratic instability, and which admit of the free application of caprice to the most important objects, are here in full operation."

Without well-functioning legislatures, in other words, democracy ossifies and eventually becomes something else. Oligarchy. Monarchy. Autocracy.

In the five years, since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, many have worried that certain critical democratic functions of legislatures are being undermined by an infusion of vast sums of money into federal, state, and local elections — money that often is used to create and distribute political advertising designed to appeal to and stoke voters' anger, fears, and suspicion. As the infographic below highlights, it's a concern many in philanthropy, on both sides of the political aisle, share. In response, philanthropy has dedicated considerable resources in recent years to educating policy makers on a range of issues, including economic and community development, health care, and the environment. 

Demo3 pnd-01

To learn more about philanthropy's engagement with legislatures, check out Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, a data visualization platform created by Foundation Center for funders, nonprofits, journalists, and anyone interested in understanding philanthropy's role in U.S. democracy. You can use the tool to understand who is funding what, and where; analyze funder and nonprofit networks; compare foundation funding for the democracy-related issues you care about; identify potential new funding partners; and increase your knowledge about the field. And while you're at it, check out this stellar collection of posts by a dozen experts who have spent time with the tool.

What are your thoughts about philanthropy's engagement with legislatures? Is it doing enough? Too much? Have an example of a grant made in support of more effective policymaking that made a difference? Feel free to share in the comments section below....

Mitch Nauffts

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (October 2016)

November 02, 2016

Seven... Seven more days of this dumpster fire of an election before (with a little luck) we can all get back to our lives and routines. If that seems like an eternity, may we suggest spending some of it on the great reads below you all voted to the top of our most popular posts list for October. And don't forget to cast your vote, along with the hundreds who already have, in our Clinton/Trump-themed poll of the week....

What did you read/watch/listen to in September that made you pause, made you think, made you hopeful? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

[Infographic] Who's Financing the Campaign Finance Conversation?

October 25, 2016

"If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy...."

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, political scientists

"The reality is we that have a corrupt campaign finance system which separates the American people's needs and desires from what Congress is doing. So to my mind, what we have got to do is wage a political revolution where millions of people have given up on the political process, stand up and fight back, demand the government that represents us and not just a handful of campaign contributors...."

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)

"Legislative action will never bring genuine campaign-finance reform. Consultants will prove endlessly inventive in gaming whatever system the reformers can devise so as to give their candidate an edge and allow the power of massive money to be felt. But reform laws will become irrelevant and redundant as the Internet replaces the special-interest fat cats as the best way to raise money and takes the place of TV as the most effective way to get votes...."

— Dick Morris, author/political consultant

"There are two things that are important in politics: Money, and I can't remember what the second one is..."

— Mark Hanna, Gilded Age fixer/politician

______

Complaints about the influence of money in politics have been around since....well, forever. In ancient Rome, campaigning for political office was expensive, and bribery — both direct and indirect — was common. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, money more or less disappeared from Europe, but with its return in the Middle Ages, the connection between money and politics reemerged with a vengeance, leading no less a personage than Lorenzo the Magnificent, Machiavelli's patron, to adopt as his motto: "Money to get the power, power to keep the money."

America's founders had conflicting views about the role of money in politics. In 1787, Madison conceded "that the chief danger in a republic was the likelihood that a majority of poor men would pass laws that penalized the rich and undermined the nation’s stability," while Thomas Jefferson, thirty years later, declared that the "end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations (sic)." In the 1830s, a period of growing factionalization in American politics, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to find that "the wealthy classes of United States society stand entirely outside politics and that wealth, far from being an advantage, has become a real source of unpopularity and an obstacle to the achievement of power." One Gilded Age and three-quarters of a century later, President Teddy Roosevelt found it necessary to declare that "laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes."

In our own time, the post-Watergate zeal for tougher campaign finance laws has given way to a post-Citizens United environment in which corporations and associations are accorded the same right to political speech as individuals and most limits on money in politics, corporate or otherwise, have been obliterated.

With the quid-pro-quo nature of politics more evident than ever and public trust in government at close to all-time lows, organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice, with the support of foundations across the country, are working to advance reforms that would reduce the influence of corporations and individual mega-donors in our politics and give "ordinary voters a far louder voice." As the infographic below shows, foundation funding for those efforts totaled nearly $94 million from 2011 to 2016 and included grants from established national funders like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as newer funders such as Omidyar Network, the philanthropic vehicle created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

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[Review] 'The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism'

September 06, 2016

Our country is at an impasse, stymied by gridlock in Washington, a highly polarized press, and an increasingly toxic social media-driven discourse. Far from being our finest hour, the race for the White House has devolved into name calling and nativist appeals to fringe elements, while leaders on both the Left and Right seem powerless to find a way forward. Many citizens, if they can bear to watch, are left wondering how we got here.

Book_fractured_republic3In an era of sound bite-driven news, serious reflection and reasoned thought often get short shrift. Which makes Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism all the more welcome. In it, Levin, a National Affairs editor, former staffer in George W. Bush's White House, and historian of ideas (The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left; Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy), lays out a vision for a new politics that rejects the nostalgia of both Left and Right and challenges liberals and conservatives to renew America's social contract by moving beyond the stale certainties of the status quo.

The basis of Levin's argument is deceptively simple. In its efforts to advance economic equality while celebrating the continued expansion of individual rights, the baby boomer Left looks back wistfully at LBJ's Great Society and the creation of the welfare state as a high point in postwar American politics. The boomer Right, meanwhile, pines for the perceived moral clarity of a golden past while lauding the triumph of the market in almost every aspect of our lives. Even now, a decade and a half into a new millennium, the tension between these two versions of recent history reverberates and shapes the lived reality of our public life. But while there are lessons to be learned from both perspectives, the fundamental demographic and socioeconomic conditions of the country have changed to such a degree that the political solutions of mid-twentieth century America no longer make sense. "That the baby boomers so dominate our national memory and self-image means that we don't think enough about what came before the golden age of boomers' youth," he writes, "and we don't think clearly...about how things have changed since then."

Throughout the book, Levin adopts the respective lenses of both Right and Left, recounting their many ideological battles and political skirmishes. In so doing, he suggests that two developments which emerged out of the disasters of the twentieth century have shaped who Americans are and how they think — the expansion of federal power and the celebration of individualism and personal choice. And yet, as entrenched as these two forces in American life have become, little attention has been paid to how they have combined to subvert the middle ground between them. Levin writes:

As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work otherwise performed by mediating institutions — from families and communities to local governments and charities — individuals become increasingly atomized; and as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized government provision seems to grow….  

He further argues that Left and Right value different aspects of this dynamic, creating an ontological bind that begets an even more "hollow polity." "The Right," he observes, "wants unmitigated economic individualism [and] a return to common moral norms," while "[t]he Left wants unrestrained moral individualism but economic consolidation."

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 16-17, 2016)

July 17, 2016

Peace_signOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

What does it mean to look at images of African Americans being murdered? In an age in which footage of fatal shootings appears alongside cat videos and selfies in social media feeds, what claims can be made for the representational power of filming? In the Boston Review, Benjamin Balthaser explores the contentious debate over the meaning and appropriate use of images of violence against black men and women.

Civil Society

In the wake of the recent shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, Council on Foundations president and CEO Vikki Spruill and Sherry Magill, president of the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund, call on foundations "to advance a civil conversation focused on what we have in common and ensure equal treatment under the law."

Climate Change

The pledges made by countries in Paris in December to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 almost guarantee that the wold's average temperature will increase by more than 3 degrees and could warm by as much as 4 degrees — with catastrophic consequences. Fast.Co.Exist writer Adele Peters explains.

Criminal Justice

"In the world of criminal justice, pushes for change can be diverted or stalled by major news events," write Simone Weichselbaum, Maurice Chammah, and Ken Armstrong on Vice. "But the sniper killings of five officers in Dallas seems to have stiffened the opposition to reforms. With legislation to reduce prison terms for some crimes stalled by election-year politics and efforts to repair police-community relations moving slowly, leaders across the political spectrum are watching to see if such efforts can survive this heated moment."

Policing across America has improved over the last forty years. But why hasn't more progress been made? Fast Company's Frederick Lemieux reports.

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Weekend Link Roundup (May 7-8, 2016)

May 08, 2016

Nyquist_DerbyOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Civil Society

"Digital data are different enough from time and money — the two resources around which most of our existing institutions are designed — that it's time to redesign those institutions."  In a post on her Philanthropy 2173 blog, Lucy Bernholz explains why and how.

Community Improvement/Development

We didn't catch it in time for last week's roundup, but Forbes contributor Ruchika Tulshyan's profile of the Detroit-based New Economy Initiative, a startup entrepreneurship fund focused on inclusive economic development, is well worth a read.

Also in Forbes, the Manhattan Institute's Howard Husock argues that "a Detroit-style 'grand bargain' approach could — with the same level of financial contributions from both big philanthropy and organized labor — break stalemates and allow [other Rust Belt] cities to restore funding for the city services on which their economies depend."

Education

In Inside Philanthropy, Mike Scutari shares highlights of a new case study, Dancing to the Top: How Collective Action Revitalized Arts Education in Boston (48 pages, PDF), written by sector veteran Cindy Gibson for Boston Public Schools Art Expansion (BPS-AE), a multiyear effort to expand arts education in schools across the district. Gibson calls the initiative described in the study "one of the most strategic initiatives" she's ever seen and praises the funding collaborative behind the efforts as "really collaborative." Definitely worth a read.

Environment

Long considered a disaster when it comes to pollution and environmental degradation, China is beginning to appreciate the seriousness of the situation -- and its responsibilities as the second-largest economy in the world -- and is pursuing a number of solutions to environmental challenges at home and beyond. The Nature Conservancy's Mark Tercek reports.

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Helen Brunner, Founding Director, Media Democracy Fund

April 27, 2016

Helen Brunner, founding director of the Media Democracy Fund and an advisor to the Quixote Foundation, recently was awarded the Council on Foundations' 2016 Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for her efforts to protect the public's basic rights in the digital age and to secure universal access to a free and open Internet. Central to that work was funding and organizing the successful campaign to preserve net neutrality that culminated in the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 decision to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or "throttling" — intentionally slowing — the flow of legal content or services and from offering "fast lanes" for a fee.

PND spoke with Brunner about the role of philanthropy in the ongoing debates over freedom of expression, data privacy, and the impact of social media on civic discourse.

Helen_brunnerPhilanthropy News Digest: The supporters of net neutrality seemed to have won a decisive victory last year, but the issue is being adjudicated again, with Internet service providers suing the FCC over the rules it issued in 2015 to protect the "open" Internet. Given that the court hearing the complaint is the same one that blocked the commission's earlier rules on net neutrality, how hopeful are you the new rules will be upheld?

Helen Brunner: I'm extremely hopeful they will be upheld, because I think this time we got it right. One of the things the commission didn't do in 2010 was to actually reclassify the Internet so that it could be regulated the way the commission regulates telephony. The Internet originally was regulated as a telecommunications service, but then the FCC decided, for a brief period, to regulate it more as an information service. But then they realized the Internet was far too important in terms of driving the economy — and innovation — to hamper it in that way, that the openness and innovation engendered by the Internet wasn't as well protected as when it was regulated as a common carrier. So they switched back, and that is, in fact, the current classification that enabled us to argue for "open" Internet, or net neutrality rules, under the rule of law properly.

So I'm hopeful the court will come back with a positive ruling. We had an extraordinarily good attorney arguing in court for the public interest petitioners, but the one thing that might come back for further review is mobile, which we care very much about because so many vulnerable populations rely on it for their Internet access. If the court feels that adequate notice wasn't given for that rule to be tasked, then the FCC will just go through the procedure again and get it right. That might be a concession the court would make in order to give more time for the big mobile companies to respond as to why they think it's a bad idea. And, of course, it would also give advocates of net neutrality another chance to respond as to why it's so important for the public interest and vulnerable populations for mobile to be neutral. There's a great deal of sympathy at the commission for that position.

PND: Social media played a major role in galvanizing public calls to preserve net neutrality and keep the Internet open. At the same time, social media seems to have had a pretty corrosive effect on civic discourse and the expectation of a right to privacy. Are those the kinds of inevitable trade-offs we all must accept as the price of the democratization of communication in the digital age? Or can something be done to slow or even reverse those trends?

HB: These are societal issues as well, whether we're talking about the coarsening of civic discourse or the aggressive tone of pundits in mainstream media. Social media is indeed amplifying all that, but I think we see polarized discourse everywhere, so it's something we need to address on a broader level. That said, there are some technical innovations that can cause social media to go off on a bad track, including something called "bots" on social media that can be used to drive discourse in a highly polarized direction, as well as techniques that enable companies to create false narratives. Now that isn't to say there aren't real dialogues and genuine arguments on social media, but there are things we can do to address the problem of bots, and there are several projects that different people are working on with the goal of at least eliminating the artificial hyping of phony debates.

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 26-27, 2015)

December 27, 2015

New-years-resolutionsOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at@pndblog....

Arts and Culture

Eight years after its controversial Central Library Plan was greeted with alarm and derision, the New York Public Library  is moving forward with a $300 million renovation of its historic midtown campus, and this time, library leaders say, "it's a different story." WNYC's Jessica Gould reports.

How can we talk about art and artists in a way that makes clear their contributions to quality of life in the communities we call home? Veteran policy advocate and communicator Margy Waller shares some thoughts on Americans for the Arts' ArtsBlog.

Civil Society

On the Open Society Foundations' Voices blog, OSF president Christopher Stone notes the troubling fact that, in countries around the world and for a variety of reasons, "active citizenship is under attack and the space for civic engagement is closing."

Climate Change

Andrew Simmons, founder of the JEMS Progressive Community Organization and the Caribbean Youth Environment Network and a previous winner ('94) of the Goldman Environmental Prize, talks to the folks at GEP about the global agreement forged at the recent Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC/COP21) summit in Paris and whether it is enough to save vulnerable island-nations from disaster.

Corporate Philanthropy

Based on Corporate Responsibility magazine's list of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens of 2015, the folks at the JK group share ten lessons from their work that make these companies the best in philanthropy and how yours can follow suit.

Criminal Justice

On the Marshall Project site, Vincent Schiraldi, formerly director of juvenile corrections for Washington, D.C., and a senior advisor to the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice in New York City, argues that in order to truly end mass incarceration in the U.S., "we need to completely shutter the doors of youth prisons...."

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (November 2015)

December 03, 2015

Recent events are a sobering reminder that life is short and the future a mystery. But as Gandhi tells us, throughout history, the way of truth and love always has won out in the end. In that spirit, here are links to half a dozen or so of the most popular posts on PhilanTopic in November....

What did you read, watch, or listen to over the past month that made you feel hopeful? Feel free to share in the comments section below, or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

How Foundations Are Supporting Voting Rights

November 24, 2015

The last five years have seen a tug-of-war over the future of our democracy. At odds are forces that want to restrict access to political participation and others who seek to open it in hopes of increasing the number of Americans who cast ballots. After the 2010 election, the war on voting rights intensified with the adoption of laws that curbed participation through voter ID laws in a number of states and cutbacks on early voting opportunities in others. The Supreme Court further complicated the picture by putting money over people in its Citizens United decision and dealing a blow to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, which made it easier for states to engage in voter suppression tactics impacting voters of color. At the same time, while some states were rolling back the clock on voting rights and democracy, others were pushing through reforms such as online and same-day voter registration aimed at modernizing their voting systems.

As the battle rages on, nonprofits, think tanks, and universities have received substantial funding from foundations in support of their efforts to advance democracy in America. Foundation Center's new tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, indicates that foundations made grants of almost $299 million between 2011 and 2014 in the campaigns, elections, and voting category, which includes support for implementation, research, reform, and/or mobilizations efforts related to campaign finance, election administration, redistricting, voting access, as well as voter registration, education, and turnout. More than half those grant dollars went for voter registration, education, and turnout initiatives, and, as one might expect, the annual total spiked in 2012, a presidential election year, as did funding for voting rights efforts.

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To Strengthen Democracy in America, Think Tech

October 06, 2015

A decade-and-a-half into the digital century, the vast majority of large foundations concerned with strengthening American democracy don't seem to get tech. According to the new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool recently launched by Foundation Center, out of a total of 18,446 grants awarded since 2011 by more than 1,300 funders focused on the broad range of issues and efforts related to democracy, just 962 have been focused on technology.

What's more, that represents only $215 million out of a total of $2.435 billion awarded to study and/or reform campaigns, elections, and voting systems; expand civic participation; research or upgrade government performance; and/or study the workings of the media and improve public access to media. The Foundation Center tool also reveals that the universe of foundations making technology-related grants is much smaller, at 186, than the overall funder pool, as is the recipient base.

Tech_constellations_image

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Money, Data, and Democracy

September 29, 2015

The U.S. presidential election is thirteen months away. At this point, more than fifty candidates are vying for nomination by the two major parties. The field includes the lone member of the United States Senate to stand as a Socialist and a New York City businessman who has four corporate bankruptcy filings to his name. Members of the voting public may be said to fall into two camps at this point — political junkies who simply cannot ever get enough of campaign politics and the majority of Americans who plan to tune in about a year from now. The former group is hell-bent on getting enough attention from the latter to raise the country's dismal voting percentage to its presidential-election average, which hovers around 60 percent (ten points lower than the average for OECD countries).

Democracy_data_600

Voter turnout is a big deal. Not just to political junkies and clipboard-wielding party volunteers but also to American foundations. According to Foundation Center's newest mapping tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, 180 foundations have spent more than $150 million on voter education, registration, and turnout since 2011, a period that includes one presidential and one midterm election.

Seems like a lot of money to get Americans to do what people in many other countries die for. But we're good at spending a lot of money on our democracy. Even this early in the campaign, big donors are talking big numbers, promising (threatening?) to spend $100 million or more each on their favorite candidates or issues. And political junkies are predicting that more than $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads alone — while election spending in total could run as high as $10 billion. Suddenly, nearly $150 million of foundation funding over four years doesn't look so big in comparison to $10 billion for a single election cycle.

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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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[Review] Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library

September 17, 2015

Book_patience_and_fortitudeScott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is a nuanced, enlivening, and ultimately sobering account of the birth and death of a plan to renovate and reorganize the New York Public Library, whose iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan has welcomed millions of scholars, researchers, and readers since it opened in 1911. While the book is an impressive exercise in investigative journalism — providing, as it does, a meticulously researched account of the development of the "Central Library Plan" (CLP) — and the loud public rejection of said plan — it is also a paean to the NYPL and the power of citizen engagement.

Indeed, were it not for the impassioned voices of countless New Yorkers raised against the CPL, people like author Junot Diaz, who wrote, as part of a campaign protesting the plan, that "[t]o destroy the NY Public Library is to destroy our sixth and best borough; that beautiful corner of New York City where all are welcome and all are equals, and where many of us were first brought to the light," it is likely the institution's leaders would have succeeded in "repurposing" the library for the digital age while creating an enormously valuable parcel of land in the heart of one of the priciest real estate markets on the planet.

Taking its title from the two granite lions standing guard at the entrance to the library's landmarked building on Fifth Avenue, Patience and Fortitude examines in detail the plan's origins, as well as the objections to it, which focused on the proposal to transfer three million books from the library's basement stacks to a state-of-the-art storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. In the process, Sherman, who first reported on the CLP in The Nation, reminds his readers that, throughout its storied history, the NYPL was funded by New York-based business and civic luminaries — Astor, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, among them — in the name of private philanthropy for the public good. The CLP, in contrast, was designed by consulting firms with an expertise in real estate and appears to have been driven by a handful of wealthy library donors, including some sitting trustees, with their own interests in mind.

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[Review] 'In Defense of a Liberal Education'

August 07, 2015

Book_in_defense_of_a_liberal_education_for_PhilanTopicToday the word liberal is encumbered by partisan connotation. Viewed through a broader lens, however, its meaning is more expansive. Derived from the Latin root liber, the word's etymology has been associated with freedom and liberty, whether political, economic, or social. In many ways it is a very American word, both in substance and style. In his classic Democracy in America, the French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville posited, "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom." To which Fareed Zakaria might add, learning to exercise one's freedom in a responsible way is the raison d'être of "liberal" education.

In his latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Indian-born Zakaria explores what this very American concept has meant in the past — and what it means in the increasingly globalized world of the twenty-first century. The book's main arguments were born out of Zakaria's 2014 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. In that address, Zakaria acknowledged that his deeply held views on the subject were grounded in his own journey — one that took him from a childhood in Mumbai to Yale University, to national acclaim as a columnist for Newsweek, a host for CNN, and a respected author. The result is both a summary of the ongoing and often contentious debate about the value of a liberal arts education in a world obsessed with technology and anxious about its consequences as well as a very personal meditation on the ways in which liberal education has shaped his life.

Zakaria begins the book with a brief history of liberal education, from the Greeks and Romans, through the Islamic Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the development of the modern American university, itself a hybrid of the British collegiate and German research models. From the development of the "quadrivium" (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in late antiquity and early Middle Ages, to the Yale Report of 1828 (a document written by Yale College faculty in defense of the classical curriculum), Cardinal John Henry Newman's publication of the Idea of a University in1852, and Charles Eliot's transformation of Harvard into America's premier research university in the early twentieth century, Zakaria provides a solid context for understanding the evolution of the liberal arts in America.

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    — Lao Tzu (605-531 BCE)

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