Tell us about your career path and what led you to take the position of Arts Program Officer at The Educational Foundation of America (EFA). How do these experiences inform your work in philanthropy?
Early in my career I was a real estate broker for almost 20 years in Dallas. While in Dallas, I founded a nonprofit that created a linear park, a rail-to-trail park for biking and running in downtown Dallas, The Katy Trail. I really enjoyed the work of putting a board together and a strategic plan, doing a capital campaign and a master plan for the park. Later, I moved to the Hudson Valley and took on the position as the Director of The Shaker Museum. I did that for eight years. I really enjoyed the work of changing the strategy of an older museum, relocating the campus, doing some historic preservation work, and thinking about the future of rural museums. Ultimately, I decided I really wanted to be on the other side of the equation and be giving away money instead of asking for money. I was interested in the job at EFA because of the kind of work they were doing in creative placemaking, since it brought together the work I had been doing in my nonprofit career, which was both arts and place-based. The Shaker museum is a national historic landmark historic site. The Katy Trail was really a creative placemaking project, although they didn’t call it that then. The position was a perfect fit for me.
I also met the people at EFA and became very interested in working with them. One thing I was so attracted to at EFA was that Melissa Beck, our Executive Director, also came from running non-profits. Our approach is to be the kind of funders we had been looking for, or that we respected, when we were running nonprofits. That means thinking strategically with grantees, understanding deeply about the value of funding things that are not just projects, and thinking more broadly about the organization itself. The Board at EFA is also highly engaged - I attended the last AFN Gathering with two of our directors - and that engagement boosts our capacity, bringing multiple perspectives and significant knowledge and expertise. So we really try to work as much as we can in trying to help nonprofits be strategic and successful in the long term in addition to the work we’re funding in creative placemaking.
How did you become involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?
It was Gerry Roll who mentioned the Funders Network to me. It happened quite organically. When I joined in EFA I contacted several past grantees. Prior to my being at EFA, the Foundation had funded a couple of projects in Appalachia. One of them was a riverside trail project and the downtown arts center in Hazard, Kentucky. The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky was the fiscal sponsor for that project. In following up on that project and talking to Gerry about the possibilities, the Funders Network came up and Gerry’s a persuasive salesperson.
She encouraged us to come to the Gathering in 2016 in West Virginia, which we did, and that was our first exposure to the Network.
How has your involvement with the Appalachia Funders Network affected your work at The Educational Foundation of America?
At EFA the programs all do their own strategic planning and as a result, identify their own geographic areas where they believe they can be most impactful, unlike an organization that has a geographic area and then does program areas within that. Also, all of EFA's Directors are family members and, as I mentioned before, are deeply engaged in the work. They go on site visits, they come to conferences.
When I joined EFA, the Arts Program decided to do a scan to determine where we wanted to focus for the next few years. We realized that because we have Directors who are incredibly involved, we are much more willing to do riskier work than what is sometimes true of national foundations where the board is not as involved. As a result, we identified Appalachia and the Black Belt of Alabama as the two areas EFA’s Arts Program could make an impact in drawing additional attention to the areas, catalyzing new efforts, and reaching areas that were in clear need.
Additionally, EFA has a very long history of granting to forestall climate change, was one of the founding signatories to Divest/Invest, and created one of the first investment scans for portfolios to get out of oil, coal, and gas completely. So, through our arts strategy, we’re going back and investing into the region that was affected by these industries.
Because AFN is very effective as a Network, it was clear that our work could be enhanced by being in the Network and that it would allow us opportunities to share EFA's analysis and ideas with other funders. What was unusual for us, what we didn’t expect, was that those funders would also include ARC and other federal funding sources. So the Network really has become one of the centerpieces of our focus in our Arts work in Appalachia and I think it’s even given us a model for how we want to create the work in the Black Belt of Alabama, which, unfortunately, does not have the same level of outside support from philanthropy, coordinated funder work, or coordination between federal and private grant sources. So we’ve taken the AFN model and are now creating the Black Belt Funder’s Network with Babcock and others.
I often use the metaphor that for national funders, places like Appalachia and the Black Belt are illegible—you just can’t read them. In places like Chicago, Oakland, or Phoenix, you’re on the ground and pretty quickly you can get the lay of the land, you can hook up with nonprofits, there’s some sort of nonprofit infrastructure, organizations for your program area, and you can figure it out fairly quickly. The Appalachia Funders Network really allows funders from outside the region to be able to understand the area to work effectively pretty quickly.
The Appalachia Funders Network really allows funders from outside the region to be able to understand the area to work effectively pretty quickly.
The way the Appalachia Funders Network is modeled, the way its backbone support works, we find so refreshing. Again as national funders involved throughout our program areas in a lot of funder networks, we know that a lot of funder networks can sometimes get bogged down and stale, they have a lot of internal staff and structure they’ve created that they then have to maintain and support. So I think what’s so fantastic about the Appalachia Funders Network is that it’s so nimble as an organization.
Since joining the Network last year, you’ve engaged in several ways: you’re a member of the Strengthening Community Capacity Working Group, you served on the 2017 Gathering Planning Team, and, as part of that role, helped develop the Arts & Culture Learning Journey. What do you hope to accomplish through these roles?
Most broadly it is to offer up what we do as a tool for others or at least as a way of understanding economic development or just transition slightly differently than AFN has done in terms of economic development. So sharing how arts and culture can play a specific and direct role in economic development and that it really can be a an impactful tool for communities looking for ways forward in economic development. I don’t know that that has been on people’s minds [in the Network] as much. I think arts and culture tends to get put aside as ‘that’s an asset we have in our community, it’s a way we can bring people together,’ but it actually can be a very direct economic development tool. I think we saw that on our learning journey [at the Gathering] in Abingdon, so I’d like to continue to work on that overall idea. How that plays out, I don’t know exactly. We’re having an exploratory call next week about a possible arts working group. I don’t know if that’s the right way to go and I have no strong feelings one way or the other, I just want to make sure the Network has this tool as a resource and that the members think of arts and culture as a tool they can use in economic development.
Who do you look to in the fields of philanthropy, community development, or social justice for inspiration?
Everybody at the Babcock foundation. Their approach to work in the South is so effective and it’s been effective for a long period of time. A lot of us who are coming in from the outside have a lot to learn from how Babcock has approached the work in the South. I don’t know that there are many other models of people who have worked throughout the region over a long period of time in these areas who have seen major impact.
I’ll give another example. Recently I went to Selma, Alabama, where we do a lot of work. We’re interested in preserving civil rights historic sights throughout Alabama—the churches and homes and hotels that were involved in the civil rights movement. It was right after the November election, and there were several of us from EFA who were set up to see the churches in Selma where Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned and began all the marches in Selma. We saw Brown Chapel AME and First Baptist Church across the street. In each case there was a woman there, one who I’d assume was in her sixties or seventies and one who was in her mid-eighties, who showed us the church. Both churches are incredibly simple, beautiful, beautifully maintained. They were built by African America architects around the turn of the century or even before for Black congregations. And here were these two women who were kind enough to show a bunch of white people their churches. In both cases these women had been at it, trying to advance civil rights since before Dr. King showed up. Yet after all they had done for 55 years, they saw the results of this election happen—it was heartbreaking. Yet it was also humbling to see these women that had worked so hard every day of their lives to take care of their churches and their communities. That’s very inspiring for me.
A recent study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy begins with that graph of giving by state, city, and subregion. That does it for me. No matter what you have to say about metrics or efficiency or geographic focus areas or all the things we talk about in philanthropy, there’s a moral issue that we only give 1/10th or 1/50th or 1/100th of the philanthropic resources of America on a per capita basis to people who live (and it’s not coincidental that they’re mostly African American) in the Deep South.
It gets me going, which is to say, no matter what we do, trying to put additional resources into and shine the light on areas that philanthropy has neglected is good work.
How do you spend your free time?
I come to art not only as a profession but I love the arts: urban planning, architecture, visual arts, ballet, music, all of it. So whenever I get the chance I like to spend free time gorging on all that beauty. I do find interesting how towns and cities have been organized over time and how that affects people’s lives, so I like to visit new places and travel. I also like to swim, I like to cook, and I like to enjoy the things that are in front of us every day.