President’s Letter: Listening and Learning

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


President’s Letter: Listening and Learning

Dear Colleagues,
In my first six months, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know what is at the heart of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. I have been on a listening tour with our trustees, staff, fellows, and our partners in the field, which will continue in the months ahead.
At the end of April, we came together for our spring board meeting, my first as president and CEO. We elected a new Chair of the Board, Ruth Cummings, and Associates from the third and fourth generations rejoined us, newly inspired and deeply committed to NCF’s values and goals for the future.  We approved renewed support to 17 organizations totaling $7.8 million ; and, we remembered and drew inspiration from Rob Mayer, who passed in December, but whose contributions to make NCF a learning organization live on today.
We dedicated a full day to learning with our Fellows, past and present, drawing connections between their work and that of our grantee partners addressing inequality in America. Our Board committed to continuing our successful fellowship program, and as part of that, deepening the integration between our fellows and our program work so that we can further use their disruptive ideas to fuel innovation inside the Foundation.
Our hearts and minds were opened by an exceptionally moving keynote by Valarie Kaur, a lawyer, filmmaker, Sikh activist, and interfaith leader, who told us:

I’m here today because NCF is a social justice foundation that is willing to take risks and we are in a moment in time that calls us to work against hate and injustice. Courage is possible in communities with new voices, and revolutionary love is a political and moral force that can dismantle structures of injustice.

We talked about the failures within our current economic market and new areas of opportunity with NCF fellow, Jessica Norwood; alumni Saqib Bhatti and Margot Brandenburg; and grantee partner Dayna Cunningham of MIT CoLab. Jessica is breaking new ground by looking at the ways early-stage capital for entrepreneurs – often secured from friends and family – is largely unattainable in African-American communities, which in turn creates obstacles to asset building and wealth creation.  Saqib exposed how the city of Flint struggled to pay bond debts to the Detroit water utility, which directly resulted in water shutoffs to families who could not afford to pay their bills and ultimately led to the shameful crisis endangering that community.
We also engaged in honest dialogue about the role of faith and values in a 21st century civil rights movement, including #BlackLivesMatter and criminal justice reform. Alumni Mosi Makori and Rev. Jennifer Bailey, current fellow Anurag Gupta, and CEO of Bend the Arc, Stosh Cotler, sparked a conversation about what religion means to us, how we identify with race in America, as well as the power of compassion, empathy, and mindfulness to confront racial injustice and interrupt implicit bias.  
We are incredibly hopeful about the potential for transformation with allies in new and exciting places (including Hogwarts castle!). The Foundation recently supported the #PopJustice report series, which illuminates the promise and potential of popular culture to make change, and we had an enlightening conversation with current fellow Bridgit Antoinette Evans, former fellow Andrew Slack, and grantee partners Sandra de Castro Buffington of UCLA’s Global Media Center for Social Impact and Alexis McGill Johnson of the Perception Institute, about how to leverage entertainment for social justice ends. From The Help and Harry Potter, to Blackish and Law and Order, we’ve seen incredible impact and leverage in the power of story. Sandra de Castro Buffington put it best when she said, “Stories in television, movies, and new media have the power to transform our world. To awaken us. To foster a revolution of the heart and a higher image of human potential. To make every life count.”
As I’ve spent these months listening to the stories about who we are, the work we’ve supported over the past 25 years, and what this moment calls us to do, one common theme emerged:
Race matters.
We cannot talk about inequality without talking about race.
It mattered when Buddy Mayer, trustee emeritus, joined Wednesdays in Mississippi in the 1960s, building relationships with women in the South to create bridges of understanding across regional, racial, and class lines. It mattered late last year when Reform California joined in coalition with multi-faith organizers across the state to make it clear that racial profiling and criminal justice were Jewish issues. It mattered when artists animated a community’s protests and hopes for the future, acting as translators and healers in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown. It matters now, as debates over the leadership of our country are fueled by dog-whistle politics, explicitly and implicitly creating a new opening for the kind of racial, ethnic, gender, identity and religious discrimination this country was built to defend against.
The Nathan Cummings Foundation was built 25 years ago on a centuries-old tradition of social justice rooted in Jewish values, to fight against the kind of inequities that we still see around us today. We stand with the families in Orlando, and our nation, with that revolutionary love and courage we all need in the wake of a horrific act of hate against us all.  
We are moving forward, pointing ourselves at what the world needs from us now, in a way that honors and continues our long pursuit of justice.   Our vision is to create a just, vibrant, sustainable and democratic society. In the months ahead we will continue to refine our areas of focus. We remain committed to the two big problems of inequality and climate change, which we know stand in the way of our vision. We are looking at how we integrate all of our resources – our people and our dollars – in ways that reflect the intersectional problems we see and the solutions we hope to catalyze in the field. We will continue to update you on our progress as we expand our team and are thrilled that Loren Harris is now on board  as Vice President of Programs.
We are energized and eager to be learning alongside you, and welcome your questions and ideas as we continue to write the next chapter of our work.


Sharon Alpert
President & CEO
Nathan Cummings Foundation

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