Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Community Renewal Society’s 35 Under 35 Leadership Awards
May 16, 2009 | Speech | Public Housing in Chicago, How Housing Matters, Housing

It is an honor to join in the celebration of the 35 Under 35 Leadership Awards. And it is a great pleasure to be here with my friend Rev. Calvin Morris and the Community Renewal Society family.

MacArthur and CRS enjoy a deep and enduring partnership. No surprise, because our missions are closely aligned. We too work to achieve a “vision of a just community where race and class no longer limit each person’s full participation in all aspects of society.” Indeed, that goal is central to our work in 60 countries around the world on issues of human rights, population and reproductive health, biodiversity conservation, peace and security.

And while MacArthur is a global institution, it maintains a deep commitment to America and especially to its home town. Affordable housing preservation, juvenile justice, education and community development are central to our work here — and with the Community Renewal Society.

MacArthur has been pleased to support the Community Renewal Society since 1982 in several ways. A recent highlight was our funding for the Children of the Incarcerated Campaign. The Campaign is a fine example of how CRS is able to pull the disparate parts of its organization together in a coherent whole, addressing a complex and an urgent issue more powerfully than any one element could do. The Chicago Reporter has nurtured some of the best investigative reporters our city has known. Its recent articles on the Plan for Transformation of public housing have been perceptive, thoughtful, and nuanced. And we have been pleased to see Catalyst grow from a modest commentator on local school reform to a respected source of analysis on changes at the Chicago Public Schools and how lessons learned at CPS apply across the country.

One cannot pay tribute to the work of CRS without celebrating the life of service and the inspirational leadership of Calvin Morris. A visionary, deeply grounded in the community, optimistic and tireless in his efforts to transform this City, he has built an organization that is pledged to fulfilling America’s promise. His instinct for talent and his gifts in mentoring have built a new generation of leaders, such as Alysia Tate, and his legacy is secure and enduring.

We gather at an important moment in our nation’s history, a paradoxical moment. Never in our lifetimes have we faced such economic challenges, challenges which have cost people we know — some of us — homes, jobs, a sense of security.

And yet it is also a time of hope. We have a new President — our friend and neighbor — who has set forth a bold vision for change. By his example and his actions, we are called to revive progress toward the American ideals set forth in our charter documents. Once again, America has committed itself to being a society that treats all its citizens with respect, that gives equal opportunity to all, that fights poverty, promises decent housing, a good education, quality health care. We are called to re-imagine our economy, unleash our entrepreneurial spirit, share the responsibility for rekindling economic growth that distributes the benefits fairly. We have entered a period of community renewal on a national scale.

But our community is not Chicago or even the United States. We are part of a global community and, once again, America is extending the hand of partnership to other nations, rejecting recent unilateralism that has cost us friends and disappointed ordinary people around the globe. We reaffirm America’s destiny, in the words of John Winthrop, to be “a city upon a hill,” a beacon of democracy and decency. I travel widely, in Vietnam and Cambodia during the election, in Moscow last December, just eight weeks ago in Nigeria. Everywhere I go, I sense excitement that America is back and great enthusiasm — and trust — for our new President.

So this is a wonderful time to be under 35 with opportunities for service and leadership at home and abroad. I am inspired by my conversations with you during the reception — your energy, passion, and idealism give me optimism for the future.

Each of you is already accomplished in fields ranging from education to law, conservation to medicine, the arts to strengthening our neighborhoods. Your work, and the contribution of your organizations, makes an extraordinary difference to our community. I think of Golden Apple Foundation recruiting and mentoring outstanding young teachers, or the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago helping the City’s most vulnerable people protect their rights. Openlands enriches our lives by saving open space and protecting biodiversity. The Broadway Youth Center reaches out to young people with medical advice, testing, and treatment in a non-threatening and nurturing environment. CIRCA supports and celebrates the artistic legacy of Chicago’s vibrant immigrant communities. Every one of you has accomplished remarkable things, and the recognition you have won today is a tribute to your talents, your vision, and your commitment our region and its people.

As you think about your future, permit me to share with you some lessons from my own life.

Some of my most meaningful experiences have come from volunteer work. As an undergraduate at Yale, I ran a tutoring program by the improbable name of the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation. We prepared talented youngsters from New Haven’s poorest neighborhoods for college. I then ran a national talent search program finding students in inner city schools able to go to the best colleges in the country including Yale and Harvard, Northwestern, Chicago, and DePaul. In New York I was chair of the Union Square 14th Street Local Development Corporation, where I saw how a community took back a neighborhood from drug dealers, and made it a gateway of opportunity for its residents, attracting businesses, better housing, improved schools. And as Chair of Human Rights Watch, I saw first-hand how the spotlight of truth could tear down an iron curtain, expose a genocide in the making, and seek justice for those who commit crimes against humanity.

The big lesson learned in these settings is this: there are talented people everywhere, in the poorest neighborhoods of America, in the ghettos of Lagos, in far rural reaches of Rwanda, in small villages in Chiapas, and remote islands of the South Pacific or isolated outposts in the Arctic. They are creative, courageous, and committed to improving lives and uniting humanity. The world over, voluntary associations — civil society — are harnessing the power of people to work directly together — unmediated by government — to make the world a better place.

What would I do differently? What advice would I give you? We have been talking about engagement with issues outside of your jobs; that is number one. Choose an issue or two and stay with it. It is temping to spread yourself too thin across many issues. Resist that temptation. Become an expert in a field or two and rise to leadership of an organization.

Expose yourself to different countries and cultures. I did not travel much outside the U.S. until my forties and did not delve deeply into the developing world until my fifties. I wish I had started earlier — there is so much that needs our help outside the U.S., so do not be parochial. You will see the U.S. through a different lens once you have visited a genocide memorial in Rwanda, walked the killing fields of Cambodia, struggled with the chaos of Lagos or Calcutta, shared a night without light in a remote Peruvian village on the banks of the Amazon.

Continue your education. Learn another language. Acquire skills to use technology to communicate your message widely and build constituencies for action. Read about the history and culture of other countries. And write. Over a lifetime, I keep a running diary of all my trips, trials and travails, but also lessons learned. I am now working on vignettes of people I have met from Boris Yeltsin to Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter to Yitzak Rabin or Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Writing has a way of crystallizing your insights, deepening your perspective.

In planning a career, do not be in a hurry; be careful to choose good organizations and gifted mentors. That is more important than a quick promotion in a less promising setting. Some of the best decisions I made were to turn down jobs that paid more money to stay with organizations where I was learning, where I had a good mentor. And being a good mentor to the next generation will give you great satisfaction as you get on in years.

Finally, do not be afraid to take risks. Better to take them early because some risks can set you back, at least temporarily. When I say risks, I mean calculated, well thought out risks where you understand the consequences but are convinced the principle is worth fighting for and reward of accomplishment significant. The form of risk varies: it could be going into a place of physical danger as a human rights monitor, to capture first hand evidence of rape, torture, and murder. It could be advocating an unpopular position or defending an unpopular person taking a principled stand. Or it could be leaving a secure job to start a new organization dedicated to a cause you believe in.

I do not counsel a life of endless risk-taking, but a life of caution is less likely to be fulfilling.

MacArthur is best known for its Fellows Program — the “genius grants.” When we asked past winners how the award — $500,000, no strings — affected their careers, many said the recognition was as important, if not more important, than the money. That is especially true for artists, writers, and people on the front line of issues, people like the urban farmer Will Allen, the critical care physician Peter Provonost, the Blues musician Corey Harris, the rural family physician Regina Benjamin, the children’s rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, the public health doctor Paul Farmer, and the marine conservationist and fisherman Ted Ames. And it was particularly important for those who stirred public controversy or took on injustice, such as Eloise Cobell seeking fair treatment for Native Americans, Jose Zalaquett who stood up for Human Rights in Chile, Gay MacDougall who defended political prisoners in South Africa and Namibia,

Like the MacArthur Fellowship, the award you get this evening recognizes not so much what you have accomplished but your potential to do much more in our quest for a more just, decent, and peaceful world. This recognition will magnify your impact.

Those of us who dedicate our lives to improving the human condition will know disappointment, even defeats. But at our core, we are optimists — not romantics, not naïve, but certainly not cynics.

I close with one of my favorite quotes from a young President, Teddy Roosevelt, a century ago:

It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls, who know neither victory nor defeat.

The Community Renewal Society has dared greatly for over a century and our city, our nation, and our world are the better for its courage and its leadership.

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