Dedication of the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Conversation Room, Remarks by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
June 16, 2009 | Speech | MacArthur Fellows

I have missed you... and all of this. It is not that I have spent each day wishing to turn back the clock to my good old days at MacArthur... I have not indulged in romantic idealization of our years together... nor have I spent one day mourning my departure. Because my time here at the Foundation felt so complete, my missing is filled with a sweet poignancy and no regrets. My missing is full of gratitude not yearning, abundance not loss. Today’s homecoming resonates with all of that plentiful goodness... and I feel grateful... first to the people, second to the work, and third to this place, this space.

I look out at all of you—the people who shape and sustain the Foundation—and feel thankful... for the close colleagueship and warms friendships with fellow Board members... for the rigorous discourse, generative exchange of ideas, deep experience, wisdom, creativity, and laughter around the Board table... for our adventures together across the globe and across town... for allowing me to lead and listen and participate in building the longrunning story of this wonderful institution. I feel thankful for one of the best staffs in all of philanthropy... for your seriousness of purpose, your disciplined craft, your on the ground knowledge and frontline insights, your good judgment and restraint... and of course I’m thankful for my six-year partnership with Jonathan (about which I will say more tonight)... for his disciplined and imaginative leadership, for his fierce loyalty and service to MacArthur, for his attention to the macro and the micro... for his abiding friendship. So it is you people—past and present—who I miss the most... including those amazing leaders who created the architecture, spawned the programs, and nurtured the Foundation through its infancy and adolescence (Elizabeth being one of our early heroines)... and those of you who have taken it over, honoring the history, appreciating the original mandate, but giving it new form... bridging the old and the new, seeking out innovation, new ideas and transformative frameworks to respond to the changing global realities.

The people are always at the center for me... but it is the mission of this Foundation, the substance of the work, and the way the work gets done... that I also miss. For me, being on this Board was an adventure in learning and discovery; a journey into new intellectual domains, a chance to cross disciplinary, geographic, and cultural boundaries, to bridge research, policy, and practice; an opportunity to speak to new audiences, and consider the tough questions of purpose and impact... for whom... and by what measures. And, of course, the Foundation offered me the chance to move beyond the academy, and participate more directly in what my children used to call “the wide, wide world”—through the programs in human rights, population, migration, peace, environmental sustainability... housing, education, juvenile justice, and digital learning — always seeking to identity the synergies and interconnections among the programs; always searching for the good, the strong, the resilient; always working to challenge habit and fad and support imagination and innovation — in individuals and institutions; always committed to discovering the roots of inequality, challenging the hierarchies of power and privilege. This is work that depends upon building relationships of trust and respect with those on the front lines; this is work that honors the local stories and searches out the universal principles; this is work that listens for the voices and perspectives of the storytellers and turns their burning questions into our researchable ones; work that tries to be self-critical and discerning and admits failure when it happens. I have missed this work.

And finally, I have missed this place — this physical space — that we are standing in and the “conversation room” that we are baptizing this afternoon. As most of you know, context is everything to me. I am an ethnographer, a phenomenologist, who believes that there is no way to interpret meaning unless we see it embedded in context — the broader ecology and the immediate setting... and, as you also may know about me, I am one who relishes the aesthetic; spaces built to join function and design. The lovely conversation room meets both of my criteria... a place for meaning-making and the exchange of beautiful ideas.

This is a wonderful occasion... literally and symbolically joining this corridor of MacArthur heroes... beginning with Jack Corbally whose name adorns the mighty Board Room... onto Jim Furman... then Elizabeth McCormick and Adele Simmons. I am so honored to be part of this parade, so delighted to be in the mix, so thrilled to be in the company of my mentors and friends who have left their indelible imprints on this Foundation. As a lover of ritual, a connoisseur of ceremony I am savoring this moment, accepting this honor with an open heart and deep gratitude.

I have even had fantasies of one day coming to Chicago with my granddaughter, Paloma, and with any of my other grandchildren who are not yet born — or even conceived. In my fantasy, I am marching them through the historic lobby of this handsome building, crowding us into the elevator, ascending to the 17th floor... We are making our way to this room, this special piece of real estate... and I am pointing to my name by the door. “This is the great institution,” I say to them, “that your grandmother was proud to serve.” They are attentive and smiling — I told you this is a fantasy — hearing the passion and gratitude in my voice; and hearing my hope that they will also in their lifetimes have the privilege of “giving forward” in some way — of their own making — to future generations, to a better world.

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