Remarks as prepared for delivery.
I am pleased to be here at the City Club of Chicago, and thank you for your warm welcome.
Before I became President of MacArthur, I hardly knew Chicago. I had been here, usually to raise money. I did not anticipate being here to give it away. It’s much more fun.
So far I have enjoyed every day I have spent here.
What were my impressions before I came? I suppose much like those of other ordinary Americans – a grab-bag of stereotypes, mostly from popular culture.
So we’re talking about a mix of "City of the Big Shoulders" and "Hog Butcher for the World" from Carl Sandburg; the tough politics of a huge political machine, muckraking journalists, and the civil rights struggle; Eliot Ness battling Al Capone in The Untouchables; the great music of The Blues Brothers; a gritty urban core (as seen in ER) set against American Dream suburbs from Home Alone and Ferris Bueller.
And what have I learned? Well, there is truth in stereotypes as well as misrepresentation. But reality brings surprises – like the warmth of Chicago’s people; the beauty of the City’s buildings, parks, and lakefront; the strength of the business community, variety of neighborhoods, and sense that Chicago is a genuinely global city; the world-class cultural institutions, vibrant cultural scene, and great restaurants. You can even get good pizza – and from someone from New York who lived in Rome, believe me, that’s a compliment. (Let’s not spoil it by bringing up "deep dish.")
The more I’ve discovered about Chicago, the more I want to know. The same goes for foundations. Apart from politics, philanthropy is the one profession that often chooses its leaders from other fields. So I’m also on a steep learning curve about grantmaking and the many areas in which MacArthur is active.
Let me share with you some insights I have gained into philanthropy. Then I will discuss my own background and interests, and how they help me in my new job. And finally, I will talk about some areas of MacArthur’s work that have particularly caught my imagination.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that – however the IRS may classify our sector – philanthropy is not charity. American philanthropy is an invention of the early 20th Century – by people such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. It set out not to make social problems slightly less bad, but to find out the root causes of a problem, look for new ways to address it, and fund projects to test whether the hypothesis and solution were right. This could be called "strategic grantmaking."
Most of what MacArthur does (on its best days) is this kind of work.
Like most foundations, we do very little directly. We decide to pursue a strategy, and then award grants to projects, people, and institutions that we think will have the greatest impact executing the strategy with their own expertise, methods, and judgment.
Foundations love to talk about leverage. Our resources are limited, and the problems are large. So we seek to increase our impact in various ways. We look for issues that are ripe for intervention and draw attention to them. We work with grantees to set out a program of action. And we bring disparate groups together in alliances and networks.
For example: MacArthur’s work with LISC Chicago (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) has helped bring neighborhood groups together in a comprehensive program of revitalization.
We have brought legal scholars and practitioners together with neuroscientists to explore how new knowledge about how our brains work will change our understanding of core legal concepts such as "criminal intent" and "culpability."
Our conservation program, more than a decade ago, diagnosed threats to biodiversity as a central issue for conservation and put together a strategy to work in nine global "hot spots" where large numbers of species were at risk. Our projects helped move the field of conservation to address this issue around the world.
Imaginative analysis, careful planning, and the choice of excellent grantees are what MacArthur strives for. We are known for supporting work of high quality, with an emphasis on creativity. Our Fellows program (the so-called "genius awards" given to exceptionally gifted and inventive people) remind the public of this each year. But the organizations we support are also creative and effective – often in dangerous and difficult circumstances.
I am still learning, of course. But I am finding that there are links between what I did in other fields and how MacArthur works.
I trained as a political scientist at Stony Brook (then just my small local state university in New York) and at Brandeis University, focusing on international relations. There I learned how important it was to have an intellectual map of how one thinks the world works, what social scientists call a "model."
I started teaching at Swarthmore College and Johns Hopkins, but quickly figured out that I needed to understand more about the world – how the intellectual model I had studied played out in practice – before I was comfortable, as a colleague of mine put it, "twisting young minds."
So I went to work in the State Department – the "real world," where my presumptions and hypotheses were tested by events and experience.
I became a specialist in nuclear issues, and spent decades working to reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction. When I led UN teams into Iraq after the first Gulf War we did find WMD programs: chemical weapons, ballistic missiles, and well developed but secret programs to produce nuclear and biological weapons. And we destroyed them all. A victory for what might be called "hard power" – action supported by military force.
Two years later, I led negotiations with North Korea to stop their nuclear weapons program. We did not threaten military action. Instead we tried to buy them off with the promise of peaceful nuclear power reactors, fuel oil, and a new political relationship. A deployment of "soft power" – using the international standing of the United States as a tool of persuasion.
Ten years later, we were invading Iraq (over WMD programs that weren’t there) and ending our deal with North Korea (over a uranium enrichment program which may, or may not, be there). The clear lesson is that none of these problems is ever solved: they are only managed more or less effectively. The trick is to find which is the best angle, the most effective point of pressure, and the most economical means to achieve an objective – all without complete information. I have discovered that Foundations have to work in similar ways, though of course we have no hard power to fall back on.
After leaving State, I served for more than a decade as Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
So I bring to MacArthur some expertise in international security. That’s only about four percent of what the Foundation does, but it is at least a start.
One of the attractions of MacArthur was its international character. The Foundation has grantees in 60 countries. It has been a privilege for me to visit some of them and to see, for example, how conservationists in Madagascar are working to save a unique ecosystem against great odds, how experts in women’s health are saving mothers’ lives in Nigeria, and how human rights advocates are standing up for ordinary citizens in Russia and Mexico.
But with so much of my career focused on international issues, I have most to learn about the challenges facing our country. And Chicago, the quintessential American city, is an ideal place for to start.
Though we work across the U.S., MacArthur is deeply rooted in its home city. Since 1978, we have awarded 4,500 grants totaling nearly $850 million to organizations in the Chicago region. Our work here has taught us valuable lessons, and proximity to our grantees helps keep us practical and realistic – good Midwestern characteristics.
Chicago is at the forefront of efforts to revitalize city neighborhoods. Here in Chicago, MacArthur has been looking for solutions in partnership with LISC. Andy Mooney has been a terrific guide to the neighborhoods we work in together, giving me insight into the collaboration happening between neighborhood groups, businesses, and city government. The Chicago’s Housing Authority’s Lewis Jordan introduced me to the Plan for Transformation of public housing and its ambitious goal to create stable mixed-income communities where families and opportunity can flourish.
MacArthur has long been concerned with stable, affordable housing. We believe that it is an essential platform for better health, more successful learning, and economic opportunity – and we are supporting extensive research to test that notion.
"How housing matters," (which is, by the way, the name of a MacArthur program) was brought home to me as I spoke with someone who lives in a Single Room Occupancy building in Uptown. I also saw the persistence and optimism of people in Auburn Gresham and in Bronzeville. I was not sure I would see that in communities hard hit by job loss and foreclosure—but I did. It reinforced my commitment to Chicago’s neighborhoods and the people there that are working to improve their quality of life.
Despite the economic downturn, our goal is to help unlock the promise and potential of these neighborhoods. But two issues concern me deeply. They are fundamental to whether we will succeed as a city – perhaps as a society. They are education and safety.
For too many young people, school is not a passport to a better future. Many schools are failing to equip students for a highly competitive marketplace, or even get a firm grasp on the traditional "three R’s." That is unacceptable.
Many foundations and organizations are working on traditional school reform, and we applaud and support their efforts. MacArthur is taking a different direction.
Our interest over the last several years has been in how the digital revolution and information technology are changing the ways young people learn. We commissioned large-scale studies of what young people actually do on line and are using that new knowledge to helped design new approaches to learning in schools, libraries, and museums.
Some of that work is going on in Chicago.
One example of what I am talking about is the YouMedia space at the Harold Washington Library, where teens are both exploring digital media of all types – but also taking out books at an inspiring rate. Poke your head in any day from 1 until 9 and you will see what I mean. On Wednesday evenings, as many as 150 young people are there performing readings, poems, and their own compositions.
We want to translate this energy and enthusiasm for learning into a new kind of education, built on what young people are already engaged with. That should provide them with the traditional skills of reading, writing, math, and science, but also with the new skills needed for success in the 21st century.
Learning cannot happen in an environment that is fraught with danger. Too much of Chicago still suffers from street violence, gang warfare, and other crime. Alderman Walter Burnett showed me how crime-related tensions affect the quality of life in the former Cabrini Green area, and how they may challenge the success of the mixed-income developments that are at the heart of the Plan for Transformation.
MacArthur, with partners from across the City, will be paying special attention to helping to make Chicago safer. That will include efforts like public safety projects at the local block level, support to help ex-offenders reintegrate into their communities, and a program of the Chicago Police Department (with other law enforcement organizations) to combat gang violence.
So MacArthur maintains its commitment to Chicago, looking for new ways to address crucial problems.
But our work is not only about problems. We also celebrate and support one of Chicago’s most vibrant and impressive sectors – arts and culture.
Economic strength and diversity make this a global city – but so do its great cultural institutions, world-class orchestras and opera companies, and innovative theater. Chicago is fortunate to have had a mayor who has championed the arts. The City’s Department of Cultural Affairs is unique in America, Millennium Park and its programs have given new life to the lakefront, and our downtown arts district is thriving.
MacArthur is proud to be a part of this creative community. We support some 200 arts and culture organizations in our City and region. We do so because we know that the arts add value to our society.
That value is not just aesthetic. The arts pay. They turn cities into destinations, attracting talented people and strengthening local economies.
I have just been visiting several of our grantees, including the Albany Park Theatre Project at work with high school students, the Hyde Park Arts Center, and the Old Town School of Folk Music giving new life to traditional culture.
And I was pleased to learn of the community outreach work of Chicago’s leading institutions – I think of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bringing music to juvenile detainees and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s work with schools.
I have loved our local theatres and seen excellent productions – from Lookingglass Alice to Louis Slotin Sonata at Red Orchid.
Dance has been a significant part of my family’s life. So I am very excited that we have great companies such as the Joffrey Ballet in town, and was privileged to watch a rehearsal there a few weeks ago.
I look forward to seeing more of what gets created across the city in the coming years.
MacArthur’s focus on Chicago’s challenges and achievements cannot, however, neglect the broader national context. We are critically aware that this is a time of acute distress for many people, perhaps a cross-road of American history. The "Great Recession" we are living through is forcing us to take a hard look at deep-seated structural problems that our nation faces.
One of these is the problem of our deficits and national debt, something that threatens our government’s ability to support existing programs and constrains the development of new initiatives.
I was happy to see that MacArthur has been engaged in raising the profile of our fiscal problems and putting options on the table to get the country back on a fiscally sustainable path. We funded a comprehensive report from the National Academies to examine the aggressive steps that need to be taken both in reducing spending (that would be benefits) and raising revenue (that would be taxes) and suggest possible ways forward.
President Obama is also concerned about this issue. He established a bipartisan commission to deal with it. The commission is scheduled to report its findings and recommendations on December 1. I regret to say that I am not optimistic that a consensus will emerge, or that there will be concrete steps proposed for Congress to act on. I would like to be proven wrong.
So we will continue our efforts to make sure that people, including policymakers, understand the consequences for individuals, families and the country’s fiscal health of failing to grapple with this long-term issue. There is no free lunch. I can say it. This audience knows it. But can Congress say it to the American people?
We are also exploring how state and local governments are dealing with similar problems. They are also facing rising costs on services and pensions just as their revenues from property and sales taxes decline. But they also face a "double whammy:" the stimulus funding the federal government has been sending to the states is coming to an end.
Our economic troubles are further complicated by what I see as a fundamental problem in our political economy – a growing mismatch between our political institutions and our political culture. Our institutions require compromise to function, but it seems that our society is becoming increasingly polarized, that we cannot debate and disagree with civility, and that our political representatives (both national and state) cannot compromise or come together and consider how to deal with vital issues concerning our future. That is a recipe for national disaster.
Many factors contribute to this situation. The media has amplified the problem, as our traditional news sources are replaced by new outlets, and people seek out like-minded analysis that supports what they already believe. Our political conventions, such as partisan redistricting, the 60-vote rule in the Senate, campaign finance, and other structures and practices also contribute. It is too early for me to say much about what we think about this situation, but we will be digging deep into this issue over the coming year.
That, I realize, was quite a gloomy view of our situation. But the MacArthur Foundation is not a pessimistic organization. It is our mission to focus on problems – and solutions. We are optimistic that there are creative, rational, and practical solutions to the great challenges we face, and we hope to make a small contribution.
MacArthur’s mission for more than thirty years has been to support exceptional people and effective organizations that share our vision for greater opportunity in a just and caring society. We have been privileged to work here in Chicago in partnership with you and others who work so hard to make a difference. Our commitment and dedication will not falter in the years ahead.
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