Remarks from Jonathan Fanton on Civic Responsibility
March 13, 2000 | Speech

It is a pleasure meeting with you. I think the last time I met with the Yale Club of Chicago was about thirty years ago as part of Yale's effort to reach out to alumni in the wake of May day and all the tumult of the late 60s and early 70s. I was then Chief of Staff to Kingman Brewster and the going was tough as we crisscrossed the country trying to explain the new Yale to disaffected alumni. I have a feeling today will be a easier conversation.

My wife Cynthia and I relocated to Chicago in September after seventeen years in New York, happy to see Chicago in such good shape and glad to be in a city which is also a community. Chicago, more than any city in the country, demonstrates how not-for-profit groups play an indispensable role in the pursuit of a more just and humane society marked by hope and opportunity.

I want to talk for a few minutes about the theme of civic responsibility and then open up to questions and discussion about this topic or any other that might be of interest including philanthropy, the work of the MacArthur Foundation, Yale, higher education in general, whatever. Let me start with a biographical note and Yale. I come from a small town in Connecticut where my family of farmers settled in the 1680s.It was a town of two protestant churches, very little diversity, and no people of color in the schools. I had led a sheltered life until Yale. Yale in the early 1960s was beginning to transform itself. Bill Coffin had taken up civil rights and through him as a freshman I went on some freedom rides down the provincial Eastern shore of Maryland. Then I became involved in Dwight Hall and, through Herb Cahoon, became a tutor in the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation and eventually its director for three years. And from that experience I next worked on a talent search program looking for people of color for the Ivy League and Seven Sisters, visiting high schools all over the county, including DuSable, John Marshall, Hyde Park High School here in Chicago. And from there to the federal Office of Economic Opportunity's Upward Bound program. Without boring you with all the stops along the way, my early concern for civil rights engendered at Yale brought me to the Chair of Human Rights Watch, a worldwide organization working in 70 countries. The news stories of atrocities committed by the Russians in Checheyan come from our staff interviewing refugees at the border; our staff were similarly involved in on-the-ground reporting in Kosovo gathering evidence on six of the seven cases that lead to the indictment of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic; so too our work in Rwanda has provided key evidence for the War Crimes Tribunal; the arrest of Chad dictator Hissane Habre on the Pinochet model for crimes against humanity was largely our doing; and we successfully led an international coalition to press for the adoption of a treaty banning the use of child soldiers.

I am pleased that the MacArthur Foundation was an early and major supporter of Human Rights Watch and many other human rights groups. My time at MacArthur already has been a liberal arts education in the importance of non governmental organizations in fields where we work: neighborhood development in Chicago, environmental conservation in Latin America, women's health and reproductive rights in Africa, developing the rule of law in the former Soviet Union to name just a few. Indeed, in any given year MacArthur gives support to approximately 750 non-governmental organizations around the world.

NGOs, as they are known, make up what we call civil society voluntary associations of people for a purpose: education, religion, and advocacy of a clean environment for example. They give voice to citizens often overlooked, enable civic leaders to check the excesses of government, allow concerned citizens to pioneer models to solve intractable problems, provide community in an increasingly cold and complex society, open a channel for ordinary people to influence large unchecked global forces remember Seattle and the WTO. We have come to believe that a vibrant civil society is the indispensable partner to government in building and sustaining a healthy democracy keeping government responsive, filling in the service gaps, bridging divides among race, religion and ideology that the political process unaided often exacerbates. That is why the MacArthur Foundation is a major source of support for civil society groups in our fields of interest around the world.

You are probably thinking I have moved far away from my small Connecticut town and Yale. So let me close the circle. A vibrant civil society requires members and money. The potential for leverage through organizations like Human Rights Watch is huge. The personal growth and satisfaction to be derived from participating in a local tutoring program is beyond measure in tangible terms. In other words, self-interest and civic responsibility converge through our personal engagement with issues that matter through the institutions of civil society.

Some people go through a lifetime giving little back, others discover and acknowledge a void in their lives only near retirement. I believe passionately that civic engagement early and often over a lifetime is both a responsibility and a deeply rewarding opportunity.

My exposure to civil rights through Bill Coffin, my work with bright New Haven kids from the inner city through U.S. Grant - these experiences at Yale changed my life. But they were outside the curriculum and serendipitous. I think Yale and other colleges and universities need to bring education for civic responsibility closer to the center of the college experience. This is not to say that times havent changed since the 1960s, and that there are no courses or internships that deal with civic engagement. There are, but not enough.

A group of people, including some college presidents, have started an organization called Project Pericles. Organized by Eugene Lang, a New School trustee and founder of the "I Have a Dream Program," Project Pericles seeks to stimulate colleges and universities to make preparation for a life of social responsibility central to an undergraduate education.

I applaud that initiative and hope it takes root at Yale and elsewhere so that virtually every college graduate gets involved in the work of civil society right out of college, indeed while in college. I am haunted by the huge floors of young people on Wall Street glued to their computer screens, making unthinkable sums of money but thinking of little else. This booming economy fueled by the internet and financial services has the downside of exacerbating inequality. The current earnings gap is much larger than it was 20 years ago, despite our strong economy. According to the Urban Institute, in 1973 the richest 5% of all families had 11 times as much income as the poorest one-fifth. By 1996, they had almost 20 times as much income. We know from history that rising inequality can be bad for the health of society and yet there are periods like the present when markets surge. Surely one way to take the edge off is to give back through time and money, but the habit of charitable service needs to be cultured in college and that is my message.

As alumni we can help by supporting our campus organizations like Dwight Hall and the U.S. Grant Foundation and by using local alumni clubs as vehicles to connect alumni to service opportunities. But we also need to send a signal to the Yale faculty that civic responsibility belongs at the center of the curriculum and not relegated only to the co-curriculum.

Well, I hope this primes the pump for some discussion about Yale, Chicago, MacArthur, Human Rights Watch — whatever you would like to talk about.

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