In 1991, Abigail Disney and her husband, Pierre Hauser, founded the Daphne Foundation — the name is a composite of their initials — to support emerging and grassroots organizations whose programs address the causes and consequences of poverty in the five boroughs of New York City. A grand-niece of Walt Disney, she made her first foray into filmmaking last year, producing the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell about the efforts of Liberian women to restore peace to their country after decades of civil war. The film won the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Disney currently is co-producing a series for Wide Angle and WNET about the changing role of women in conflicts around the globe.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Disney has lived in New York City for the past twenty-five years. Recently, PND spoke with her about what motivates her to give, her interest in film as an agent of social change, and the role of advocacy in advancing a social agenda.
Philanthropy News Digest: Why did you decide to limit the Daphne Foundation's grantmaking to the five boroughs of New York City?
Abigail Disney: I believe that philanthropy starts in your own backyard. I also wanted to make a commitment to my city. At the same time, I think of the world as my community. That's an awfully wide net to cast, but in my overall giving I think in terms of how I can be useful, how I can be generous, and how I can be strategic. I sometimes worry that people hold onto their resources out of a desire to help their immediate communities, but if those communities are well-resourced, it doesn't make sense. For instance, my kids' private schools don't necessarily need a huge amount of help from me.
PND: In which areas do you invest most of your time, energy, and resources?
AD: My abiding interest in supporting women grew out of a desire to work with people who don't tend to get the respect they deserve. I also love underdogs. Those two motivations have led me to most of my funding interests in the United States, including women in prison, women with HIV, women who are community organizers, and women who have experienced domestic violence.
Outside of the United States, I want to help make sure that women's voices are heard. Producing Pray the Devil Back to Helltaught me that women in the developing world, particularly women in countries where there is an enormous amount of conflict, have learned a lot about coping and survival that can benefit all of us. When communities stop listening to women, they find themselves right back in conflict. Increasingly, I'm interested in war and conflict and how they play out in women's lives.
I earned a Ph.D. in English literature, and my dissertation was on war novels. We've always had a conception of war as a masculine pursuit, but at the end of the day its effects are felt more deeply among women. They watch their men go to war; they are left to mourn their sons and husbands. It's their homes, their bodies, and their families that are violated, along with their communities, schools, and churches. We can pretend war only happens on a clearly delineated battlefield with two uniforms and opposing forces who follow rules — as in a football game — but that's not the way it has ever played out, and that's certainly not the way it's playing out now. I hope the series I'm working on for Wide Angle, tentatively called Women, War and Peace, can help us better conceptualize war and embrace the idea that women are not a sideshow, but at the heart of the matter.
PND: Does producing Pray the Devil Back to Hell and now the Wide Angle series represent a change in your focus or philanthropy?
AD: I don't consider it a change, so much as another step in a logical evolution. Out in the world, I learned that women have amazing capacities to effect change in the very places we think they're powerless, and I couldn't keep the information to myself. I was either going to make a film, write a book, or blow up. Film is the best way for me to communicate because of its ability to humanize situations and reach people at the level of their deepest feelings. Film also enables me to advocate for an issue I care about deeply. But that doesn't necessarily mean that my philanthropy will now be weighted more toward the global. As much as I try to be strategic about my philanthropy, I've rarely planned my life. All I know is I'm moving in a direction where I see I can have an impact. The road is unfolding in front of me, and I'm just walking it.
PND: The Daphne Foundation supports groups that use strategies like advocacy and activism to advance their agendas. Do you worry that the same groups may try to influence legislation?
AD: It's a (c)3 and (c)4 issue and the fine line that everybody walks trying to distinguish between advocating for a cause and trying to influence the outcome of a political race or a certain piece of legislation. As a foundation, we're not allowed to do the latter. But bringing voices to the table, elevating an issue so it becomes part of the civic dialogue, helping to empower groups to speak for themselves — those are advocacy issues. If those groups try to influence legislation, that's great, but I can't fund them to do it. It's a delicate balance. That said, I believe everything our foundation has done in terms of helping people speak up for themselves has enriched the democratic process.
PND: Your foundation also supports grassroots groups whose work addresses the root causes of poverty. Based on your experience as a funder, what are those root causes? And how can funders help to eliminate them?
AD: It would be hard to point to a single root cause of poverty, or even ten root causes, because of the complexity of the issues — race, class, and education — and the way they come together in a kind of toxic cocktail. We're trying to follow the problem upstream. So instead of simply paying for the casket, we go back and try to figure out what's killing the guy. In other words, making sure people have access to education and making sure the quality of that education is equal for everyone would be one way of addressing poverty from a root-cause perspective.
— Alice Garrard