Ann Beeson, Executive Director of U.S. Programs, Open Society Institute

June 10, 2010
Ann Beeson, Executive Director of U.S. Programs, Open Society Institute

When the dust settles, the Great Recession will be remembered for many things. But its most profound legacy may well be as the biggest destroyer of jobs and economic security since the 1930s. The grim picture painted by the statistics is only part of the story. While the official unemployment rate seems to have peaked at just above 10 percent in October, the broadest measure of un- and underemployment, U6, has been stuck above 15 percent for the better part of a year.

As the New York Times' Bob Herbert, one of the few high-profile journalists to chronicle the pernicious effects of rising unemployment on a regular basis, noted in a recent column: "More than fifteen million Americans are out of work, and nearly half have been jobless for six months or longer. New college graduates are having a terrible time finding work, and many are taking jobs that require only a high school education....Some inner-city neighborhoods, where joblessness is off the charts, are becoming islands of despair. Rural communities and rust belt cities and towns are experiencing their own economic nightmares."

Writing in the March issue of The Atlantic, Don Peck, the magazine's deputy managing editor, found even less to cheer. "If it persists much longer," wrote Peck, "this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults....It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men — and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years."

Financier/philanthropist George Soros argued in his 2002 book On Globalization that the concept of an "open society" could be taken "as a very broad expression of democracy that also includes economic progress and the reduction of poverty." Earlier this spring, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Ann Beeson, executive director of U.S. programs at the New York City-based Open Society Institute, one of two institutional vehicles for Soros's U.S.-based philanthropy, about the foundation's recent work, the steps it has taken to address the effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the concept of "open society" as it relates to the United States.

Prior to joining OSI in June 2007, Beeson was associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she spearheaded initiatives to stop the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security and to expand the use of international human rights strategies in the areas of immigrants' rights, women's rights, and racial justice. She has argued twice before the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2007 was named one of the fifty most influential women lawyers in America by the National Law Journal. Beeson graduated from Emory University School of Law, where she was editor-in-chief of the Emory Law Journal. A Texas native, she holds a master's degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Texas.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Open Society Institute was created in 1993 by George Soros to support the work of foundations he had established in Central and Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. At the time, Soros's thinking was informed by his experience with fascism and communism in the 1940s and 1950s and how the concept of "open society" applied to countries both during and after the Cold War. Is the concept of open society relevant to the United States in 2010?

Ann Beeson: It's fair to say that the United States is more open than many other countries in the world, although we are quite a ways from reaching the ultimate goal of a truly "open" society. That said, there are specific conditions in the U.S. today that have persisted over decades — in some cases, centuries — that we absolutely must try to correct. For example, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color. These conditions are symptomatic of a society that is not open. I can point to other indicators of enduring structural racism in the U.S., which of course is a legacy of slavery and remains a challenge. At the same time, we have growing inequality in this country, between rich and poor and among people of color and white people, and all of those are reasons for the Open Society Institute to continue to support organizations that are working to reform the systems that perpetuate inequality in the United States.

PND: You've been executive director of U.S. Programs at OSI for close to three years now. What has been the most surprising thing about the job?

AB: I've been surprised by just how inspiring this work can be, to the point that sometimes I'm exasperated because I see all these amazingly talented and dedicated and passionate leaders and I wonder why haven't we made more progress. Compared to other countries, even other democracies, we have a rich and evolved civil society here in the United States, and yet we seem to perpetually come up against this wall of injustice. That surprises me.

PND: Early in your tenure, you and your board announced a series of new initiatives. One of those was the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, which you launched in 2008. What is that effort responding to in the current social and political climate?

"...The crisis facing black men and boys in this country is indicative of the broader set of crises challenging open society in the United States...."

AB: The crisis facing black men and boys in this country is indicative of the broader set of crises challenging open society in the United States. The metaphor often used is the one about the canary in the coalmine. In other words, the problems of black men in our society expose deep structural inequalities in the United States. On every important quality-of-life indicator — employment, education, health — black boys and men are falling farther and farther behind their white counterparts. That was true when we launched the initiative two years ago and is even more true today as a result of the financial crisis and the economic downturn. We're seeing study after study which shows that job losses among African-American men far exceed that of other groups. So the campaign has become even more urgent.

The campaign cuts across a number of our programs, some of which preceded my arrival and others we've launched since I came on board. As you know, OSI has always had a focus on reforming the criminal justice system in the United States. That's another system, another set of structures, that has a devastating and highly disproportionate impact on black American men. And as we began to look at some of these other issues we thought, "Well, we just can't come at this from the perspective of black men and women getting caught up in the criminal justice system unfairly; we need to look at other, related issues such as education, employment, and family policy." Part of the mission of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement is to support and strengthen family structures, and so the program builds on our prior work in criminal justice reform and also on our broader work around the issues of racial justice and equality.

Around the same time, we launched another program called the Democracy and Power Fund. Among other issues, the fund supports youth organizing and youth leadership, particularly in communities that have no voice. The idea is to support programs that enable every American to become an active, engaged citizen with, if not a seat at the decision-making table, then at least a say in the process. Of course, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement also has a focus on youth, and we've been excited about the opportunities this creates for cross-program grantmaking in support of youth leadership broadly as well as targeted initiatives aimed at giving a boost to young black men.

PND: What do you mean by cross-program grantmaking? Can you give us an example?

AB: One of the things I observed early on, not just here at OSI but in philanthropy more broadly, is reflective of a larger challenge in the social justice world. It is the tendency to look at challenges from the single perspective of, say, women's rights or racial justice or immigrants' rights, instead of looking at the whole set of challenges and figuring out how we can work together across issue areas to advance a shared agenda, a shared vision for a well-functioning democracy.

"...[W]hen we were developing our new vision and restructuring our programs, one of our top priorities was to organize our programs in a way that got us outside of issue silos...."

So when we were developing our new vision and restructuring our programs, one of our top priorities was to organize our programs in a way that got us outside of issue silos. One of the things we did was establish a set of practices and guidelines to make it easier and more efficient for foundation staff and grantee organizations to work together. So, for example, if there was an organization that was advancing multiple issues we cared about, we would bring them together with our program directors and officers and try to simplify the process by giving them general operating support rather than project-by-project support. We also began to ask program staff to dedicate a certain percentage of their funding to cross-program grantmaking. As a social justice organization, we explicitly say in our guidelines that we support organizations that work well with others outside their own fields of expertise. In other words, we want to support collaboration across many fields. We are quite intentional about that. So, if an organization can show that it's a women's rights organization that also thinks about other issues that affect women or people of color, we would be more likely to provide support.

Finally, we established the Democracy and Power Fund to support multi-issue organizations at the grassroots and policy levels as a complement to our more issue-specific funding. Of course, we still think it's necessary to support organizations that have an explicit focus on a particular community or issue, but we think they should be doing so in a way that sees the connections between the challenges a community is facing.

PND: Do you ever go beyond supporting collaboration in the abstract to proactively fostering it among your grantees?

AB: Absolutely. Not in a "You must do this" way, but more in the spirit of letting them know that if they are interested in forming a relationship with another organization or community with shared interests, we will help facilitate that relationship. It's more a carrot than a stick approach. Let me give you an example.

As part of out response to the financial crisis in the United States, OSI is supporting a number of groups that are promoting transparency with respect to the economic recovery and the disbursement of recovery funds. Typically, nonprofits that are working on these issues are quite different from one another. Some provide expertise in data analysis, budget analysis, and transparency issues in general. They know how to get the data from the government, analyze it in different ways, and share their findings with the world. You also have organizations that focus on fiscal issues and dive deeply into government budgets and government spending. And you have groups that focus on equity and examine whether communities most in need are actually getting the resources.

We looked at all of these different groups and asked ourselves, "What if we could bring them together?" It would be amazing. You would get all those data and analysis and transparency tools to the very communities who most need them to advocate for a more equitable distribution of resources. Actually, the idea came out of a U.S. Programs board meeting that representatives of some of these groups attended. Long story short, they were so excited about meeting each other they asked whether we would be willing to support additional convenings, which we have. And the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with folks telling us that they learned a lot from each other and are beginning to partner in new ways.

PND: Has the recession become a focus for you and your colleagues?

AB: Yes. George Soros was early to recognize that the subprime mortgage crisis was going to drive a much bigger financial crisis. As soon I arrived here, we created the Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative. The idea was to support immediate interventions designed to help people, in a systemic reform kind of way, who had gotten caught up in the subprime mortgage debacle. We launched that initiative even before the outlines of the broader economic crisis had become clear. And then last year, as the crisis deepened and spread to other sectors of the economy, we asked ourselves, "What else can we do?" And we came up with a couple of things.

The first was the initiative I mentioned around ensuring transparency and equity in the economic recovery. As soon as the stimulus package passed, we said, "Okay, what's going to happen as this money starts to be distributed to the states?" It was and is a huge amount of money. We felt it was important — this was the fall of 2009 — for advocacy groups at the state level to be able to monitor the flow of funds and pressure state governments to make sure the money actually got to communities most in need. So we supported partnerships and coalitions in eight different states. We also launched a poverty alleviation fund that supports direct service organizations working in the areas of education, employment, and benefits access.

PND: Are you hearing from those grantees that, in terms of the economy, the worst is behind us and things are getting better?

"...[W]e're hearing that people who didn't have a lot to begin with are even worse off now and that they aren't seeing any improvement, especially in the area of employment...."

AB: Not at all. In fact, we're hearing that people who didn't have a lot to begin with are even worse off now and that they aren't seeing any improvement, especially in the area of employment. They're also seeing the beginning of another negative trend in housing, with foreclosures affecting more and more people, including people usually considered solidly middle class. So we are proceeding as if the crisis isn't over and with the assumption that there need to be other interventions to address these problems long-term, especially the unemployment problem. While we see some signs of recovery, the recovery is not going to reach the people most in need for years to come. And so we will continue to make investments to address that fact. We were able to significantly increase our funding in 2009 rather than reduce it and provide additional support to some organizations when other foundations that were hit hard by the crisis couldn't.

Another example was our emergency response to the closure of the JEHT Foundation, which was a funding partner in a number of areas, primarily around criminal justice reform, national security/human rights issue, and election reform issues. As you know, JEHT got tangled up in Bernie Madoff's operation, ended up losing a large portion of its endowment in the scam, and was forced to close its doors. So we partnered with the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, both of which also fund a range of causes and organizations, and said, "What can we do to help the JEHT grantees we have in common?" After some discussion, we got a number of emergency grants out the door to those organizations. Unfortunately, we're not in a position to continue that funding over the long-term, but we have been able to extend it, at a reduced level, for a second year.

PND: What kind of impact has this recession had on the social contract and social cohesion in the United States?

AB: For starters, because of deregulation and welfare devolution having been promoted by successive administrations for thirty years, we simply don't have an adequate social safety net in this country anymore. That's another thing we hope to address in the coming year through targeted support of advocacy organizations that are making a strong argument for the need to strengthen the social safety net — in response to the economic crisis specifically, but also in response to globalization and other economic trends. We feel there's a real need to raise awareness about the critical need for basic benefits, so that people don't fall further behind and end up without options or hope.

PND: The country is closely divided politically and has been for at least a decade. Let's say a slight majority of people are in favor of strengthening the social safety net, while slightly less than half are opposed on political or philosophical grounds. In this era of large and growing public-sector deficits, how do you plan to persuade the "unpersuadable" of the need to spend more on basic safety net services?

AB: You know, I think what will convince them is the fact that these issues affect everyone. Everyone has a family member, a colleague, a neighbor who has been laid off, whose mortgage is under water, or who can't afford to pay their medical bills. This isn't an issue that divides people by political party, by race, or even by class. It affects everyone, and I think we need to come up with a way to talk about the issue and to talk about the role of government in providing a safety net for all Americans. I think it's the perfect time to have that conversation, in part because if you listen to the rhetoric on both the left and the right, the things they're complaining about are more or less the same — not having a job, not being able to feed the family, not being able to pay the mortgage. We need to do a better job of explaining why we think our solution — which is providing help to people who need it, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what their background or income level is — is the right solution.

PND: OSI is frequently described as a social justice grantmaker. Are we talking about social justice?

AB: You know, there are so many ways to define social justice. Fundamentally, it is about empowering people to advocate on their own behalf so that they have access to the resources and opportunities we all need to live a full and rich life. Fundamentally, it's about empowering people to have a seat at the table and to hold their government accountable. So, yes, we are talking about social justice.

PND: A criticism of social justice work — of philanthropy in general, for that matter — is that it tries to impose solutions in a top-down manner, whereas social problems, by definition, almost always are solved from the bottom up. To put it another way, why should we believe the rich and affluent can save the world? How do you respond to that kind of argument?

"...[W]e're uncomfortable with a world in which it is necessary for philanthropy to try to ameliorate conditions that should not exist in the first place...."

AB: What we're trying to do here at OSI is to make ourselves irrelevant. In other words, we're uncomfortable with a world in which it is necessary for philanthropy to try to ameliorate conditions that should not exist in the first place. The difference in our philosophy and approach is that by focusing on systemic reform, we're trying to fix the underlying conditions that perpetuate poverty and inequality. We're not simply giving people food when they're hungry or a temporary low-wage job when they need work. We're trying to empower people to advocate for a fairer, more just set of opportunities. And, ultimately, if we're successful, there'll be no need for social justice philanthropy.

PND: The things we've been talking about — racial inequality, the incarceration of black men, the growing divide between haves and have-nots — are stubborn, longstanding problems. Do you ever become discouraged by the scope and intractability of the problems you and your colleagues have chosen to tackle?

AB: Sure, I get discouraged. But I'm also encouraged every day, which is where we started the conversation. I mean, I am sometimes stunned that we are making progress at all — and yet, we do. Concrete progress. Policies are reformed. Inequalities are remedied. Government is held accountable when it doesn't do what it's supposed to do. For example, twenty states have reformed unfair sentencing laws, Congress passed healthcare reform that isn't perfect but will give millions of people access to medical care, and the U.S. Supreme Court blocked life sentences for juvenile offenders.

Many problems are not going to be fixed overnight. But we're in this for the long haul.

PND: And looking ahead five or ten years, how will you know whether your programs have had an impact?

AB:Measuring the impact of social justice grantmaking is challenging and, frankly, we are not one of those foundations that is obsessed with metrics. We also don't have any illusions that we're the only foundation working in these areas or that if we see change we can claim responsibility for it. That said, we think it is important to examine what we do, as opposed to what our grantees do, closely. We think it's important to look at the strategies we thought would be effective and try to determine whether they moved the ball forward. Sometimes it can be as simple is looking at, say, whether the number of young black men who are incarcerated is decreasing over time. In fact, there were reports in the media recently that said those numbers had fallen. I'd like to say our work has contributed to that trend, though I can't do so definitively. I'd also like to be able to say that a number of our programs are empowering people to take charge of their lives and to make a difference in their own communities, although that's harder to measure. We don't really know. But we have reason to believe that, through our work, fewer black men are being incarcerated and more and more people are engaged and active in their communities. And I would call that a success.

PND: In other words, if trends are moving in the right direction, that's enough?

AB: Yes. If we're making progress based on a number of factors that we're clear about in our strategic plan, then, absolutely, we're going to stick with those programs. We aren't going to get discouraged and jump to something else. Social change takes a long time. But look at how far we've come. Brown versus Board of Education was tried and failed multiple times before it was won. As I say, social change and justice requires patience. There will be setbacks, but if we stick with it, we'll see progress.

PND: Well, thank you for your time, Ann.

AB: Thank you.

PND publisher/editorial director Mitch Nauffts spoke with Beeson in March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.