Interview with a Veteran of Hope: Dr. Vincent Harding

17 08 2010

Lauren Casteel and I recently had the honor of meeting with Dr. Vincent Harding, Professor Emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology.  Dr. Harding graciously agreed to talk to us about The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project.  Because he was so eloquent, I have decided not to try to paraphrase his words.  Instead, I am presenting this in interview format.  We did not tape record the conversation, so Dr. Harding’s comments are not reported verbatim.  However, he reviewed, edited, and approved them before we posted this.  This is a long post; I encourage you to read the whole thing if you have time. 

Denver Foundation: Thank you for agreeing to let us pick your brain about the future of The Denver Foundation and philanthropic needs in our community.

Dr. Harding: You may pick my brain as long as you also pick my heart.

Your question has touched a spigot.  The first thing that came to my mind was a conversation my wife Rose and I had with María Guajardo when we first came to Denver in 1981.  María reminded us that demographers were predicting that Denver was a few decades ahead of the United States in terms of its diversity.  Therefore, what we do here is not limited to our city.  We in Denver can make a contribution to the entire country.

I am currently writing an article for Sojourners magazine about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin said he dreamt of a time when his children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.  The question that follows is how do you measure the content of a person’s character?  You must know that person as an equal, as a fellow human being.  We do not have the social or other structures to draw us into the encounters which will make it possible for us to be able to measure each other’s character.

Secondly, Martin dreamt of the time when little black and white girls and boys will be able to join hands.  Here again, the question is how they can get close enough to join hands when society today is pulling them apart.

So, this is on my mind when I think about what our community needs.  The Denver Foundation should convene people frequently.  The foundation should help to measure the character of people and to bring children close enough to be able to join hands.  Children start out with the need to join hands, but they can be discouraged by silence and by the absence of opportunities for touching and being touched.   

The Denver Foundation: What could the process of bridge building mean?  How do you practice the process of building common ground? Is the current economic and political environment changing this?  

Dr. Harding: The United States Social Forum recently met in Detroit.  This is a group of community organizers whose manifesto, which started in Brazil, says, “Another world is possible.”  They’re developing models for what a post-industrial city should look like and be like.  Grace Boggs, widow of the late Jimmy Boggs, is a first generation Chinese-American who speaks about this.  She notes that there are two aspects of the Chinese character for crisis: a time of great danger and a time of great opportunity.

The Great Depression caused a lot of pain but also generated a lot of creativity.

A West African, during the liberation struggles against colonialism in the 1960s, said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.”  You have to dream something before it can happen.

The Gardening Angels are a group of African-Americans in Detroit who moved there from the South.  They are teaching young children about community gardens.  They are one image that comes to my mind.  Schools in Detroit are now developing school gardens, where food goes straight into the school lunch program.  Look for opportunities for children to do things creatively together.

In our Ambassadors of Hope Project, we had diverse teens living together for a few weeks on the University of Denver campus.  None of these kids had ever lived with people from a different racial group.  One of these teens is now a youth organizer for Padres Unidos.  There, he is trying to bring black and brown children together.  We can help dozens of young people like him.

What kind of education is necessary to nurture young people who will be leaders in the development of a multiracial, compassionate democratic society? How do you create compassionate democratic leaders? How do you nurture people who can lead a multiracial society?  The Denver Foundation, located in a city like this, is well positioned to help with this work.

You do not become democratic just by being born here.  The democratic spirit has to be nurtured and developed.

Until Montgomery, most of us in the North (black and white) looked at rural southern black people as being somewhat backward.  Those people surprised us and became the heart of the movement to transform our entire nation.  “At risk” kids are really children of promise.

The Denver Foundation: We are increasingly concerned about boys in our society.  What do you think?

Dr. Harding: I have seen what great things young men can do.  But they have to be surrounded by people who value them.  We need to encourage young men to be all that they can be.  The New Jim Crow talks about how the U.S. penal system is turning young men into outcasts without any sense of future.  The author talks about the school-to- prison pipeline.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this work without being top down?

Dr. Harding: Start with people like Terrance Roberts from Prodigal Son and women from Mi Casa who are already working in the community.  The Denver Foundation should be honest brokers.  Bring together people from multiple generations, from separated communities.

The Denver Foundation:  For the last four years, we have hosted a paid internship program for college students to work in local nonprofit organizations.  We focus on students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the nonprofit sector.

Dr. Harding: This sounds like a great program.  You should ask your interns what is their purpose now.  Many of them have overcome huge obstacles.  The question is, what next?  Do they want to be famous or make money, or do they want to help create the country that does not yet exist?

I remember that in the years before the Southern Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement picked up momentum many black (and some white) southerners dealt with the terrors and injustices of white supremacy by leaving the south.  It was only after a new generation of young people decided to stay and work for change that the south and the nation could be transformed.  (For instance, Martin Luther King declined numerous job offers in the North in order to return to the South.)  The work is clearly not complete but it could not have been begun unless a generation decided to stay and commit themselves to the dangerous and magnificent work of change.  I believe the same commitment, vision and courage are needed to creatively transform our urban areas—South, North, East and West including Denver, Colorado.  I don’t think that it’s wise to give our best and brightest young people the signal that their ultimate goal should be to escape from their home communities.  Young people who do succeed in overcoming difficult circumstances should do more than just buy their momma a house.  We need to encourage them to help transform the communities from which they came.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this?

Dr. Harding: For starters, find people like me who have been through that experience who can talk to them, also, give people regular opportunities to come together.  We need to develop new institutions for nurturing people – this used to be done by families, churches and schools.  Your internship program sounds good, but do not drop them at the end of the summer.

The Denver Foundation: Who has been most influential in you life?

Dr. Harding: There are so many people: my mother, my wife, my daughter, and many of my teachers.

The Denver Foundation: What role do you think The Denver Foundation should play in education?

Dr. Harding: The Denver Foundation should help to create a humane public-school education experience for the children of this city.  Young people have to be nurtured in the meaning and beauty of multiracial democratic life.  People have discomfort taking on issues of race and class in America.  We have to address these questions with our young people.  Something has to be done to help teachers talk creatively about race and the gifts of a multiracial society.

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation


Words of Wisdom from Peter Goldmark

6 08 2010

Readers:  This is Part 2 of a Blog Post about David Miller’s meeting with Peter Goldmark.  Click here for Part 1.

Peter Goldmark did not know what I was going to ask him, so he did not do any advance preparation. Essentially, I asked him what areas he might get involved in if he were running The Denver Foundation in the next several years. He rattled off a large number of ideas in a remarkably short period of time. All of his ideas were off the top of his head, so they were general concepts.

Here are some of the main suggestions Peter Goldmark made for The Denver Foundation to explore:

1. Americans have become very polarized. Do we really want Americans to be fighting each other when the economy is so bad, when millions of American children are in poverty, and when we are facing intense economic competition around the world? The United States was founded on a variety of compromises. For centuries, people in other countries have admired how we govern ourselves – our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances. There is a huge hunger in this country to overcome the growing partisanship. We should encourage our elected officials at all levels to reach across the aisle, make compromises, and work together.

2. Forty percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. We need to reduce the carbon that buildings emit by retrofitting old buildings and building new ones that are cleaner.

A model that might be useful in this regard is the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) of the 1970s and 1980s. CDCs did not just improve housing in blighted areas. They reintroduced social values.  In one building, a middle-aged woman in the Bronx got fed up with the drug dealers. She organized tenants, kicked out the drug dealers, fixed up the building, and became fierce in protecting the building and making people pay rent on time.

The CDC model was successful in part because there were some national intermediaries such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Intermediaries will probably be necessary for energy efficiency and retrofitting because it is technically complex. These intermediaries can be a buffer between large sources of money and all the local churning. It also is helpful to have a progressive utility company. Such a project could provide jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and use energy more efficiently.

3. The Environmental Defense Fund has organized a project involving business school students and energy efficiency. Twenty business school students are selected for an internship and given a short training program on energy efficiency. Each intern is then assigned to a different company with the task of analyzing the operations of the company to save energy. The first group of 20 interns saved their companies a total of $30 million through energy efficiencies!

4. In today’s world, every foundation, including community foundations, should have an international component. One part of this should be helping to reduce the local carbon footprint, to reduce the global impact of carbon emissions. However, that is not enough. There also should be international engagement. One way to do this might be through the arts and arts exchanges.

5. We need a place where anyone throughout the world can be a citizen. We need a place with no boundaries and no military, a place that transcends nationalism. Perhaps this could be Antarctica. The current treaties regarding the non-militarization of Antarctica expire in a few decades.

6. We are losing newspapers. Think about the value and the skills of the people in the traditional newsroom. How can we preserve that? Perhaps The Denver Foundation could make grants to journalists and young people to deliver independent, high-quality news in the community. You could establish and support what would be the equivalent of a local bureau of the Associated Press.

7. Look for successful programs around the country and bring them to Denver. One example might be a project in Boston called The Community Builders. This organization provides financial coaching for families in low-income housing. It assists them with job connections and seems to be effective and efficient.

8. Work with the state government to create a public authority that buys energy efficient HVAC systems for public buildings of all kinds.

9. Get successful charter schools involved in reducing childhood obesity. These schools are already models for education reform. Use their leadership to help show how school-based programs can be used to reduce childhood obesity.

As you can see, these ideas are both broad and deep. I’m sure if I had another hour with Peter Goldmark he could have doubled the length of this list. These ideas provide great food for thought. I welcome input from readers as to which of these ideas are most worth exploring.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Connecting with a Visionary: Peter Goldmark

26 07 2010

Peter Goldmark is one of the most interesting, creative, and thoughtful people I have ever met.

For starters, Peter’s career is one of the most fascinating I can imagine.  He has worked at very high levels in all three sectors: public, private, and nonprofit.  As a young whiz kid in his 30s, Peter was the budget director for the State of New York and then executive director of the New York Port Authority.  He then became president of the Rockefeller Foundation.  After that, he moved to Europe, where he served as chairman and CEO of the International Herald Tribune.  Today, Peter directs the Climate and Air Program for the Environmental Defense Fund.  What a remarkable career!

I first met Peter about 30 years ago, when I was working for Colorado Governor Dick Lamm.  Governor Lamm invited Peter, who was then head of the New York Port Authority, to a cabinet retreat.  Peter helped put in perspective the problems and issues we were facing in Colorado, and he provided creative suggestions for our state government.

I next saw Peter in 1998, shortly after I had begun work at The Denver Foundation.  Peter was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of community foundations in Miami.  At the time, he was CEO of the International Herald Tribune.  In 1998, community foundation leaders were focused on a variety of local issues, such as crime, education, and access to health care.  In Peter’s keynote speech, he said that the biggest issue confronting community foundations in the United States would be…international terrorism!

This was three years before 9/11.  At the time, I don’t think international terrorism was on the radar screen of any community foundation executive in the United States.  I daresay that most people at the conference thought Peter was a bit crazy.  His admonitions about terrorism seemed unduly alarmist and unrelated to our daily lives. 

Immediately after 9/11, I remembered Peter’s speech.  Through the Council on Foundations, which had sponsored the conference, I was not able to get a transcript of the speech, but I secured an audio tape.  I then transcribed tape and I’ve re-read the speech dozens of times.

Peter was extraordinarily prescient about 9/11.  After describing the threats of international terrorism, he spoke about how to prepare for – and hopefully prevent it.  He said communities need to, “build a framework of trust and shared values which will allow them to work together.  And this is a process in which community foundations have both experience and credentials.”  He went on to say that getting to know your neighbors is also critical.

Peter concluded the speech by imploring communities to be prepared for international terrorism.  “Let us then prepare against a chance, a possibility even as daunting as this, a possibility we would rather not think about, ‘for chance happeneth to them all.’  Societies that prepare themselves to meet severe challenges are the ones that most often surmount them.  Communities that have thought and prepared in order to uphold their most fundamental values in the midst of a crisis are the ones that most often preserve them.”

These remarkable words were spoken three full years before 9/11.  Needless to say, I have thought about them frequently in the last nine years.

When The Denver Foundation and I began the Next Decade Project, one of the very first people I thought to contact was Peter Goldmark.  I couldn’t imagine anyone better to help us gaze into the future and prepare for the next decade.

I contacted Peter and asked if he would be willing to meet with me.  Even though he really didn’t know me, he graciously agreed to have a conversation.  Originally, we were scheduled to meet in California as part of my first trip for the Next Decade Project.  Alas, due to fog in the Bay Area, Peter’s plane was delayed by more than four hours and we were unable to meet.

Shortly thereafter, Peter volunteered to stop in Denver on his way from New York to California.  I am still humbled by this generous act.  The stop in Denver added at least six hours to Peter’s travel day.  And he agreed to do this for a virtual stranger!

I picked up Peter at DIA and we drove to Strings Restaurant for lunch.  I like to patronize Strings because its owner, Noel Cunningham, is one of the most caring and philanthropic people I know.  Plus, the food is delicious.  Peter and I had an extended lunch conversation at Strings, after which I drove him back to DIA for his flight to California. 

In my next blog post, I will recount some of Peter’s many interesting ideas for The Denver Foundation.

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Boys Face Challenges

7 07 2010

“Well I talk about boys now, what a bundle of joy.” – Ringo Starr singing the Beatles song “Boys.”

A recent Lilith magazine cover boldly stated, BOYS ARE THE NEW GIRLS.” The current issue of The Atlantic has a fascinating article titled, “The End of Men.” 

When I first got involved with foundations nearly 20 years ago, there was great concern about girls. I worked closely with Swanee Hunt, founder of The Hunt Alternatives Fund, and Lauren Casteel, President of The Hunt Alternatives Fund.

Among the many issues of interest to Swanee and Lauren at the time was “girls.” Swanee was one of the founders of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado and Lauren was one of its early Board members. They were concerned about many ways in which females lagged behind males, including pay scales, glass ceilings, and elective office. The Hunt Alternatives Fund worked on a variety of projects aimed at helping girls, such as trying to reduce the math and science achievement gap and trying to reduce teen pregnancies.

Today, as evidenced by Lilith and The Atlantic, there is a growing concern about boys.

Less than 43% of college students in the United States today are males. Scholarship programs in Colorado and elsewhere struggle mightily to find enough qualified boys. The high school dropout rate for boys is dramatically higher than for girls. And, needless to say, there are far more young males than females in prison. For boys of color and boys from lower socio-economic groups, the disparities are even larger and more disturbing. These boys, as Lauren says, are “canaries in the mine.” Recently, former Colorado First Lady Dottie Lamm wrote a powerful column in the Denver Post about boys.  She asked, “If the advocacy efforts to move middle-school and high-school girls into math and sciences… in the 1980s and 90s paid off, why wouldn’t a similar effort work on behalf of boys’ literacy in elementary school?” Several years ago, Dottie Lamm was the leading feminist in Colorado. For her to talk about boys in this way is truly stunning.

No one is suggesting that the glass ceilings have been shattered. No one is suggesting that there is complete equality between men and women in the workplace. But, clearly we as a society are not doing enough to help boys succeed. I think we need to focus on both boys and girls. And, we need to focus on all ages, from infancy through college.

As we as a society strive to help all children succeed, is there a role for The Denver Foundation related to boys? Is this something The Denver Foundation should get involved in when we do our next Strategic Plan?

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

In Support of Our Veterans

18 06 2010

I have just finished reading David Halberstam’s book about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter, and I am feeling very guilty.  Millions of people have gone to war and fought for our country and we – I – haven’t done enough for them.

Americans almost unanimously accepted the need to defend our country in World War II.  Veterans from that war came home as heroes.  Few of them, however, felt comfortable talking about the mental traumas they had experienced.
The Korean War in the 1950s is almost a forgotten war today.  Halberstam said, “Korea became something of a black hole in terms of history.”  After reading Halberstam’s book, I am making an effort to learn more about the Korean War.  I am talking to veterans of Korea, such as civic and business leader Dick Robinson, to learn about their experiences.

Years after the Korean War, many veterans of the Vietnam War came home to scorn and ridicule because of the war’s unpopularity.  Americans my age and younger have all avoided compulsory military service because the draft hasn’t been active.  I don’t think any of us can fully appreciate the anxiety and the responsibility that comes with being drafted.

And now we come to today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Because of improved medical treatment and technology, many who would have died in the past are surviving injuries sustained in war.  Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently spoke at a conference in Denver.  Admiral Mullen said that every soldier who has seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has experienced trauma and every one of them will experience some sort of post traumatic stress.

Some shocking statistics from the Pew Research Center demonstrate that the burden of fighting for our country is falling on a smaller and smaller segment of the population.  When males in the “Silent Generation” (those born before 1945) were ages 18 to 28, 24% of them had veteran status.  When Baby Boomers were that age, 13% of them were veterans.  When members of Generation X were that age, only 6% were veterans.  And, today, those that age are only 2% veterans.

An even more stark way to look at the numbers is veteran status among males today.  For those aged 64 and older today, 53% are veterans.  For those aged 45-63, 20% are veterans.  For those aged 29-44, 8% are veterans.  And for those aged 18-28, 2% are veterans.

The burdens of military service today also fall disproportionately upon disadvantaged groups.  The proportions of African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and low income people in the military are substantially greater than their proportions in the general population.  An appalling report from the Pentagon stated that 30% of all women in the military have suffered sexual abuse.  And, gays and lesbians in the military must still choose between coerced silence and discharge.

In his speech, Admiral Mullen listed a wide variety of needs that returning veterans face.  These include education, training, and good medical care.  They also include assistance in fighting homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse.  These are all services that many foundations, including The Denver Foundation, are already helping to provide.

Another serious concern for our society is the families of veterans.  Admiral Mullen pointed out that a 10-year-old child in 2001 whose parent is in the military might have barely seen that parent in the last 10 years.  That child is now old enough to go to college.  This phenomenon is because both the duration and the number of tours of duty have increased during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Some foundations are already working to help families of veterans as well as the veterans themselves.  The Fisher Foundation has built nearly 50 “Fisher Houses” around the country; these are a home away from home for families of patients receiving medical care at major military and VA medical centers.  The Lewis E. Myers Caregivers Fund at The Denver Foundation provides the spouses, parents, and other unpaid caregivers of wounded military personnel with financial assistance, helping with rent, utilities, mortgage payments, car payments, food, and other immediate needs.

All of us should think about reaching out to our veterans and their families and finding out what their challenges are.  All of us should think about what more we can do to help our veterans and their families.

Community Visioning for the Future

3 06 2010

One of my recent Next Decade meetings was with Vincent “Vinny” McGee. Vinny is one of my role models and mentors in the foundation world.

Vinny is currently a senior advisor at the Atlantic Philanthropies and a board member of several foundations. He began his work in philanthropy nearly 40 years ago at The DJB Foundation. For 17 years, from 1984 to 2002, he was Executive Director and Vice President at the Aaron Diamond Foundation and the Irene Diamond Fund.

The Diamonds had set three areas of focus: medical research, minority education, and culture. Interestingly, they requested that the foundation distribute all of its assets within 10 years of the death of either of them.

Within 10 years of the unexpected death of Aaron Diamond, the foundation that Vinny led had supported work of extraordinary progress in AIDS research and treatment. Vinny has now become a well-known expert on foundations that choose to “spend down” and give away all of their assets in a fixed number of years.

Because spending down is not an option for a community foundation, I asked Vinny for other advice about the future of The Denver Foundation. He had several intriguing suggestions. One of his ideas was that The Denver Foundation take a year or so and convene a community scenario-creating process. The Denver Foundation could ask people from all walks of life in the Metro Denver area to participate in thinking about where we want our region to be in the year 2030. This extensive process could include public hearings, children’s essay contest, and the involvement of civic and religious institutions.

As an example, Vinny referred me to a scenario process which he has followed in South Africa. A description of this is available at

This suggestion reminded me of the first job that I had after completing my formal education. In 1979, I was hired by Colorado Governor Dick Lamm to work on his staff, and I was assigned to work on the Front Range Project. The Front Range Project was a community-based effort to examine growth along Colorado’s Front Range from 1980 to 2000. The Front Range Project was very much a community-based scenario-building effort similar to the one that Vinny recommended.

The Front Range Project created an extensive network of citizen committees. There were committees in all 13 of the Front Range counties, from Larimer County in the north (Fort Collins) to Pueblo County in the south. In addition, there were subject area committees, dealing with issues such as transportation, human services, local governments, and natural resources.

The process for selecting the county committees was particularly interesting and unusual. First, we would invite a diverse group of people to come to an organizing meeting in each county. At the organizing meeting, we would ask the participants to list the categories of people that should be represented on the county committee. Typically, participants would suggest categories such as real estate developers, environmentalists, small business owners, and union leaders.

Next, we asked organizing meeting participants to list under each category the key leaders in the county. So, they would list the key real estate developers, the key environmentalists, and so forth. Finally, we asked all of the participants to vote for their top choices in each category.

In this way, environmentalists in the room would vote for real estate developers and vice versa. The people ultimately selected for the county committees would be those who could work effectively with people representing different perspectives. In other words, the real estate developers selected for the committee were individuals most respected by environmentalists and the environmentalists selected for the committee were those most respected by real estate developers.

The resulting county committees included leaders who were able to understand and appreciate different viewpoints. Together, they created impressive visions for the future of the Front Range.

The committees were asked four questions about their county or their subject area:

• Where are we now?

• Where are we headed?

• Where do we want to be in 2000?

• How do we get there?

The visioning process like the Front Range Project has not taken place in 30 years. Is this something The Denver Foundation should organize?

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

A Discussion with Vice President Gore

27 05 2010

A few weeks ago, as part of The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project, I had the honor and privilege of meeting with Al Gore: Nobel Prize winner, Oscar winner, and former Vice President of the United States.  Vice President Gore was in Denver as the keynote speaker at the national conference of the Council on Foundations.  He was very generous in agreeing to meet with me privately to talk about The Denver Foundation.

I explained to Vice President Gore that grants from The Denver Foundation’s community endowment must be used to benefit residents of the seven-county Metro Denver area.  Given our geographical boundaries, I asked what The Denver Foundation might do to address issues raised by climate change.

The Vice President immediately rattled off a list of specific, concrete suggestions.  Among them were the following: 

  • Support tree planting programs 
  • Assist transportation planning, such as conversion of buses to natural gas 
  • Promote energy efficiency programs for buildings; buildings produce 40% of all carbon emissions
  • Enhance and expand recycling and composting programs

I asked the Vice President if he could only select one project what would it be?  He said the top priority should probably be working to increase public awareness of these problems and their solutions.

Finally, I asked if we should focus on the areas that we as a city do pretty well or focus on the areas that we do poorly compared to other places.  He said every city is different, but generally it is better to work on our weaker areas and try to improve them.

Vice President Gore referred me to projects in other cities that are worth studying.  The East Lake project in Atlanta is an example of creative partnerships among real estate developers, foundations, and neighborhood residents.  A similar program is underway in Indianapolis.  These area-wide projects can achieve multiple objectives: reducing crime, improving educational achievement, and strengthening neighborhoods – while at the same time cleaning the environment.  Chattanooga, Tennessee is a city on the forefront of conversions of buses to natural gas.

The Denver Foundation supports a wide variety of environmental organizations and programs through its community grants program and its donor advised funds.  Like all of our grants, they tend to be relatively small.  Grants from the community grants program average about $15,000.  Grants from donor-advised funds average considerably less.

The overwhelming majority of the scientific community is convinced that global warming is a serious problem – if not the most serious problem we face here on earth.  In his keynote speech, Vice President Gore noted that each meter of rise in the ocean level will create 100 million climate refugees!

In light of the magnitude of this problem, should The Denver Foundation in the next decade radically change its approach to grantmaking? 

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation