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

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

Should The Denver Foundation continue to fund health care?

7 05 2010

In a previous post, I posed the question whether The Denver Foundation should continue to fund arts and cultural organizations.  Today, I ask whether The Denver Foundation should continue to fund health care organizations.

Of course, health care is important — that is not the issue.  The question is whether grants from The Denver Foundation can make a significant difference in the area of health care.

The health industry is a large and growing part of the U.S. economy.  Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on health care every year, grants from The Denver Foundation are literally a drop in the bucket.

In addition, there are four very large health conversion foundations in Colorado.  These foundations are legally required to dedicate all or much of their grant resources to health.  In this environment, it might be argued that The Denver Foundation should dedicate its resources elsewhere. 

On the other hand, it is hard to overstate the importance of health and its connections to the health of our society in general.  Children cannot learn unless they’re healthy.  The unemployed and untrained often cannot get jobs unless they are healthy.

Some years ago, Dr. Mary Pipher wrote a book about aging called Another Country.  In the book, Dr. Pipher distinguishes between “the old” and “the very old.”  From a societal perspective, the very old are much more of a burden on families and on public systems.  From an individual perspective, the difference between these groups is defined almost exclusively by health.  People can be “very old” and in their 50s if they are unhealthy.  Conversely, people can be in their 90s and not “very old” if they are healthy.  The significance of one’s health to one’s quality of life over the long term is paramount and cannot be overstated.

Because of this, I feel strongly that The Denver Foundation should continue to make grants in the area of health.  Despite the large amounts of government and foundation dollars directed toward health care and access to health care, huge gaps remain.  All of the health conversion foundations in Colorado have specific priorities and areas of focus.  There are many unfilled niches where The Denver Foundation can be helpful.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation