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When I was first appointed president of the Ford Foundation, I felt joy and excitement about the work to come. Every year since then, I have offered a September message in this same spirit—to share my perspective, to honestly engage with issues facing philanthropy and the world, and to illuminate my sources of hope.
As I begin my fifth year, however, my sense of optimism has been tested like never before. For the first time I can remember, I am troubled by a deep sense of anxiety and anguish for my country.
As a native Texan, I have been pained by Hurricane Harvey’s devastating impact on the Texas Gulf Coast. I grew up in two small towns, between Beaumont and Houston, that were ravaged by the storm. My heart breaks for the people and families who, but for fate, would have been my neighbors, and for the community that nurtured and supported me. The news from Texas has only compounded the worry I have for America and clarified the need—especially during such troubled times—for compassionate, competent, and courageous leadership.
Like so many of you, I am bewildered, almost daily, by the onslaught of dispiriting, sometimes debilitating news. Just this week, a new, politicized (and heartless) assault on young, mostly Latino immigrants—the cancellation of DACA—has left me reeling. When I travel to visit the organizations we work with in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, friends and colleagues express shock about America’s leadership and standing in the global community.
While we’ve endured challenging times before, I have always maintained an unwavering faith in America’s promise and, more broadly, in our democratic values—and I still do. I have always believed that progress is cumulative—that, as more people and communities win their place in the circle of American equality and opportunity, this circle will continue expanding, in a virtuous cycle.
At the same time, I recall James Baldwin’s words during the heights of the civil rights movement in 1965: “History … does not refer merely ... to the past ... History is literally present in all that we do.” And so I am mindful that just like the leaders who came before us, we are caught between the history from which we emerge and the history to which we aspire.