Editors’ Note: Susan Berresford, the former president of the Ford Foundation, remembers her friend and Ford colleague Alison Bernstein, who passed away on June 30th.
Alison Bernstein came into my life when she was a candidate for a program officer job at the Ford Foundation. It took me only 10 minutes to know we should and would hire her. She had intelligence, broad interests, political savvy, a commitment to reform, and creativity. Plus she was confident and funny. Later, after she has spent a period at Princeton, I rehired her as a Vice President.
Alison’s philanthropic achievements spanned what I believe are Ford’s four areas of frequent “home-runs”: support for social justice movements, creation of powerful new organizations, support for fellowships that help alter the demography of a field, and incubation of new ideas. In some of these areas she advanced work already underway, albeit in new ways, and in others, she pioneered.
Ford did have a noble history of supporting the civil rights and international human rights movements, and Alison carried on this tradition with robust support for women’s studies and feminist scholarship across several disciplines. She convened feminist leaders and upcoming talent, helping establish mentorships and networks that thrive today. She gave particular emphasis to the study of minority women’s lives and experiences. The author of several scholarly and more popular books herself on feminism and social justice, she funded and mentored many of the individuals who lead these fields today.
She not only maintained Ford’s large programs of fellowships for minorities and those interested in diversity, but also helped create the International Fellowship Program with the largest Ford grant in history – $300 million for proven community leaders from marginalized communities around the globe. That program refuted every negative stereotype about marginalized students when the results showed that almost all were admitted to highly competitive graduate programs in open and transparent processes, that they excelled academically, and that they returned home to become leaders. No shadowy selection processes and no brain drain.
The Foundation had a long history of work with native communities, and for a considerable period of time, Ford had two Native American trustees. Alison helped sustain these kinds of commitments. The Native Arts and Cultures Fund was started under her leadership, and it now makes grants to Native artists and cultural leaders for their creative expression. She funded Native colleges and museums that preserved and reinforced native cultures. In that same spirit, she helped create another new organization, United States Artists, that makes unrestricted $50,000 grants to individual artists from all communities across the US, at all career stages, and in all disciplines.
Colleagues who knew Alison recognized that while she greatly admired and enhanced Ford’s legacy program areas, she was also a path-breaker, entering new fields that were complex and increasingly important in societies around the globe. Three areas are particularly interesting in this regard.
First, she sponsored research on human sexuality that drew scholars from other fields to the increasingly important issues of identity, bias, media imagery, sexual politics and more. Controversial at the time, the work informed policy and practice in fields such as reproductive health, youth development, and LGBT concerns, not only in the US, but also in several countries where Ford had overseas offices.
Taking on another complex and often controversial subject, she funded pioneering work by Ford on the powerful social role of religion in US society, and on the early diversity of religious teaching that was overlooked or ignored by many religious scholars and leaders. She gave special attention to the role of women in religious leadership. Her regular convenings of grantees in these fields fostered new coalitions and partnerships.
A very substantial innovation in Ford’s education work could be seen in Alison’s support for community colleges, where so many first generation college students begin a path through higher education. Determined to improve the academic role of the 2 year colleges, and the articulation between 2 and 4 year institutions, Alison sought out and funded some of the most creative community college managers and leaders across the U.S. The Ford board was particularly interested in this work and so we planned several Ford trustee visits to see this work in action. The trips always generated great enthusiasm.
We had only one foul-up on a trip to a US border area for our trustees to meet with a range of community college students and leaders. When our trustees climbed out of the bus we had hired, one with slicked-down hair, aviator sunglasses and a shiny grey suit looked to some of those gathered with us just like an immigration officer, causing a number of the students to flee. But we recovered when, at the end of the panel discussion, we asked the remaining students if they wanted to question the trustees. They sure did, and most of their questions were about how the board members got to be so successful. A very substantial number of the trustees had come from very meager beginnings, and the students loved their stories of climbing the ladder and overcoming hardships. Alison thrived on these kinds of encounters.
She funded film and media, helping gather significant funding for programs and creative expression in the new outlets that were beginning to emerge. K-12 education reform occupied a significant place on Alison’s agenda, as she persistently worked to expand and evaluate small-scale successes within schools, enabling them to reach larger and larger numbers across a system.
Alison had a keen understanding of how change can occur in societies, and how various types of change and a dose of good luck could prompt positive advances. She knew that ideas and organizations both matter, but that individuals create ideas and drive them into the DNA of organizations, so fellowships and support for particularly creative and pioneering men and women were crucial if you cared about diverse perspectives informing decision-making.
On a more personal level, Alison had a great capacity for friendship. She could bring people together, seek out and encourage someone suffering and struggling, host a jolly group, plan a theatre party or a trip. And this was not just derived from the many interesting people she came across as she worked at Ford and elsewhere. Alison knew that grant-makers could seem very popular and welcome since they have money to give. So her friendships included but went beyond professional associations.
She also was a fabulous mother – having announced to me one day that she and her then partner, Prue, were expecting and that she was the pregnant one. Never doing things in half-measures, Alison had twin girls, Emma and Julia. She doted on them, and told us of their every advance and very occasional stumbles. Alison and Prue courageously helped push the law to enable them both to be recognized as parents, not easy in the then world that resisted same-sex unions and parenting.
To me, she was a dear friend. She helped lift my spirits when I hit an inevitable bump or bad period. She was always game for movies, theatre, concerts, lectures, opera and all other delights NYC offers. Being the president of a foundation can sometimes be professionally lonely, and Alison was the greatest picker-upper you can imagine.
Alison gave so much in so many ways. I miss her greatly.
Susan Berresford served as president of the Ford Foundation from 1996-2007. She is currently a philanthropy consultant at the New York Community Trust.