By Keith Hefner
Trustee, New York Foundation
Executive Director, Youth Communication
(from remarks delivered on October 7, 2009)
The New York Foundation believes in the quaint idea that individuals, and people working together in communities, have the ability to identify the challenges they face and the obstacles to overcoming them.
We appreciate professional expertise but we think it must be joined with the deep knowledge of community members. And we love clever ideas and solutions but we have observed that when they are proposed and executed from above they lack staying power. It is the process of organizing that helps people develop the independent capacity to analyze, take action, reflect, and change course. Imposed solutions lack the responsiveness and resiliency of grassroots change.
We value good data but we know that data provide only a rough picture of the complexity of people’s lives and communities and what it takes to make them better. To really know a place or understand a problem, we believe you have to listen carefully to the people who experience it every day. Close listening helps us learn, and it often helps grantees clarify their thinking and find or strengthen their voices.
We admire programs that have demonstrated their success through good research or other means…but we know that if we were to fund only programs or “interventions” that are already demonstrated to be successful, we would never fund a new idea.
In a city of constant change and emerging challenges, we place bets on a lot of new ideas and organizations.
Finally, we believe that the best solutions to many problems are not readily apparent. They emerge only out of dialogue, discussion, and struggle—over ideas, money, and power.
Those struggles are messy and unpredictable. Engaging them is what leads to change. And, even more importantly, participating in those struggles builds the disposition and nurtures the capacity of parents, young people, immigrants, senior citizens—to improve their communities for the long term.
It helps people develop the skills and confidence to recognize opportunities; to join others to take action. That is what we have funded grantees to do for one hundred years.
The struggle never ends. But tonight we celebrate the fact that thanks to them (and that includes you, the people in this room), New York is a more tolerant, generous, just, and welcoming city.
With more struggle, there will be more progress. KEEP IT UP. Thank you.
Keith Hefner founded Youth Communication, an organization which helps teenagers develop their reading and writing skills so they can acquire the information they need to make thoughtful choices about their lives, in 1980. Prior to founding Youth Communication, Mr. Hefner published a magazine and a series of books on youth issues. He won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, and he was a Charles H. Revson Fellow on the Future of New York City at Columbia University during the 1986-87 academic year. In 1997 Mr. Hefner received the Luther P. Jackson Award for Educational Excellence from the New York Association of Black Journalists.