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The Fierce Urgency of Atlantic: Bending the Arc in Our Final Years

Resource type: News

Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies |

Thirteen years ago, The Atlantic Philanthropies’ founding chairman Chuck Feeney and our Board of Directors made the decision to complete our grantmaking by the end of 2016. That seemed a long time away. The distant target has now become next year.

HourglassAfter extended deliberations during this past year we have identified the fields and the places in which we will be making our final, culminating investments. What we hope to achieve in our final two years of grantmaking is to make transformative, lasting changes within communities and in issue areas where Atlantic has made significant, longstanding investments.  Certain details are still under development but the thrust of our final work is clear.  Some of these most recent final “big bets,” as Chuck calls them, are described below.

This convergence of limited time and resources provides an unprecedented impetus to deliver on our foundation’s promise of strategic, big bet philanthropy to achieve transformative change.  We aim squarely at addressing the root causes of disadvantage and vulnerability, challenging and changing destructive and discriminatory narratives and practices, and dismantling societal and systemic barriers that impede fair opportunity and equity.

Crossroads on the Bay

Fostering access to and supporting the advancement of health, education and equality infuses all the work we’ve done and will continue to do in our remaining life. Nowhere has the convergence of these principles been more apparent and exemplary than in California’s Bay Area, where Atlantic has been funding for over 20 years, a region that Chuck has described as an “important crossroads” of ideas, innovation and identity.

Chuck’s longtime interest in capital investment and building the capacities of higher education institutions to foster groundbreaking medical research and cross-disciplinary, translational scientific collaboration is manifest in Atlantic’s funding of the construction of state-of-the-art facilities at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), particularly UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.

On 1 February, the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay officially opened its doors. The three new hospitals on campus are the first to open in San Francisco in decades. That day, the collaboration of hundreds of physicians, nurses and other staff helped move 131 patients into the new hospitals and outpatient facilities. The first baby – a seven-pound boy – was born at Mission Bay just after noon.

Iris VanDalen, 16, receives a warm welcome at the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay. Photo by Noah Berger
Iris VanDalen, 16, receives a warm welcome at the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay. Photo by Noah Berger

The Mission Bay campus, funded in part through $290 million in grants from Atlantic, is more than the sum of its parts. Focusing on children’s and women’s health and cancer, the world-class Center is not simply a collection of buildings – it’s an undertaking to address the systemic health challenges of the 21st century, in the Bay Area and globally, while meeting the tangible health needs of patients, their families and caregivers.

“This is not just a milestone for UCSF,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said at the opening. “This is a milestone for our City and our City’s health care industry, which is at the heart of our economy providing good jobs for our residents.”

Elevating Children’s Success and Restoring Fairness to Disciplinary Policy in Schools

Across the Bay, in Oakland, several strands of Atlantic’s investments and a varied network of grantees have come together to address the challenge of delivering on our mission to expand equal access to education, health care and economic opportunity.

Identifying and eliminating unfair, institutional obstacles to equal opportunity, advancement and success for marginalised and underserved communities is at the core of Atlantic’s mission and guiding principles. These goals have, for instance, informed our investments supporting improved recognition of the rights and integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the Republic of Ireland and to advance constitutionalism and the promise of equal human rights a decade after apartheid ended in South Africa.

In the United States, even in 2015, race all too often defines opportunity, advancement and achievement. Genuine equality remains elusive. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said during a 1967 speech at Stanford, “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job… It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.”

Although racial discrimination, explicit and implicit, affects diverse communities in the United States, it remains particularly acute for African Americans. The legacy of slavery, lynchings and terror, as well as the decades of segregation, subordination and humiliation under Jim Crow is evident today in the challenges African American communities face in schools and communities, where they often are subject to unfair levels of suspicion, punishment and unequal opportunities.

Over the past decade, Atlantic has invested over $350 million to confront racially discriminatory school discipline, criminal justice and national security policies, as well to expand educational opportunities, health care and economic security for vulnerable populations.

In these final years, we will continue to focus explicitly on confronting the devastating impact of racism in the United States.

Carlos, 14, takes an eye exam from medical aide Eneida Vera at the Havenscourt Health Center in Oakland. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

In addition to Atlantic’s help in building UCSF’s infrastructure at Mission Bay, UCSF is also a grantee and partner in the delivery of health services at five Oakland middle schools associated with Atlantic-supported Elev8 community schools. The programme, a signature Atlantic initiative since 2007, focuses on improving opportunities for low-income students, predominantly from communities of colour, and their families by extending the school community beyond the classroom, integrating academic resources and after-school programmes and addressing the health and social needs of neighbourhood families.

By providing high-quality health services to students and their families through school-based health centres, and offering support and resources, such as job training and advice on securing social and financial services, Elev8 has yielded amazing results for entire communities. This success has in turn served to leverage additional support and funding to expand these programmes from both the public and philanthropic sectors.

Atlantic-funded community schools programmes also work to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by replacing punitive – and ultimately destructive – zero-tolerance measures with progressive, preventive restorative justice practices that focus on conflict resolution and building trust between students and faculty.

The Oakland United School District (OUSD) has already made community schools a district-wide priority and the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency has committed to expand school-based health clinics throughout its jurisdiction. It also has adopted restorative justice practices as an alternative to zero-tolerance discipline. As Kavitha Mediratta, who heads Atlantic’s U.S.-based racial equity programmes, recently noted, after adopting these reforms, “Oakland’s suspension rate dropped by 25 per cent from 2012 to 2013, and suspensions for African American males dropped by 33 per cent.”  This has major implications for enhanced personal development and economic opportunity, especially for the communities in which these students and their families live and work.

Other major metropolitan districts in the state and across the country are taking similar steps. Following a Los Angeles public school ban on suspensions for so-called “willful defiance” last year, suspensions for black and Latino students fell 40 per cent.

Community schooling, discipline reform and restorative justice practices are crucial elements of breaking down barriers and creating educational and economic opportunities for young people of colour in communities suffering from endemic poverty, disinvestment and unemployment, not to mention over-policing and unjust sentencing laws. The recent passing of Proposition 47 in California, which reduced many drug possession and petty theft charges to misdemeanors, is but one example of how advocacy with broad support beyond traditional political partisanship can be leveraged to better serve communities. Atlantic is proud to have supported this initiative.

Linked Learning and Health Care Career Pathways

As Atlantic concludes our grantmaking over the next two years, we are all the more determined to deliver on our commitment to support proven models of education, jobs training and health care that transform the lives and futures of those who are most marginalised and underserved, in ways that can be sustained well beyond Atlantic’s limited lifetime.

Our investment in Oakland’s future – to date, nearly $45 million – is one example of the confluence of our concluding work that integrates our values and programme objectives to eliminate barriers and create opportunities for young people of colour in vulnerable communities.

As part of our final phase, big bet strategy – that is, making fewer, but more targeted and substantial, grants in areas of proven progress – Atlantic recently announced several major investments to the California-based Linked Learning initiative to help create new opportunities for young people to pursue health care careers in Oakland and Alameda County.

In partnership with the California Endowment and the James Irvine Foundation, which spearheaded the programme in 2007, Atlantic is supporting the Oakland Unified School District, Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, and Alameda Health System  to reinforce college and career preparation programmes, establish internship opportunities for high school students, and introduce middle schoolers to a broad range of health care careers.

Atlantic’s Naomi Post introduces our major investment to expand Oakland Unified School District’s Linked Learning programme and provide opportunities for young people to pursue health care professions in Alameda County.

Integrating rigorous academics with college preparation, health career-based education and training, and real-world workplace experiences, Linked Learning not only advances educational opportunities, it promotes both racial and health equity in the community. It leverages partnerships with funding partners and local and state government to foster the long-term sustainability of the programme and points young people in Oakland to tangible jobs and careers in a growing sector of the regional and national economy.

As with Elev8, the success is clear. According to OUSD data from 2012, 84 per cent of students enrolled in Linked Learning programmes graduated from high school – 25 per cent higher than their peers in the district.

Atlantic’s investments in innovative, community-based education programmes seek to replace school-to-prison pipelines with college and health career pipelines for low-income students of colour, which, as Naomi Post, Atlantic’s head of community school programmes, recently wrote, will in turn, “increase the capacity, quality and cultural competency of the health care workforce to better reflect and serve its community.”

Crossing Borders/Building Bridges: Connecting California and Cuba

In addition to building local health workforce capacity through student internships and job training, Alameda Health System, the county’s largest safety-net health care provider, also engages graduates of the internationally active Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba to mentor Linked Learning students in Oakland and to deliver culturally competent, innovative, effective health services to medically underserved low-income communities of colour.

¡Salud! offers a rare glimpse into the Latin American Medical School in Havana and Cuba, a cash-strapped country with what the BBC calls “one of the world’s best health systems.”

Since 2002, The Atlantic has developed a longstanding relationship with Medical Education Cooperation With Cuba (MEDICC), an Oakland-based nonprofit organisation working to create better health outcomes and greater health equity for the most vulnerable people, through enhanced cooperation among the U.S., Cuban and global health communities. By leveraging the lessons learned from Cuba’s universal health system and its evolving health policies, practice, research and education, MEDICC has positioned itself as a strategic bridge among Cuba, the United States and other nations, informing global health policies and practice, including Cuba’s ongoing leadership in the fight to control the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

These connections offer practical, mutually beneficial opportunities, not only to improve international collaboration, reduce conflict and encourage economic prosperity, but to leverage Cuba’s acknowledged leadership in addressing critical and emerging health needs around the world.

The White House’s historic announcement to ease restrictions with Cuba and promote increased dialogue was great news. Consistent with Chuck’s support for reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland, Viet Nam and South Africa, Atlantic has long supported collaboration and synergy among our grantees beyond institutional and geographic boundaries.

My Brother’s – and Sister’s – Keeper

Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

A year ago, the confluence of our longstanding commitments to racial equity and opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth led us to join with President Barack Obama’s Administration, in partnership with several leading foundations, to launch My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), a coordinated and strategic national effort to improve the long-term outcomes and life trajectories of boys and men of colour.

Arising from this initiative, we have invested in a new effort to identify effective strategies for reducing disparities, in partnership with the Annie E. Casey and W.K. Kellogg foundations. Led jointly by Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and Equal Measure, R.I.S.E. for Boys and Men of Color will systematically identify proven methods, assess evidence of success, and promote learning and scaling of reform interventions to address the most pressing challenges facing boys and young men of color.

Comparison of percentage enrolment vs. percentage of students disciplined, New York school district, 2011-2012 school year. Source: Black Girls Matter 

Similarly, the risks to healthy development of girls and young women of colour need attention as well. Too often the challenges they face are obscured and overlooked, or defined in terms of their relationship to boys and men. Yet across the United States, black girls are being suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or ethnicity and more than most boys. A new report from the African American Policy Forum, funded in part by Atlantic, shines a light on how black girls are “pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected.”

Delivering on Intentions

Former UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellman, who now heads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said recently that, for those of us in the philanthropic sector, “you have to do better than good intentions, because good intentions don’t change the world by themselves.”  To that we would add Abraham Lincoln’s admonition, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

Five decades ago, after marching from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Alabama state capitol and famously declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But the long arc of the moral universe does not tolerate delay.  Exactly one year before the end of his life, Dr. King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York that remains vital today:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Engaged and active philanthropy – the complete, strategic disbursal of one’s accumulated wealth to worthy causes during one’s lifetime, or what Chuck calls Giving While Living – can accelerate transformative effect and have long-lasting, positive impact on the lives of others.

We must all work to bend the arc toward justice more quickly. In our final years, we are ever more committed to delivering on the opportunities and goals of our investments and to doing so with the greatest sense of urgency. And with time a precious commodity for Atlantic, we know that there is no time to lose.


Christopher G. Oechsli
President and CEO