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Justice advocate faces challenge of recession

Resource type: News

Financial Times |

Original Source

By Lauren Foster

Ann Beeson has tackled some tough issues in her career as a human rights advocate and litigator, including challenging the National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance of Americans without a warrant and the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. Now, as executive director of US Programmes at George Soros’s Open Society Institute, she confronts another: the far-reaching effects of the deepening recession.

“The economic crisis has already had a huge impact on some of our grantees, and it will only get worse,” says the Texas native. “I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to use OSI’s resources to support people and communities that in this moment are at greatest risk. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we act boldly to repair the fabric of this country and ensure that all people can participate fully in civic, economic and cultural life.”

After many years of stock market gains, which in turn spurred record levels of giving, 2008 was a grim year for foundations and non-profits: endowments plummeted while individuals scaled back their donations. Unlike most private foundations, however, OSI does not have an endowment and depends on the support of Mr Soros. It has no plans to cut funding this year.

The collapse in December of Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50bn Ponzi scheme was another blow to the non-profit sector. In the aftermath, several foundations closed and many non-profits lost funding.

Founded in 1993, OSI is probably best known in the US for its work supporting high school urban debate leagues and after-school programmes. It spent $125m to establish The After-School Corporation to improve opportunities for New York City youth and, in an effort to help inner-city students benefit from learning how to debate, has spent almost $12m on high school programmes in 15 cities.

The foundation, with a mission to help “build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens”, has also sought to address the decrease in government transparency, entrenched structural racism and rising incarceration rates. In the run-up to the November presidential election it was also active in civic engagement.

OSI’s core focus is equality and justice, but as the US economic outlook worsened, and scores of families started losing their homes, it recognised subprime lending and the foreclosure crisis as a “form of economic injustice” and responded as early as the end of 2007. It has funded advocacy efforts around predatory lenders and more than a year ago launched the Neighbourhood Stabilisation Initiative in New York to assist homeowners renegotiate loans. “The initiative helps keep families in their homes and end the cycle of neighbourhood abandonment and disinvestment,” Ms Beeson says.

At a time when non-profits face challenging economic times, there is encouraging news on the political front: the inauguration tonight of Barack Obama as president and the beginning of his administration.

“There has been a lot of thinking about how to help our grantees learn to operate in a more open environment because they are used to an oppositional strategy,” says the former associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “How does one push an agenda with a hopefully progressive administration and how does one hold that administration accountable?”

That may sound like a good problem to have, but the start of the Obama era coincides with a time of financial uncertainty.

Still, Ms Beeson, who joined OSI in June 2007, is hopeful about the change in leadership at the federal level. “There is such an opportunity to reclaim our moral leadership,” she says. “I think it’s important [not only to] focus on the foreign policy agenda . . . but also to correct the export of bad US policies. It’s not enough for us to just reform our policies at home; we also need to help roll back those policies implemented by other governments that were legitimised by what we were doing in the US.”

Looking forward, Ms Beeson is optimistic that some abuses, such as the Bush administration policy on torture, will be rolled back in the short term. Other policies, such as inequality, will take more time.

“We would all love to believe – and some Americans do believe – that because of this amazing milestone of having elected the first African-American president that we don’t have issues of inequality here in the US any more,” she says. “Obviously that is not true and it will be a particular challenge: how do we move forward an agenda of opportunity and inclusion for all when many Americans think those problems were solved when Obama was elected?”

One factor compounding this is the dire economic outlook. As Ms Beeson explains: “When there is a financial crisis you tend to see . . . tensions between communities exacerbated, especially when there is limited work; when you have higher rates of unemployment you tend to see those tensions elevate and so the work we are trying to do – to build bridges between communities around a shared set of values and needs – is especially critical and that is work we are going to continue to do.”

One of the special initiatives OSI launched last year was the “black male achievement” campaign to advance opportunities for African- American men and boys. To achieve this, it has formed a partnership with the 21st Century Foundation, the Ford Foundation and Winning Strategies, a group of Wall Street donors.

“Black men are the miner’s canary of democracy and open society in America today,” Ms Beeson says. “This campaign will be looking at how these different issues are inter-related. How is the crumbling education system driving black boys into the juvenile and criminal justice systems? How is growing housing segregation further isolating these communities and funnelling young people to prison instead of to college? How is the environmental degradation in the inner cities contributing to the health problems that are experienced disproportionately by black men and boys?”

Ms Beeson sees the election of the first African-American president as a mixed blessing when it comes to the challenge of addressing racial inequality.

“You have both an opportunity and a challenge that came out of the combination of Obama being elected and the economic crisis,” she says.

“On the good news side there is a real opportunity for leadership or partnering with the administration directly on how to level the playing field for African- American men, in particular, who have been so disadvantaged . . . On the downside, there might be resistance to affirmative-action policies. The challenge is to advance an agenda of equality that benefits everyone.”

And that is a challenge Ms Beeson, who has twice argued before the US Supreme Court, is apt to meet.

“There is now a transformed political climate for OSI’s work to advance the values of an open society – equality, justice, accountability – in ways that haven’t been possible for at least the past two decades in the US,” she says. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems we are all facing – but it is my goal to encourage a vigorous debate in this country around the most pressing issues of our time.”

Partners try to fill $20m gap after foundation closure

The Open Society Institute is partnering with The Atlantic Philanthropies to devise ways to help bridge a $20m funding gap created by the sudden closure of the JEHT Foundation.

The funds of the donors to the foundation were managed by Bernard Madoff, the disgraced investment manager accused of running a $50bn Ponzi scheme.

OSI and Atlantic shared dozens of grantees with JEHT, including the Brennan Center for Justice,Human Rights Watch, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Among the hardest hit were national security and human rights groups seeking to reverse abusive policies enacted in the name of the so-called “war on terror”; civil liberties organisations; and groups promoting criminal justice reform to end over-reliance on incarceration.

JEHT was established in 2000 to promote justice, equality, human dignity and tolerance, and was a big supporter of criminal and juvenile justice reform.

“I am grateful that the Open Society Institute has the resources to lead this effort along with Atlantic,” said Ann Beeson, executive director of US Programmes at OSI. “JEHT’s collapse compounded the pinch that groups were already feeling from the economic crisis. But that can’t become an excuse for timid incrementalism in our advocacy efforts. Now more than ever, we must push for bold change.”

The project is expected to launch in the coming weeks, beginning with the hiring of a joint consultant to analyse JEHT’s grant-making portfolio, co-ordinate with other funders and develop a plan for emergency grants to groups through 2009.