In 2000, Lori Bezahler was young, idealistic and running the Education and Youth Services division of a large nonprofit in New York. She came across an ad that piqued her interest: Public Education Program Officer Edward W. Hazen Foundation. Bezahler was intrigued by the foundation’s idea that organizing could be used as a tool to change the conditions that adversely affect people’s lives, with a focus on communities of color and in the area of education. So she applied for and got the job. A few years later, in 2004, Barbara Taveras, the foundation's then-president, decided to step down. The foundation's board conducted a search for Taveras's replacement and chose Bezahler.
In the decade and a half since, Bezahler and the Hazen Foundation have been in the forefront of the movement for racial justice in American society, supporting the leadership of young people and communities of color in dismantling structural inequity based on race and class. To accelerate that work at this critical juncture, the Hazen board announced in March that the foundation would be spending down its endowment over the next five years in support of education and youth organizing, with a focus on racial justice.
PND spoke with Bezahler shortly after the board’s announcement to learn more about how and why the decision to spend down was made, how it will be executed, and what the foundation hopes to achieve over the next five years.
Philanthropy News Digest: The Hazen Foundation was established in 1925, making it one of the oldest private foundations in the United States. For decades, the foundation focused its resources on "the lack of values-based and religious instruction in higher education." Then, in the 1970s, it began to focus on public education and youth development, and in the late '80s it shifted its focus to community organizing for school reform. In 2009, under your leadership, the foundation made another shift, and began to focus more explicitly on race as the basis of oppression. Can you speak, broadly, to the process and the people who’ve helped shaped the foundation’s evolution over the last ninety-plus years?
Lori Bezahler: I'm glad you brought up the foundation's establishment, because I think Edward and Helen Hazen, the couple who created it, were really interesting people. They were childless themselves and were involved, during their lifetimes, in a number of charities that focused on young people. A lot of that work influenced the founding documents of the foundation and its approach from the beginning, especially the importance of thinking about young people in terms of their whole selves, thinking about character development, about the way each of us incorporates our values and our beliefs into our lives. That's been a common thread through all the years and decades of the foundation's work. And over that span of time, a couple of people have been especially important in shaping the institution that is Hazen today.
The first is Paul Ylvisaker, who was well known for the urban planning and anti-poverty work he did for the Johnson administration in the 1960s and later at the Ford Foundation, before becoming a dean at Harvard. He also was a trustee of the Hazen Foundation. From what I've read of our history and in board minutes and things like that he was influential in a number of ways. One was thinking about policies and their impact in broad structural terms. The other was the decision to recommend bringing Jean Fairfax, who just passed away at the age of 98, onto the board. At the time, Jean was a young African-American woman and lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and as far as we can tell from our research, she was the first African-American woman to be appointed to the board of a national foundation. In that role, she was instrumental in bringing attention to issues of race and representation by demanding that prospective grantees of the foundation share information about the demographics of their leadership, the nature of the community they served, and whether leadership was representative of that community. Jean was instrumental in moving the foundation's board to think more intentionally about where we, as an institution, put our dollars and the importance of self-determination.
There were others who followed in her footsteps. Sharon King led the foundation for a few years in the late 1980s, and it was under her leadership that the foundation began its work in the field of community organizing, or, as Sharon used to say, with organizations that had their feet in the community, that were grounded and embedded in the community and not parachuting in, and that had leadership that was representative of the community.
After Sharon left, Barbara Taveras took over as president and really built out the foundation's understanding of organizing. She was very thoughtful in considering how a foundation could and should relate to the field through partnering, listening, and acting in a learning mode, rather than a prescriptive mode.
There were also a number of people who helped move the foundation in the direction of having an explicit focus on race. The person I would call out especially in that respect is Daniel HoSang, who was appointed to the board when he was at the Center for Third World Organizing and today is an associate professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Yale. Dan was a member of the board for ten years and really championed the idea that the foundation should specify race as a focus and think about it structurally rather than individually. He was crucial in that regard.
PND: Your board recently announced that the foundation was going to spend out its endowment over the next five years. How did that decision come about?
LB: The impetus to consider a dramatic change in how the foundation does business came about as the result of a sort of fundamental questioning of the foundation's role in a time that presents us all with great challenges but also great opportunities. It's a moment that is lifting up the potential and possibilities for the very work the Hazen Foundation has spent so many years doing. The relationships we've created, in the fields of youth organizing, racial and education justice; the way we've been able to bring that kind of work into the broader philanthropic conversation and raise it up to some of our peers and partners — all that figured into it.
And all those different factors caused us to pause and say, Are we stepping up? Are we doing everything we can be doing? Clearly, there are assumptions around perpetuity in philanthropy, and they're based on some good thinking. I'm not saying that perpetuity is ridiculous — it's not. If you look at the numbers, you actually spend more over time, it gives you the opportunity to build something and be there for the long haul.
But there are moments when it's not enough, when the damage done by misguided policies or irresponsible leadership in the short-term will have ripple effects across time that demand you think differently about how you use your resources. And when, on top of that, there's an established body of work that you can build on to do something meaningful by concentrating your resources — well then you don't really have a choice.
That was the question we asked ourselves, and the process to get to the announcement took nearly two years. We did a lot of research, everything from literature scans to interviews to surveys. We talked to lots of people in the field, including our grantees and partners. We talked to people who had served in leadership roles in other spend-down institutions and asked them what worked and what didn't work, what were the pros and what were the cons. We looked at other options besides spending down. And we did a lot of financial modeling. I mean, we conducted an enormous amount of research, because I think the board felt very strongly that if we were going to do this, if we were going to turn out the lights on this institution and the work we have been supporting over many decades, it's got to be done in a way that is meaningful. The approach was deliberate and rational, but we also did a lot of soul searching about what it all meant and whether we were doing everything possible to fulfill the mission of the institution or whether there was something different we needed to do.
PND: The foundation's leadership has laid out some ambitious objectives for the next five years. You want to help build and sustain a youth-of-color-centered movement. You want to help develop a new generation of young leaders to lead this work. And you want to create a more robust ecosystem of organizations doing this kind of work. As these things go, Hazen doesn't have the biggest endowment in the world. How are you going to accomplish what you've set out to do?
LB: That was nicely put. [Laughs.] Frankly, even if we did have the biggest endowment in the world, we wouldn't be able to fix structural racism ourselves and we know that. Our goal is to engage on these three levels, which we think are critical to creating the kind of society we want to see and truly changing conditions in people's lives. If we believe that social change should be grounded in the experiences of those most affected by social ills, then how do we get those people into positions of leadership? What are the opportunities to do that? How do we get resources flowing to enable that? Organizations and formal structures are critical in terms of sustaining work and building power. And so are movements, because no individual organization can do it alone; if you study how social change has happened historically, you realize that there needs to be alignment of people and organizations, there needs to be a common language, there needs to be something bigger than the sum of the parts. Movements do that.
We see Hazen's point of leverage being the organizational level and our ability to influence those other two realms through our work with organizations. Which isn't to say that organizations are the only thing that make movements or drive leadership development. That's just where we are most comfortable operating because, frankly, that’s how foundations tend to work.
So the plan is to support capacity building in organizations that allows them to do better leadership development and think about new constituencies that can be engaged and aligned with other organizations and take advantage of opportunities to build authentic relationships across identity, ethnicity, and race — and, yes, it's ambitious, but I don't think it would make sense for us to say we're going all in if we didn't have those kinds of ambitions.
PND: How do you plan to measure and evaluate the impact of your efforts as you spend down?
LB: That's a question that is always on the minds of people who make these kinds of decisions. Always. And it's important for us to think about it. That said, it's a complex question. If we said, for example, that we were going to implement a strategy to change a specific policy and succeeded in changing that policy, that would be easy enough to measure, right? But that's not what we've set out to do. We're looking for something that will sustain the work beyond the foundation's existence. Which is why choosing an artificial endpoint, say, five years from now, as we're closing up shop, and saying we've accomplished this, and this doesn't make sense. What we want to see is for our grantees to have developed greater capacity to do their work, build power, and develop leaders — the things I was speaking about a minute ago. And our intention, as we begin to select grantees to support over the next five years, is to ask, in partnership with our grantees, what indicators can we use to measure capacity, what matters to you, and what will help you do your work better?
I do think we'll know some things on the day we turn off the lights and close the doors for the last time. And we'll learn other things as time passes. Both are important to me personally, as well as institutionally. But on that last day, I think we'll want to see a set of organizations led by people of color and serving communities of color that are equipped to contend for power in a bigger arena. We want to see that they have the ability to actually mobilize people, shape narratives, and move policy in the direction of a more just, equitable society — and can do that even in the face of forces that are arrayed against them.
The piece we won't know on that last day, but that I will be keeping an eye on, is whether those organizations are more resilient and sustainable over time. The organizations we've supported in the past and will be supporting over the next five years tend to be very underresourced and often struggle to survive. We'll want to be able to say as we close the doors on the foundation for the last time that we helped position them to not only survive but to thrive.
PND: You've alluded to it, as did your board when it made the announcement, but one of the primary reasons behind the decision to spend down is what the board cited as the urgency of the moment. That said, the work you'll be doing over the next five years is predicated on the belief that young people are the future and can change the world for the better. I don't want to make too much of it, but is there a tension between our current political moment and the work Hazen will be supporting over the next five years? And if there is a tension, how will you and your colleagues navigate that tension?
LB: Before I answer that, I just want to footnote your young-people-are-the-future comment. That's actually not how we see this work. We see young people as the driving force of change in the present. If you look at social movements, both in the past and today, whether it's the civil rights movement, the Arab Spring, Tiananmen Square, Black Lives Matter, or the water rights movement in indigenous communities, it's young people who are in the forefront of the movement and doing the work.
As to your question, I'm not sure I see it as a tension. We understand that this is a moment of great urgency. But, as I said earlier, it’s also a moment of great possibility. We’re seeing a spotlight being put on long-standing issues of structural oppression and injustice in this country. And it’s happening for a variety of reasons, including demands by young people and communities of color that we do so — that we really look at our history and the legacy of racism in America. Some of it, obviously, also has to do with the political environment. And all these things have combined to put us in what movement scholars call a movement moment. It's a moment when the potential for change in one direction or the other is extremely high.
But movement moments can be ephemeral. And, therefore, we see our job, as a committed supporter of social change, to help the movement for social and racial justice capture as much ground as possible, as quickly as it can, and to assist it in terms of infrastructure, capacity, and power. It's not going to happen overnight, we know that. We know that Hazen will not be around to see it through to the end, but that has to be okay. That's how any person or institution needs to think about movement work. The work continues, no matter what. If we can contribute to pushing that work forward further and faster than would have been possible without our participation, then that, to me, fulfills both sides of the equation. We have a moment now, and we need to make sure young people are positioned to create change in the future.
— Mitch Nauffts