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Making Space for Social Justice? A Practitioner Panel on Philanthropy and the City

Tue, Oct 27, 2020    1:15pm

Lecture by Clarisa Bencomo, Don Chen, George McCarthy, and Maria Torres-Springer

Philanthropies have a long history of engagement with cities in the U.S. and globally—in urban development, city planning and visioning, and civic participation. Notable examples include urban renewal and efforts like the Kerner Commission to diagnose the root causes of social problems and racial inequality. Foundations’ efforts to promote social change, equity, and opportunity in cities have a mixed track record and critics have decried cases of philanthropic overreach. New innovations and course corrections continue in the present day even as the debate about whether philanthropy is sufficiently democratically regulated continues. In this panel event, we will hear from practitioners who have worked across sectors with careers spanning academia, philanthropy, city government, the nonprofit sector, and research institutes. Panelists will discuss professional pathways and career opportunities that support social justice. They will also reflect on several current challenges, including the future of cities and urban life in the context of COVID and ways that urban-development organizations can support the advancement of racial justice.

Clarisa Bencomo is an independent consultant on human rights, governance, and philanthropy. She is currently advising Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health on research on donor-funded programming to address gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health, and has taught in the University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. From 2010 through 2018 she developed and led governance programming for the Ford Foundation’s MENA Regional Office in Cairo, focusing on support for participatory planning and budgeting to address spatial inequality; research and capacity-building to advance accountability for service provision; and documentation and advocacy for urban policies that are inclusive of migrants and refugees. Prior to working in philanthropy, she had a long career as a researcher and advocate on human rights and aid effectiveness, including more than a decade as a researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Cairo and New York.

Don Chen is the President of the Surdna Foundation where he leads the 100-year old foundation’s efforts to strengthen and further leverage its commitment to social justice. Prior to his appointment, Don was the Director of the Cities & States program at the Ford Foundation, where his work supported urban development initiatives to make housing more affordable, promote more equitable land use practices, and empower communities to have a powerful decision-making voice in American cities and in developing countries. He also led a multi-program team to support the strengthening of social justice organizations and networks in targeted U.S. states.

Previously, Don was the Founder and CEO of Smart Growth America, where he led efforts to create the National Vacant Properties Campaign (which later became the Center for Community Progress) and Transportation for America, and managed a merger with the Growth Management Leadership Alliance. He has authored many pieces on land use, transportation, social equity, and environmental policy. Don currently serves on the boards of Living Cities, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and Philanthropy New York. He holds a master’s degree from the Yale School of the Environment and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University.

George McCarthy (Mac) is President and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He joined the Lincoln Institute in 2014 from the Ford Foundation where he directed programming in Metropolitan Opportunity. Mac joined Ford in 2000 from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina (UNC). His work experience includes: Professor of Economics (Bard College); Resident Scholar (Levy Economics Institute); Visiting Scholar and Member of the High Table (King’s College, Cambridge University); and Research Associate (Centre for Social Research, St. Petersburg, Russia). He received his Ph.D. in Economics from UNC.

Maria Torres-Springer is vice president for US programs at the Ford Foundation. She oversees all of the foundation’s domestic programming for Civic Engagement and Government, Creativity and Free Expression, Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice, Future of Work(ers), Just Cities and Regions, and Technology and Society.

Maria’s extensive experience includes almost 15 years in public service with the City of New York, where she led three agencies addressing some of the city’s most significant public policy challenges such as housing affordability, economic development, and workforce development. Throughout her tenure in the public sector and in previous roles in the non-profit and private sectors, she has worked to create powerful partnerships among communities, business, and government in pursuit of expanded economic opportunity and justice for the historically marginalized.

Maria earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

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