08/24/2020 in Letters

A better world will definitely be more female.

When I was the age my children are now, the AIDS epidemic had just started to rage. My friends, roommates, girlfriends and I fought every day for more research and education, less stigma and hatred, more love and care. Through our shared activism with New York City’s AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), I was spending intense, often desperate, always significant days with my dear friend Charlie Barber. It was too early to even dare to imagine a time of effective treatments, of living full lives, of raising families, and so, in many ways, I stopped planning for a future. At that time, beloved scholar and community activist Kathy Barber, Charlie’s mother, was on the board of the Gund Foundation where she served for 19 years. We lost Charlie in 1992. Four years later, championed by Kathy, I was invited to become the first third-generation family member on the board of the Foundation, and in some ways, the opportunity to serve helped crystalize for me that I needed to allow myself to once again imagine and work toward a better future.

As I write this letter from home quarantine, the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism raging all around us, it is helpful for me to reflect on those days when everything seemed so uncertain as well as on the leadership of other women who, when moments demanded it, stepped forward. While I may be the first woman Chair of the Foundation, women have always been critical to its success, from community organizers in Cleveland, to those whose dedication made the more prominent work of others possible, to those on our board and staff. I draw strength from this ongoing legacy. 

“The opportunity to serve helped crystalize for me that I needed to allow myself to once again imagine and work toward a better future.”

Eliza Bryant started a nursing home for African American women in Cleveland in 1897 after witnessing formerly enslaved people, like her own mother, migrate north only to be shut out of white nursing homes. Annie Perkins wore men’s clothing and cropped her hair short in the 1880s so she could fulfill the critical democratic duty of distributing newspapers for The Cleveland Press. Henrietta Givens cooked and cleaned in George Gund’s Cleveland home from the 1930s through the 1950s, feeding and tending to my mother and her siblings. Jessica Roelser Gund, my mother’s mother, birthed and raised six children while also serving on the boards of the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Women’s Committee of the Cleveland Playhouse, and the Gund Foundation as one its three original trustees. Jessica led the Foundation with George, not behind him.

For more than 20 years I’ve served on the Foundation board, along with my aunts, Lulie and Ann Gund, who collectively have served over 45 years, and Cleveland community members like Kathy, Robyn Minter Smyers, Cathy Lewis, Marge Carlson, and, most recently, Margaret Bernstein. I have also spent the last two decades recruiting other third-generation family members and there are now six of us, including five women. 

The current staff of the Foundation includes a phenomenal team of women: Jennifer Coleman, Maya Curtis, Marcia Egbert, Cynthia Gasparro, Paula Kampf, Jessica May, Ann Mullin, and Alecia Pretel. This year the Foundation welcomed Alesha Washington as the Program Director for Vibrant Neighborhoods and Inclusive Economy. In her critical and timely role, Alesha, who began as a Gund Foundation Fellow 13 years ago, now leads our work to strengthen democracy building and civic engagement strategies. These women not only keep the Foundation running, but are enacting change in communities throughout Cleveland, regionally, and nationally.

Since its inception in 1952, the Foundation has awarded $775 million in grants leading to many tangible manifestations of our commitment to use the power of localized funding to leverage community knowledge and organizing for sustainable impact. It also feels important to me to recognize all of the women I have named because despite the tremendous achievements we trumpet, the Foundation has not been exempt from the consolidation of power in the hands of (white) men and the denial of full partnership with women that is a hallmark of patriarchal institutions. 

Our world, now riveted by the uprisings in response to police brutality and systemic racism, similarly reflects this all too common myopia. The cold-blooded murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the spark, but women have also long been subjected to relentless, state-sanctioned violence. Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville is just one recent example that is, appropriately, receiving more attention, but far less publicized are the police killings of 23 trans women so far this year. Black Lives Matter, the movement that has spread a straightforward and powerful statement across the globe, including on all of the basketball courts in the NBA’s COVID-19 “bubble,” was created in 2013 by three women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Tens of millions have taken to the streets in protest this summer, but few could name the movement’s founders or know that they are women.

In this context, I want to express gratitude to the women who are responsible for the direct care of our fellow citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, and who are bravely stepping up to protect our communities. Around the world, the majority of responders on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight are women. According to the World Health Organization, women make up seven out of ten health and social care workers globally and contribute $3 trillion annually to global health, half as unpaid labor. Rarely are these women given the recognition they deserve. Rarely are the systems that cause inequality confronted. I’d like to change that—both in regard to the women leading the charge worldwide during these moments of crisis and the women directing philanthropic action at home, including here at the Foundation. 

In February, I opened my first board meeting as chair by reading the Foundation’s 68-year-old mission statement aloud: 

The George Gund Foundation was established in 1952 as a private, nonprofit institution with the sole purpose of contributing to human well-being and the progress of society. Over the years, program objectives and emphases have been modified to meet the changing opportunities and problems of our society, but the Foundation’s basic goal of advancing human welfare remains constant.

My intent was to ground our work in the words that Jessica and George (and George’s mother Anna, the third trustee) drafted decades ago to guide the choreography of the Foundation’s grantmaking, but also to remind us that a mission is not a static thing. Like the photography presented in these pages, the mission is meant to ignite feeling and spur action, engaging with and adapting to the ever-changing challenges and opportunities in our communities. 

Our annual report this year contains work that is close to my heart. Photographer Deana Lawson created these direct, intimate and excruciatingly human images, her photography echoing the unique boldness of each of the Foundation’s recent grantee partners. She captures women who urge us to ask a pivotal question: What does a better world look like through her eyes? This question will guide my own work as Chair of the Foundation. Both asking this question and responding to it are fundamental to achieving gender equity, globally and locally. 

Examples of this approach include the Foundation’s grants to Birthing Beautiful Communities, a nonprofit that supports pregnant women to deliver full-term healthy babies in the face of a society that fails to protect both the women and the babies. We have also invested in Better Health Partnership to connect expectant mothers and their infants with community supports that are systematically withheld from them. And we’ve partnered with Neighborhood Family Practice, an organization that operates a doula program to serve neighborhoods on Cleveland’s west side who are denied access to high-quality health care.

One of our most significant recent grants is a $1 million contribution to PRE4CLE, Cleveland’s expansive preschool program. In addition to aligning with the Foundation’s long-term commitment to equity and excellence in Cleveland’s public schools, the grant honors my Aunt Lulie, who passed in March of this year, and her steadfast support of early childhood education. For 21 years, Lulie devoted herself to the Foundation and to expanding access to high-quality preschool education for children in Cleveland. Our recent grant created the Llura Gund Early Learning Fund, which will focus on revitalizing the facilities of many of Cleveland’s preschools. 

Moving forward, our lives, our roles in our communities, and our philanthropic work, will inevitably be shaped by the prolonged twin crises of this unique year. Over the past five months, as COVID-19 and a growing movement for racial justice exposed systematic and systemic injury to the very lives of already strained Black and Latinx communities, countless individuals, community-based organizations, agencies, foundations and companies have nimbly pivoted operations to redirect their efforts and add their voices to calls for change. It is in moments like these that we must urgently consider the duty of our power and the implications of these surges of empathy and generosity for those of us who strive to build more effective philanthropic action.

“It is in moments like these that we must urgently consider the duty of our power and the implications of these surges of empathy and generosity for those of us who strive to build more effective philanthropic action.”

The grantees described in this report exemplify how the Foundation has increasingly invested in organizations directed by those most impacted by systemic oppression with the aim of sustaining empowered community leaders who are working to respond strategically to today’s urgent challenges. To tackle criminal justice reform, housing insecurity, education inequality, health care fissures and more, we need to be more disruptive grantmakers. We need to give with more flexibility and longevity, adjust deadlines, convert project support into general operating support, prioritize grantmaking strategies that align with local and national advocacy efforts, and back both the direct action of visionary grassroots organizers and forward-thinking policymakers. We cannot squander this moment of reckoning and its possibilities for real reconciliation and transformation. 

The roar of our voices—organizers, philanthropists, mothers, voters, artists, leaders, and more—is building towards a crescendo in 2020. It’s a vitally important election year. It’s the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It’s also the 100th commemoration of the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland. There is no time like the present to make ourselves visible and have our voices heard loud and clear. In this painful yet truthful moment, imagination is more necessary than ever to pull us forward together. So, today I write with hope for a future that is more collaborative and more local, more intersectional, definitely more female, and, in every aspect of our lives, more just for all.

Signature of Catherine Gund

Catherine Gund