«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Q: That's a good story. Yes, that's a good story. Now, I wonder if we can go back to my agenda.
[laughs] Weiss: You can go wherever you like.
Q: And talk for a few minutes about the Sam Rubin Foundation.
Weiss: No middle initial, and no The. Just Samuel Rubin Foundation.
Q: Samuel Rubin Foundation. It was established by your father long before you— Weiss: Nineteen forty-nine.
Q: Yes, long before you came of— Weiss: Age.
Q: Of voting age.
Weiss: I was there, but I wasn't of age. [laughs] Q: Right. When did you begin to be involved?
Weiss: I don't remember. It's, well, about thirty-six years ago.
Q: I've looked at the programs that your father supported. The arts with [Leopold] Stokowski, and the— Weiss: Stokey?
Weiss: American Symphony Orchestra.
Q: And Israel, the cultural side, these things in Israel.
Weiss: For Arabs and Jews.
Q: And education. Did you inherit that kind of a program? Or how do you—when you became involved, under his tutelage, more or less?
Weiss: Well, we have the same mission statement that he had. We have done a lot of work in the arts. We support a lot of interesting documentary films. One of the most interesting things I think we did was to support the renovation of a Ben Shahn mosaic mural that sits on top of the entrance to a trade high school. That was a moving event, to see that mosaic get put back in its place, in good shape. We support a lot of different kinds of cultural things. But we are very lowkey, for a number of reasons, because I'm not only the president of the foundation, but I'm the
Bureau [IPB], and I lead a very active life. So, some people say I'm a doer and a donor. But I'm not the donor. It's not my money, which is one of the reasons for low-key; it is administered by a board of directors, and they have to agree to every single grant that is made. We're also very, very small, and we can't have thousands of applications coming in, because the worst part of the job is saying "no."
Q: The board of directors is mostly family, though, isn't it?
Weiss: It's mostly family, and one non-family member.
Q: Who is the non-family member?
Weiss: The current non-family member is Alison Bernstein, who is the— Q: Oh, really?
Weiss: —former vice president of the Ford Foundation.
Q: Oh, really? An old friend of mine! Yes! Interesting. Interesting. Yes. What are the special advantages of being a small foundation, and the disadvantages?
Weiss: Everybody gets a small amount of money, because it's a small foundation. You can
first plunge, so we are the sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and then Ford will say, well, if we did it, they can do it. They've done that a few times. So, that's the advantage of risktaking and seed funding. We like to see what happens when you can get something started, now called, "startups." They weren't called "startups," then. The disadvantage is that everybody thinks you have more money than you do, and that they can have some of it. It's very sad, because— Q: About how much a year do you give?
Weiss: Well, these past few years, it's only $600,000.
Q: Yes, the last figure I have is $589,000— Weiss: In years past, it used to be over a million, but— Q: Well, did you take a hit in 2008 with— Weiss: Considerable.
Q: Who handles your finances?
Weiss: A brokerage house.
Weiss: Yes. Of course. Doesn't everyone? [laughter] Q: Most of the grants I looked at, most of the grants are between $5,000 and $15,000. Small, they're small kinds of grants. How do you evaluate them, when you say it's a seed to something else, which means that you must keep track of the grant's use.
Weiss: We don't make them write ten-page letters about how their money was spent. We also don't make them write ten-page applications, because we think that's not the best use of their time.
Weiss: They're supposed to be doing what they're asking for money. The evaluation is, if they send us a report, or if we go to visit them, or if we talk to them or hear about their work and they want to apply again, then they can get another grant. We have groups of applicants that we've been funding for many, many years, because without funds, even small amounts of money, it would be harder for them to continue doing the great work that they're doing. We have a core group of grantees that we feel responsible for.
Q: What's the core group?
Q: I think I know, because I've looked at the reports.
Weiss: Well, there's a fantastic group that was just visited by Michelle Obama last week. That's Global Kids. Young people from the New York City public schools come together and get their heads wrapped around the world and get involved in incredible issues; they go to the Council on Foreign Relations [CFR] to hold seminars and training programs. They were invited to the White House, because they invented a game about Jackie Robinson, and Michelle happened to see it.
We have the Downtown Community Television Center, DCTV, which makes the extraordinary documentary films about issues that we all care about, or should all care about. But at the same time, it welcomes young people from inner city schools, from schools in the city, public schools, to learn everything that you can possibly learn about the field of videography, and prepares them for jobs in television or film making, so they become employable. But we also insist that they go to college. So, we mentor them, and tutor them so that they can get into college, and the success rate is incredible. It's for crying when their graduation time comes.
Then, there's the Center for Constitutional Rights [CCR], which just won a fantastic case in— well, they win fantastic cases all the time—but they got a ruling that the United States is partly responsible for the Chilean murder of [Charles] Horman. Here it is. "Chilean court confirms the U.S. role in the 1973 killings of Americans in the Chilean Coup."
Weiss: This was the case that inspired the film, "Missing," and Charles Horman was the young man who was killed in the stadium, and his widow, Joyce, has been unrelenting in keeping a vigil on this situation, and got a ruling from Judge [Jorge] Zepeda in Chile “’that both implicates'"—I'm reading now from the press release—"'implicates and incriminates U.S.
Intelligence personnel as playing a dark role in the arrest of my husband,' she said." So, the Center for Constitutional Rights is on the cutting edge of making law and defending people who may not be very popular with the U.S. government. We're very proud of that. We've been supporting them for a very long time.
We support the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy [LCNP], which went to the international court, in The Hague, on the question of the legality of possession and use of nuclear weapons, and got a great decision, and so on.
Q: IPS [Institute for Policy Studies], you sponsored IPS for years.
Weiss: We did sponsor IPS for many years, and then we funded its sister organization in Amsterdam called the Transnational Institute [TNI], which is a more international gathering place of activist intellectuals from around the world.
Q: Peter's involved in the Lawyers Committee, and CCR and IPS.
Q: But— Weiss: We don't vote when it comes to the organizations that we're involved with.
Q: I would imagine that in your weekly routine, you make contact with any number of the grantees or the outfits, you hear about them. That there's, obviously, it's a listing of the— Weiss: That's the doer part of the donor.
Weiss: We know a lot— Q: Human Rights, and— Weiss: We know a lot about the people we give money to.
Q: Right. Right.
Weiss: Or, we try to know a lot.
Q: I read somewhere that you were among the people looking for some kind of a group of
Weiss: Well, we did.
Q: Tell me that story.
Weiss: Many years ago, I worked with a small group of funders, David Hunter from the Stern Fund, Carol Geyer from J. P. Penney, no, something-Penney Foundation? What's the name of the store?
Q: J. C. Penney.
Weiss: J. C. Penney, Carol Geyer, and David Ramage [phonetic], and there were very few of us.
Phil Stern, David Hunter, all men and me, and Carol. Anyway, there were a half a dozen of us, and we used to meet for rye bread and ham sandwiches at David Hunter's place. Oh, Stewart [R.] Mott was very important in that group. So, we were all medium-sized, small and medium—I was the smallest—small and medium-sized foundations, and we took interesting risks. The first thing we did, as I recall, was to hold a seminar, a gathering, in the Northwest, with Soviets and Americans. That was pretty high-risk. It was Cold War, and it was with the Institute for Policy Studies, [Marcus] Marc Raskin and [Richard] Dick Barnet were very influential in that. It was supported by Pillsbury, the Pillsbury family that made Pillsbury flour.
Weiss: We had the meeting in their town.
Weiss: Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thank you very much, it takes two! So, that was one grouping.
Then there was a larger meeting of foundations in the north side of Nassau County, on the North Shore of Long Island, and lots of different people got up and spoke, and I remember saying, "No matter what you do, keep doing it. But do one thing for peace." That, apparently, was the seed for what is now known as the Peace and Security Funder's Group [PSFG]. It's not huge, it's a fairly large grouping of people, which meets on the telephone once a month for conference calls, and once a year for an annual gathering. It's nice to see all the new young people in the field.
Q: Do you kind of coordinate, talk about grantees and the issues, and— Weiss: Some people do. The biggest coordination happening now, I think, was started by the Wallace Global Fund, [Dr.] Ellen Dorsey in Washington. Wallace is Henry Agard Wallace, who was— Q: Oh, right. Right, yes.
Weiss: —once vice president of the United States, and the Secretary of Commerce, and ran for president. She started a campaign called Divest-Invest, which means that foundations, and of
fuel companies, coal, oil; and invest in socially responsible—solar, and so forth. It's growing. It's a very interesting, contemporary, new campaign.
Weiss: It reminds me of the campaign that I was involved with, not from the Foundation, but when I was a trustee of Hampshire College in the early '80s, late '70s. The students, we were at a trustee meeting in what was called, "The Barn," it used to be a barn, and it had big glass windows for a wall. The students came walking down the hill with placards saying, "Divest from South Africa." Hampshire, at the time, was a tiny—we practically had five dollars in the bank.
Q: [laughs] Weiss: I mean, it really had no endowment, or—and it was running on a tight budget. I looked at my co-trustees, and I said, "Friends, what's our answer to these kids?" Adele Simmons was the president, and she had done her PhD thesis on South Africa. Immediately, three of us were asked to go and spend the weekend in the president's house, Henry Morgan and John Watts. John Watts is still alive, Henry, unfortunately, isn't. But they were both more business people. Watts runs an investment fund, or a hedge fund, and Morgan was part of a bank and taught finance. And me.
The three of us sat for a weekend and wrote CHOIR, Committee of Hampshire On Investing Responsibly, and it called for divestment from apartheid. Divestment from companies, U.S.
companies doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa. They still have that
Q: One last question about the Foundation. Does Alison bring a kind of perspective from the other foundation world into the Foundation?
Weiss: She's getting used to working with a board that runs a very tiny foundation. Our grant, our total grant, is what she might have made in one grant. [laughter] Q: Right. But she does have a perspective about the field itself.
Weiss: Oh, yes. She's a very valuable player, and a very good friend.
Q: Yes. What's the future of the foundation?
Weiss: The next generation is going to run it.
Q: And you're— Weiss: Transition time— Q: —happy with that? Settled with that?
Q: I was just going to ask if there was a generational shift going on there.
Weiss: Happily. Oh, we're very—everybody's very happy.
Q: I know that among people my kids' age, there's a whole world I know nothing about.
Weiss: Me too!
Q: [laughs] Weiss: But they're very dedicated to the work we do, because they do the work. I mean, they read and bring to the table their own proposals and they're involved in every single decision, so, it'll go on. Peter and I will still be on the board of directors.
Q: Let's move onto the agenda that you sketched out in your email to me.
Weiss: Thank you!
Q: Which was wonderful, I want to thank you—
Q: —for the email. We'll start it off, let me ask you a question. You say in there that your views on women have evolved, or changed, and that you're concerned with the Palinization of America.
Can you—play that out for me. How have they changed? How have they evolved?