President's Corner

A Focus on Families: Radical in its Simplicity

February 2012 Letter to the Board

February 6, 2012

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

When we place the family at the center of social change efforts, we see changes.

Since the Foundation’s first days, we have crafted strategies and deployed resources with the overarching belief that the success of a child depends on the success of the child’s parents. We set out to change systems and to create opportunities that would support the success of parents and all family members, confident that this approach would lead to better lives for the children and for successive generations of those families.

We focused on poverty, recognizing its distinct capacity to thoroughly destabilize families and limit opportunities for lifetimes. We sought to address the systemic causes of poverty and to identify and support strategies that increase economic mobility and family stability. For too long, we were virtually alone in our efforts to make the discussion of poverty a common and obligatory part of public discourse. Ten years ago, when we spoke of poor families as our focus, the idea was radical in its simplicity, and we spent years convincing our grantees and colleagues that, yes, our focus was that simple and that true.

The Occupy movement has begun to change public discourse. As I prepared my last report to you in October 2011, the Occupy protests were taking hold in cities across the country. The effect has been regular public conversations about poverty and the 99 percent. This shift in public discourse indicates the potential for a shift in public policy and philanthropy toward more responsiveness to the challenges facing low-income families. Yet, at the same time, the federal, state and local budget crises continue to force cuts to basic programs, health services and education. Unless we and our allies propose alternatives, low-income families will bear the brunt of the budget cuts.

A Discussion About the Society We Seek to Create

With the shift in discourse toward a recognition of the 99 percent, toward the realization that the middle class is disappearing and the number of poor families escalating, and toward an acceptance that our current (old) systems no longer work for today’s economy and communities, we need to facilitate a discussion about the future of America and the society that we seek to create.

Recently, Freeman Hrabowski told me about the Opportunity Nation Summit, which took place in Washington, D.C., in November 2011. Opportunity Nation is a coalition of nearly 200 businesses, nonprofits, education institutions and military organizations that came together to promote opportunity, social mobility and access to the American Dream by developing a bipartisan plan to create better skills, better jobs and better communities.

At the summit, several thought leaders engaged in a discussion about current economic challenges and their ideas about the American Dream — Where is our society going? What do we care about? What do we want in the future? Freeman suggested that distilling the conversations for board members would give the board an idea what is being said about poverty in relationship to what the Foundation is doing.

In that spirit, I am happy to provide you with snapshots of the comments provided at the Opportunity Nation Summit by Rev. Larry Snyder, Angela Glover Blackwell, Dr. Fareed Zakaria, Luis Ubiiias and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Together, these individuals offer a broad picture of the challenges — and opportunities- we face as a nation to restore the American Dream, and their comments reflect the various angles of thinking and working that are needed to create change. Rev. Larry Snyder, president, Catholic Charities USA, on the importance of coming together around common goals and strategies:

“Well, I think, when you look at what’s happening here [at the summit], this is exactly what needs to happen, which is: bringing people together, bringing organizations together who already — are making, you know, incredible contributions, but … getting a common focus and seeing if there is a common strategy, common goals that we can agree on … Because I think that’s kind of what’s missing, right now. A lot of good things are happening, but a lot of it is in isolation. And the problem is so big, right now, that unless we all get behind this and do whatever we can, it’s going to be very difficult to kind of turn the train around.”

Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO, Policylink, on the meaning of equity and the current and future role of race and ethnicity:

“People have to make a commitment to full inclusion; so much of inequality in this nation is driven by policies that may not have race in the front of it, but it’s got race underneath it. And so people have to understand that, while there are a lot of people who are poor, you have disproportionate people who are black and Latino who are poor. And the institutionalized and the structural racism in society that has too many people living in communities without good schools, that makes it hard for many people to be able to reach their full potential- that structural racism has to be dealt with, and people have to acknowledge that it’s still there. People have to vote, and be real participants in the democratic process, and hold their elected officials accountable.”

But more importantly, people have to be able to get comfortable with the fact that this nation is becoming a nation in which the majority of people will be people of color, very soon — by 2042. Already, 46.5 percent of all children in this nation are children of color. And we have to get comfortable with the fact that if the nation is going to be strong — if it’s going to have a middle class, be competitive in the global economy, have any reason to be proud of its democracy — we have to invest in the children and the young people who are going to be the future. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, the moral thing to do…but it’s an economic imperative, now, for the nation. We’ve got to accept that and feel that it’s an asset to invest in, not a thing to worry about.”

Dr. Fareed Zakaria, editor at large, Time Magazine, and host of Fareed Zakaria GPS (CNN), on the importance of strong societal infrastructure and systems:

“We know that this is possible, because we used to do it — this is all stuff that the rest of the world has learned from us … That’s the irony. We used to know how to do all these things.”

If you’d ask yourself about how you produce social mobility in today’s world, all we have to do is to go back to our past, because we knew how to do it: it was great education; it was investments in research and technology and infrastructure; it was having a competitive, market-oriented economy; and it was making sure that, as a country, we were focused on the future and focused on a sense of optimism.

Luis Ubifias, president, Ford Foundation, on bringing people together around a common vision:

“These are the sorts of ideas that are not the province of one political party or one political movement, but rather all Americans. It is a reminder that we share common goals and common dreams — a collective belief in greater opportunity for all, and a collective belief that our country will be better for our children and grandchildren than it is for us. In the end, we will not be America if we don’t make this commitment to opportunity central and real for every one of our fellow citizens.”

Michael Bloomberg, mayor, New York City:

“How did we get to this point, and how do we restore the promise of opportunity for everyone? Well, for me, the answer is something we’re all familiar with, something that really is at the heart of the American Dream in the story of New York, and it is: innovation.

Let me explain. When I was in college, I studied to be an engineer. Learning how to think like an engineer involves much more than memorizing mathematical formulas and physics theories. It is about understanding how things work, and then asking a simple but critically important question: “How can I make it work better?”

In restoring opportunity around our country, this is a question we should be asking ourselves every single day. The world’s most dynamic companies certainly do it; they understand that if you fail to constantly innovate you’ll be left behind, and it’s time that all levels of government start thinking this way, as well.”

The following themes from the remarks above connect directly to our work:

  • The importance of building networks, aligning with others, breaking down silos and working together
  • The central role of racism, racial justice and diversity in how we address our current systems and prepare for the future
  • The importance of strong systems and a strong infrastructure for facilitating economic mobility and opportunities for everyone
  • The need to be aspirational -to put forth a positive vision and message about the American Dream and our country because that is what will bring people together
  • Innovation — How can we make things work better?

I recently had a conversation with Josh Hoyt, executive director of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who is participating in a case study we are completing about leadership. Josh told me Marguerite Casey Foundation’s grantees are not excited about general support anymore because it has become common. Rather, our consistent sizable investment in organizations over time is what excites them. It gives organizations the flexibility and the confidence to get in front of issues, to take risks and to innovate. Josh thanked us for what we have done, and specifically for 1) our efforts to foster connections between African-Americans and Latinos, and 2) our resolute focus on the family. Josh said he is just now grasping the importance of the concept of placing the family at the center of social change efforts. He said it is radical because it is so simple.

The ideas offered by the thought leaders at the Opportunity Nation Summit and by Josh Hoyt largely reflect how we have approached our work, the roots of our success, and what we have outlined in our plan for the next five years. We will stay true to our simple founding focus on low-income families while we will endeavor to implement our five-year plan for building an Equal Voice structure, for engaging families and for improving our internal performance.

The plan is a blueprint that addresses the points above: networks, roots of injustice, systems and innovation, all held together by a vision for a better America. It maps our work into three areas we have focused on for some time: structure, collective power, and accountability. It provides a framework for our work and yet leaves enough room to allow us to adapt to emerging priorities. How and when we respond, of course, is an ongoing conversation I seek to have with the board.

Even with a plan in place, we know that unforeseen opportunities and needs will arise. Although we cannot respond to these inevitable events before they happen, we can position ourselves to respond to them by crafting a framework for decision making, a tool for assessing whether or not a particular opportunity is consistent with our strategy. Below is the framework I hope to discuss with you in depth during the board meeting so that we can put this tool in place before it is needed and sharpen our focus for 2012 and the next five years.

Framework for Decision Making in 2012-2016:

As we move toward our next decade in an uncertain economic and philanthropic landscape, we face a number of opportunities and stresses. Acknowledging those conditions, and using our principles for direction, we will:

  • Work diligently toward the integration of our different functions within the Foundation, beginning with Communications and Programs.
  • Continue to support the development of our teams in order to execute with discipline the five-year plans.
  • Continue to have a positive impact on public discourse, public policy and philanthropy.
  • Advance the Equal Voice framework and the pillars of movement building: organizational capacity, leadership development, network development, policy impact and family engagement.
  • Promote the leadership and engagement of low-income families in order to create a national membership organization.

I am hopeful. We often talk about the challenges and the crises facing our communities — as we must —but our track record, our relationships and our plan for the next five years have put us in a position to make incredible progress.

We are in the business of change, which means implementing ideas, inspiring people and connecting them. To be successful in this business, we must ensure that at all times we are building our internal capacity and the capacity of our grantees. We were never in doubt about our simple focus. We have pursued a variety of ideas, added pieces, taken off pieces, brought them back, and each decision shows a relentless pursuit of our vision in a disciplined fashion. Thank you for your guidance during our planning phase, and thank you in advance for your guidance as we begin to execute our ambitious plan.


  1. What are your thoughts about the contents from the Opportunity Nation Summit?
  2. What are your thoughts about the framework for decision making?
  3. What are your expectations and hopes for Marguerite Casey Foundation in 2012?

A Focus on Families: Radical in its Simplicity