President's Corner

Putting Family First

August 8, 2010

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

Our work is about fighting for a time when all families have the opportunity to thrive and when children are not separated from their parents.

At Marguerite Casey Foundation’s first board of directors meeting in February 2002, we made a site visit to a foster care agency in Washington, D.C., where we met birth parents, foster parents, and children who had been helped by the organization. One of the children, Joseph, was 18 months old at the time, and as he was passed from person to person throughout the room, he did not make a sound or change his expression. Of course, most children at 18 months cling to their parents and caregivers, knowing in whose arms they are best protected. But young Joseph was heartbreakingly different. He was an 18-month-old baby who had already seen too much, and he had no light in his eyes.

That moment crystallized for me that the work of Marguerite Casey Foundation, in keeping with the incredible legacy of the Casey family, is for the Josephs in our society. Our work is about fighting for a time when all families have the opportunity to thrive and when children are not separated from their parents.

Later in 2002, just a year into our grantmaking, I wrote the following in a piece titled “Why We Put Families First”:

“We have chosen to focus our work on prevention; and the most basic form of prevention for a child is a consistent relationship with a caring adult. For most children in the U.S., that adult is a parent or biological relative such as a grandparent or aunt. Together they form the nucleus of a family. But how can philanthropy best strengthen that family bond?”

Given that we have chosen to focus our work on prevention and that we have recognized that the most basic form of prevention for a child is a consistent relationship with a parent or caregiver, when we learn that the families of 5.5 million children could be split apart by new legislation, we have a role to play. Five and a half million children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent who is not a citizen (Pew Hispanic Center), and the latest wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation is threatening the integrity of those families. In this new and evolving context, it is incumbent upon us to explore how philanthropy- how Marguerite Casey Foundation- will work not only to strengthen the family bond, but to protect it.

The passage of SB 1070 in Arizona portends a potentially ominous wave of local and state legislation that could target families of immigrants across the country. This legislation could be replicated and even spark more aggressive legislation. After the success of SB 1070, some Arizona legislators are considering legislation that would deny birth certificates to children born in Arizona to parents who are not U.S. citizens.

Arizona has long been a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment, and it might be tempting to dismiss the recent events as isolated to one state. However, a poll released on June 17, 2010, by ABC News and The Washington Post revealed that nearly six in 10 people in the United States favor the Arizona law that gives police the power to verify people’s residency status. Indeed, this could be just the beginning.

When families are supported and given the opportunity to stay healthy and strong, countless individual and social problems are prevented. Ten years into our grantmaking, we have shown that philanthropy can strengthen the family bond by amplifying the voice of families and by partnering with the organizations that work with them. It is through this family-centric lens that Marguerite Casey Foundation carries out its work, and it is through this lens that we must respond to the current anti-immigrant climate in the United States.

Our engagement in the dialogue about immigration is necessary because it is about keeping families together. So much of the anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by emotions- the fear of crime, of jobs going to immigrants over citizens, of strains on our public system- even in the face of empirical research that proves otherwise.

Facts are not enough. To prevent the destruction of immigrant families, we must tell their stories: tell the stories of children who face sudden and prolonged separation from their parents, tell the stories of workplace raids that tear apart businesses, families and communities. The Urban Institute reports that for every two workplace raids, one child is directly affected, so let’s not just talk about that number, but tell the story of that child’s hunger, homelessness, foster care, anxiety and behavioral changes that followed her separation from her parents. We have to give that child, and all immigrant children and families, an equal voice in the conversation about immigration.

During our next board meeting, I hope to discuss Marguerite Casey Foundation’s position on immigration and to explore the complexity of the issues. How do we promote an approach that balances the need for secure borders with the need to take care of people who live in our country? How do we call attention to the fact that the U.S. accepts immigrant children into the military in exchange for citizenship but would deny those same children access to college? How can we increase awareness of the impact our country’s policies, from NAFTA to foreign policy, have on influencing people to flee their own countries for the U.S.? How do we tell the story of America as a country of immigrants that periodically turns on itself? How can we position America to break that cycle?

This is a demoralizing time for those who are working for humane immigration reform, but it is a critical moment for advocates and allies to step up and give a voice to immigrant families. In the same poll by ABC News and The Washington Post that found that most Americans support Arizona’s new immigration law, 57 percent said they support giving undocumented immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. This is an opening. If we tell the stories of the families in our communities I believe we can build support for immigrant families and children. In telling their stories, in being a witness- as I was too young Joseph in 2002 -the fact that the lives of children and families are at stake may frame the conversation in a new way.

We have tremendous grantees working in Arizona and elsewhere that are protecting immigrant families. Border Action Network, a grantee since 2005, is at the forefront of family mobilization in response to SB 1070. We partner with organizations that are strengthening immigrant families in all of our grantmaking regions, such as Colonias Development Council in New Mexico, Brownsville Community Health Center in Texas, Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica in California, Albany Park Neighborhood Council in Chicago, and Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, among many others.

Our grantees are undaunted by the struggle, and they show us what it means to put families first. We entered our work with the belief that when families are supported and given the opportunity to stay healthy and strong, their children will thrive. Ten years later, we are called upon by a threat to millions of families, and ten years later, we have the experience, the community of grantees and the networks to play a pivotal role in helping these families to stay healthy and strong. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and discussing this important topic with you at our upcoming meeting.

August Board of Directors Meeting

During the August board of directors meeting, we will explore the current state of movement building within the larger progressive faith-based community, which will include a conversation with Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA and Peg Chemberlin of National Council of Churches. As movement building becomes an increasingly common term in philanthropy, we will take some time to clarify how we have defined movement building as a way to infuse the voice of low-income families in public policy decision-making processes. Cynthia Renfro offers more thoughts on the Marguerite Casey Foundation brand of movement building in her report and the planned conversation in August, which will include several of our grantees.

Tenth Anniversary Celebration

As Marguerite Casey Foundation’s 1Oth anniversary approaches in 2011, we will discuss how to mark this important milestone. Ideas for community celebrations, a communications campaign, and a special grant award program are presented in a separate document. An ad hoc committee named by Freeman Hrabowski will oversee the plans.

Equal Voice

We completed our listening tour of grantmaking regions, which consisted of roundtable discussions in each region with our grantees to discuss their work, their region’s priorities, and the future of the Equal Voice framework. The feedback will guide the next steps for Equal Voice and the focus of the 2010 convening of all grantees, scheduled for September 26–28, 2010, in Chicago. A convening advisors group, consisting of 25 representatives of Foundation grantees, is providing feedback about the convening agenda and strategies for aligning the agenda with long-term efforts to sustain Equal Voice.


In the first half of 2010 our investments value declined significantly: by $33 million or 6%, down to $515 million. In light of this and the continuing market volatility, we prudently intend to decrease cash outflow in 2010, specifically by reducing grant payments by $4.4 million below budget. Due to this reduction, our IRS required spending will be at cumulative breakeven at the end of 2010. This action will give greater flexibility in the future to balance minimum spending against financial resources. Our excise tax rate will rise to 2% for 2010 but cost will be minimal, less than $25,000.

External Relations

I was recently invited to serve on the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education of the Public Education Network, which is a national association of local education funds and individuals working to advance public school reform in low-income communities across the country. The commission was created to make a compelling case for increasing the nation’s support for its public schools, to develop accountability standards for citizen-led, nonprofit organizations, and to define a mechanism for implementing those standards as part of those organizations’ normal operating procedures. This is undoubtedly an important opportunity to advance the education priorities of our grantees and families.

May 10-13, 2010, I was in New York City with Cynthia Renfro to meet with several key partners in philanthropy, including Atlantic Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, Open Society Institute, and French American Charitable Trust (FACT), to deepen the relationships with these national Foundations that support the work of our grantees and to explore new opportunities. As you are aware, Atlantic Philanthropies and FACT are spending down their assets within the next decade, which raises a concern about what will happen to our shared grantees once these resources disappear; we will continue discussions with them and seek to be more deliberately collaborative. Atlantic Philanthropies extended an invitation to its fall all-staff meeting in New York City so that our entire senior and program staff might better understand how Atlantic Philanthropies works.

Conclusion and Questions

I look forward to rigorous and uplifting conversations in August, and I am pleased to leave you
with the following questions:

  1. What more could we be doing, or what could we be doing differently, to increase our impact on keeping families together?
  2. What are your thoughts on the role Marguerite Casey Foundation should play on the issue of immigration?
  3. Ten years into our grantmaking, what are your reflections on the role of movement building in strengthening families?

Putting Family First