“A True Humanitarian”
By Shepard Forman
I was privileged to work for Frank for more than 15 years, coincident with his tenure as President of the Foundation. Exceptionally smart, demanding but supportive, he led the Foundation with determination and decency, drawing the best from his staff. He built an institutional environment of trust and confidence in which we could flourish.
For me, it was a period of intense learning and growth, during which I developed an abiding appreciation for Frank as a person and as a boss. I remain ever grateful for the opportunities he gave me.
When Frank became president, I was working in the Foundation’s field office in Brazil, on leave from the University of Michigan. I had been offered a job in New York as Program Advisor in the Latin American regional office, and the impending changes at the Foundation made me uncertain. Rumors from headquarters questioned whether Frank’s storied career prepared him to take command of the Foundation’s overseas operations and tackle the complexities of international affairs programs.
Some old Foundation hands argued that that created an opportunity; others reassured me that the International Division was an entity unto itself that would insulate the job from any real change. The first premise proved true, but because of Frank’s deep understanding of international affairs, global politics and policy rather than any lack thereof; the structural predicate proved to be providentially wrong as Frank moved to cross-fertilize domestic and overseas programs in a unified program division.
Frank’s command of international law and politics was on full display when he urged me to consider the Foundation’s experience in domestic civil rights while drafting a human rights paper for the Board. A true humanitarian, he wanted to move the program from high principle to its effects on people’s lives. In doing so, we would take the lead from actors in the locations where the problems were felt and possible solutions best understood.
When the board adopted the civil and political rights centerpiece of the paper but rejected the section on social and economic rights, fearing its association with Soviet-era rhetoric, Frank reasoned we should rethink it as social justice, a hallmark of the Foundation’s work ever since.
The same philosophy, commitment and practical approach held true when discussing a redraft of the board paper on Governance and Public Policy. It was the Reagan years, and Frank was concerned about the effects of downsized federal social programs on state and local governance and the community development programs with which he was so familiar. He urged the Foundation to focus on budgets and the priorities they evidence, and on public-private endeavors that could ensure continuity in people’s welfare at the local level. Human needs, democratic participation and good governance became the universal principles of the program, irrespective of any constraining national boundaries.
Frank’s perspicacity and purpose was evident again when, in 1981, he began to envision a Foundation response to HIV-Aids, only then beginning to manifest itself as a global problem. With no Foundation program in health to house it, Frank encouraged us to focus on the public policy and rights concerns of the socially marginalized men among whom the disease first surfaced.
With patience and calm deliberation over the course of several board meetings, he built support for a program that would ultimately influence a response to the pandemic that ravaged men and women across the globe. Closer to home, Frank countenanced care and assistance to six young staff members who tragically succumbed to the disease.
At the end of the 1980s, with the Soviet Union in the process of dissolution, Frank reasoned it was time to free the International Affairs program from its Cold War moorings. While not abandoning long-standing issues of peace and security and international economics and development, he encouraged a reorientation from United States foreign policy to multilateral solutions to global problems, bearing down on issues of poverty and hunger, refugees and migrants, and the civilian victims of intra- and inter-state conflicts.
It was a prescient perspective on the direction globalism would take over the next quarter century and—in a fitting recognition of this essential part of Frank’s legacy—one that the Foundation has recently restored to its agenda.
Shepard Forman worked at the Foundation from 1977 to 1996 in the Human Rights and Governance and International Affairs programs, and in the Rio de Janeiro office. He is a former president of The LAFF Society.
LAFF Remembers Franklin Thomas: Co-Presidents’ Reflections by Suzanne Siskel and Betsy Campbell
He Left the World a Better Place by Susan Berresford
A Man of “Vision, Tenacity and Dignity” by Barron “Buzz” Tenny
Celebrating the Remarkable Legacy of Franklin Thomas by Darren Walker
“A True Humanitarian” by Shepard Forman
From the Class of ’92: “We worked for Frank” by Radhika Balakrishnan, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos, Natalia Kanem, Anthony Romero and Marcia Smith
Grantees: “Up Front and in the Center” by Charles Bailey
Taking Risks “Is What We Do” by Steven W. Lawry
A Leader With “Vision and Courage” by Barry D. Gaberman
Forging “New Paths on Multiple Fronts” by Judy Barsalou
“The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Akwasi Aidoo