Detroiters' optimism captivates Ford Foundation head

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

They came to the city where it all started, as all 16 members of the Ford Foundation Board of Trustees gathered in Detroit Tuesday afternoon for their first board meeting in the city since 1946.

The foundation, now located in New York, was established by Edsel Ford in 1936. Edsel's father, Henry, was the automaker's founder.

After 67 years, board members and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker began their first of three days in and around the Motor City Tuesday with a private board meeting.

Walker said he spent part of the day exploring the city, touring Michigan Avenue, passing through Sherwood Forest and then into blighted areas near Seven Mile and Woodward.

The contrast, Walker said, is representative of inequality in society and the economy.

"We're used to seeing this in India and other locations, but to see it in our neighborhood is disturbing," he said. "What continues to inspire me is the optimism in the city. People in Detroit have a boundless capacity to be the best and look to the future."

Glenda Price, president of the DPS Foundation, which does philanthropic work for the city's school district, said the tremendous level of interest in Detroit will help answer important questions.

"It really is a good thing there are so many national and local people paying attention to the city, it's people and raising the question of how can they ensure a true renaissance? It's time," Price said.

Alicia Renee Ferris, state director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, met with board members and Walker on Monday when they came to the business to kick off their visit to Detroit.

She said Walker came inside, met with employees and was very interested in what they do everyday.

"He was very, very personable with the staff, the way he always is with people," she said.

"The presence of the trustees, these esteemed people from all over the world, that speaks volumes about their expanding commitment to Detroit," she said.

On Tuesday evening, the foundation is hosting a pair of events to honor the city and its people, and to affirm its continued commitment to supporting a bright future for both, foundation officials said.

The first is a reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. It will bring together several organizations from across Southeast Michigan that the foundation has supported. The second event will be a dinner at the Detroit Institute of Arts to honor the members of the Detroit community who made the "grand bargain" for the city's exit from bankruptcy a reality.

At $125 million, the Ford Foundation's commitment to the pension-and-art rescue fund was the largest single contribution of any individual, corporation or institution. The foundation's $10.3 billion endowment fund was seeded 78 years ago with wealth generated by the Ford Motor Co.

Before Tuesday's events, Board Chairman Kofi Appenteng dined at Colors restaurant with other board members. He also toured the city.

"It's really inspiring what they are doing," he said. Seeing the city, its blighted areas and its thriving neighborhoods gave Appenteng a "sense of scale."

"You really have to be here to see it. I also saw opportunity. I understand why the staff has put so much focus here," he said

Incorporated in 1936 in Michigan, the Ford Foundation was created with an initial gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford. The foundation operated as a local philanthropy in Michigan until 1950, when it expanded to become a national and international foundation.

Today, the foundation is the second largest in the United States and has provided more than $16 billion in grants and loans worldwide.

But for nearly 30 years, Ford Foundation ties to Michigan were strained. Henry Ford II quit the board in 1977. In his resignation letter, he criticized the foundation for supporting projects critical of American business and said it had forgotten that the fruits of capitalism had provided its financial base.

The foundation announced $1.3 million in new civic engagement grants in December and has plans to make additional grants of more than $10 million in 2015.