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Meeting of Foundations Highlights Urban Concerns

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DALLAS--The same afternoon that hundreds of foundation officers were traveling home from the 1992 Council on Foundations conference in Miami, parts of Los Angeles were aflame, the first of several days of civil disturbances that erupted after the virtual acquittal of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King.

As foundation officers gathered here for their annual meeting last week, the conference theme reflected a heightened sense of urgency among grantmakers about the state of America's cities, prompted in large part by the violent events of last spring.

Entitled "Communicating and Community: Multiple Visions, Multiple Strategies,'' the conference offered numerous sessions that touched on the concerns of urban areas, ranging from examining the work of community-redevelopment initiatives to addressing how to overcome the barriers posed by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

"The evident failures to communicate across a history of miscommunication indicate that truth and justice can only be served by deeper reading of social unrest,'' the introduction to the conference program reads. "[Rodney] King's plea when Los Angeles exploded last May was at once painfully simple and dauntingly complex: 'Can't we all just get along?'''

Last spring's disturbances were probably a key factor in the significantly higher turnout among corporate grantmakers this year, according to Eugene Wilson, the president of the Arco Foundation in Los Angeles.

About 135 representatives of the 195 members of the corporate-grantmakers "affinity group'' attended the Dallas conference, up from about 80 last year. (The council has 29 affinity groups, each of which links grantmakers with a common interest.)

"I really think it's because the topic is so central in the minds of anyone in corporate contributions,'' Mr. Wilson observed.

The needs of urban communities were spotlighted in a joint session of the precollegiate-education group and the neighborhood-funders group.

Mary Leonard, the director of the precollegiate group, said she was surprised to discover that many social-service providers and community economic-development organizations tend to bypass schools as resources.

"They talk about building community around other community-based organizations, but they really don't see schools as resources,'' she said. "Because they have this perception of schools as bureaucracies, because there's failure with schools, it makes it very hard to consider schools being for the community, as opposed to an institution of 'downtown.'''

"The education group needs to do a better job of making sure those schools are inviting to the community and make the community aware of what a resource they can be,'' she added.

At a preconference session, about 20 representatives of the precollegiate affinity group met to reflect on the growth of the group over the past decade and its evolving mission.

In 1980, the group had 35 members and about 5 percent of all foundation and corporate education dollars went to precollegiate education. Today, it has 350 members and between 20 percent and 30 percent of the education dollars go to K-12 education.

"It's been 10 years since A Nation at Risk and everyone sort of looks backward saying 'We put a lot of money into school improvement, what's changed?''' Ms. Leonard observed. "The results are disappointing. With the infusion of new money, people assumed schools would be more different now than they are, with more of an emphasis on learning rather than teaching, and that just hasn't happened. There's some steps along the road that point out that there's some hope, but there's still some major systemic reforms to be accomplished.''

The president of a foundation known for its support of precollegiate education and youth issues was honored at a conference luncheon on Tuesday. Margaret E. Mahoney, the president of the Commonwealth Fund, received the council's 1993 "Distinguished Grantmaker'' award for her lifetime achievements in organized philanthropy.

The five focuses of the New York City-based Commonwealth Fund are developing the capacity of young people, promoting healthier life styles, bettering the health of minorities, improving health-care services, and advancing the well-being of elderly people.

As president of the Commonwealth Fund, Ms. Mahoney supported the development of a middle school mentoring program at a hospital. It is designed to encourage hospitals to help strengthen communities and educate their future workforce.--M.S.

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