The worlds of education, the arts and humanities, international relations, gender equity and all things progressive have lost a great friend. Alison Bernstein passed away on June 30th from endometrial cancer. Her death was reported in the East Hampton Star on July 7th and in the New York Times on the following day.
Alison was as special as they come, forward-thinking, courageous, tireless, positive, and as honest as the days are long. I met her when I was hosting a weekly radio series on NPR, “Options in Education,” and she was at the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) in the Department of Education. Led by Alison, Russ Edgerton, Chuck Bunting and others, FIPSE was a hotbed of innovation, eager to push the inside of the envelope (not an easy task, especially in the federal government).
Earlier she had been a community college teacher and had earned her Master’s and Doctor’s Degrees in History from Columbia University.
Alison went on to become Vice President of the Ford Foundation, in which capacity she awarded millions of dollars in grants to programs for culture, the arts and the media, and for education from kindergarten through graduate school.
By then I had switched to television, and my program received some support from the Ford Foundation, though not directly from Alison’s shop.
A personal story that captures Alison’s qualities: One evening in the mid- or late-1990’s I went to an education reception honoring Early College High Schools, an innovation that Ford was supporting. I saw Alison and went over to say hello. When she asked how I was doing, I probably gave some bland response. “OK,” she said, not willing to accept my empty response but zeroing in. “Now tell me what your biggest problem is.”
Not a question, “Do you have any problems?” It was a directive, “Tell me….” Because she had neither time nor tolerance for bland responses, I told her the truth: I was spending at least half of my time fund-raising when I should be reporting, and, worse yet, I was striking out pretty much everywhere. Things were looking grim for my new non-profit production company, I admitted.
“I can help with that,” she said. “Here’s what I’m going to do,”she said, after asking me for the names of the half dozen or so foundations that I was trying to get support from. “I am going to invite all of them to a meeting. I will tell them that Ford will give Learning Matters (my new non-profit) ONE MILLION DOLLARS (emphasis added!) on the condition that the rest of them, collectively, give Learning Matters the same amount. All I had to do, Alison told me, was to show up prepared to impress everyone with a terrific presentation, including video.
Less than a month or two later I went to the Ford Foundation for a morning meeting, gave my presentation, and answered questions….until Alison dismissed me.
Later that same day Alison called me with the news that the group had agreed to match Ford’s donation.
Those grants put my company in the black and gave us legitimacy. That turn of events allowed me to do what I did best….and began a string of about 15 years of success in both journalism and fund-raising that lasted until the Great Recession hit us hard.
And it was all because of Alison, who invariably cut to the chase and knew how to make things happen.
I know that her many friends have similar stories to tell, and I hope we can all share them at the memorial service, which I understand will be in September.
Rest in peace, Alison. Your legacy lives on, in your words and deeds and in the lives of those your courage and generosity changed for the better.