Monday, April 30, 2007

Four short plays, four big ideas

The Council on Foundations conference this year is organized around four major challenges of our times. This is in preparation for a year of discussion and ongoing conversations, all geared to a 2008 convention that hopes to draw the presumptive presidential nominees.

The four themes: poverty, global health, climate change, and disaster relief. As they are largely being presented at the conference in separate tracks, the connections between these four themes are not immediately obvious. Ironically, it takes art to make the connections clear to many. This is happening in part through four short plays that were commissioned for the conference and that are being performed before each plenary session.

I see the connections quite clearly. While I don’t draw very well, this picture up top is how I see them in relationship to each other. There are not really one-directional arrows, however one set of relationships that has come clear in the conversations in Seattle is the degree to which climate change is going to have immediate effects on poorer communities either through the impact of weather-related natural disasters or on environmentally-driven health issues. Not surprisingly, in other words, the poor suffer more than others - regardless of whether its health, disaster-related, or climate change.

Even in this oversimplified drawing, the connections are important. The conference structure lets participants look more deeply into each issue, and a few attempts between sessions to connect them are also helpful. But, in the end, the challenge here is for the conference not to mimic the silos within foundations – understanding issues deeply can no longer be defined as “going deep” inside a subject – it must also involve understanding the deep connections across issues. Ironic – or not – that it takes art (usually another foundation program silo) to make that visible.

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