LAFF Society


In Memoriam, Fall 2020


Constance H. Buchanan, who played a major role in developing a women’s study program at the Harvard Divinity School before joining the Ford Foundation to oversee a new initiative exploring the role of religion in justice and human rights issues, died September 16 at the age of 73. 
Ms. Buchanan had been a faculty member and associate dean at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) for more than 20 years, and for six years during that time was a special assistant to Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, helping guide a university-wide project to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
But it was her work as director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) at HDS that stood out in a long career that put “women at the center of the dialogue on the forces that shape societies and cultures”, said a statement from the school. 
She was named director of the program in 1977, four years after it was begun “in response to the need to transform theological education to reflect the unprecedented presence of women as candidates for the ministry and students of religion.” By the time she left in 1997 to work at Ford, it was an “internationally recognized center for research on faith, gender, race and sexual orientation”.
Said Ann Braude, who succeeded her as director of WSRP, “She really invented the WSRP out of whole cloth. She had to be able to imagine what was possible, and she had to be able to inspire people to believe that women could have a voice where they had none. She was the catalyst who could both imagine and could bring it to fruition. That took intelligence, commitment, vision and, more than anything, faith in women.”
It was those qualities, and her long list of accomplishments, that led to her appointment at Ford to develop a new program in 1997 focused on religion in what was then called the Education, Knowledge and Religion Unit of the Education, Media Arts and Culture Program. She became senior program officer in 2000, and retired from the Foundation in 2007. 
“Connie came to the Foundation to begin a new program that would explore religion’s role in advancing justice and human rights,” said Susan Berresford, a former president of the Ford Foundation. “This was a complex and often sensitive area of work, and one that touched on many cultures and traditions around the world. 
“Connie made a series of grants over her years at Ford that spanned original research into overlooked religious histories, popular writing about values and priorities related to religious traditions, support for innovative social service and community engagement by religious leaders, and gatherings of spiritual leaders concerned with justice and fairness, human rights and development. 
“Connie’s personality and intellect were key to her success at Ford. She was witty, smart, energetic and optimistic. I loved talking with her, and continued to see her after she left Ford but was still living nearby. We would have lunch in her apartment and catch up about people we admired and what was happening in the world around us.
“Her determination to remain active and engaged despite a tough illness was an inspiration.”
“Connie Buchanan was a truly remarkable person,” writes Cyrus Driver, who during his 13 years at the Ford Foundation working on education issues occasionally collaborated with Ms. Buchanan. “She was compassionate, generous, witty and humble. She was at the same time a profound intellect, carrying forward ideas that changed how many people thought, driven by the recognition that ideas truly matter.
“For many progressives and center-left people, the prevailing wisdom included variants on the notion that religion was an ‘opiate of the people’. Connie held a much different view. She understood religion to be a system of values that deeply shaped people’s world views, and both reflected and shaped society and culture. She saw religion as a contended force that was foundational to movements for justice or, conversely, could animate oppressive white patriarchal dominance,” said Driver, who now is Senior Director of the National Public Education Support Fund. 
“She did not see religion as a tool to be manipulated but rather as a driving cultural force that needed, first, to be recognized and understood. Her program at Ford focused on elevating scholars and public intellectuals who could help us all to adopt a new outlook on the centrality of religion, and to some measure she was successful. 
“Those who worked with her in the Education, Knowledge, Religion (and later Education, Sexuality, Religion) Unit, and many others across the Foundation, grew in our collective understanding, and perhaps the broader field of progressive change shifted a bit away from an overly narrow or dismissive view of religion. 
“Connie was an intellectual powerhouse within the Foundation in other ways. For example, from approximately 2004 to 2007, she led a committee within the Foundation to more clearly define our shared orientation towards diversity and equity. She often said ‘diversity is a fact, pluralism is the aspiration’, meaning that we only need to go out on 42nd Street to see people who identify among myriad categories of difference—race, gender, sexuality, language, etc.—while pluralism meant seeing, hearing and valuing each person and each category with full respect and recognition of the dignity of their humanity. 
“The report of the committee shaped perspectives about how our work should strengthen such diverse voices and perspectives, and what our stance towards organizations, and work within the Foundation itself, needed to be in order to further this aim. The report stands the test of time and current moment.
“Connie struggled with a neuromuscular disease that likely was Parkinson’s, though she often wondered about her actual diagnosis. Yet, she never slowed in her work and in her drive to promote new ways of thinking about religion, values, difference and the valuing of people. Despite her illness, she was consistently optimistic and generous with her time, often holding court in her fourth floor office—like the Harvard intellectual she had been for 20 years before coming to Ford—with one or two or three people on the issues of the day, the work we each may have been doing, or simply about our lives and families. 
“She was a true friend to me and many others, an inspiration for strength and a real gift to the Foundation community and our broader networks. All who knew her are deeply saddened by her loss.”


Comments (1)

Gerard Salole 10/17/2020 9:16:54 PM
Connie was an inspiration. She was always so positive and upbeat. A good friend.


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