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NEWSLETTER

Picking up the Torch

By Emmett Carson

Emmett D. Carson, Ph.D., is CEO and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in California. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered at the Celebration of the Good Life of Lynn Walker Huntley Memorial Service in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 2015.
 
Lynn was recruited to the Ford Foundation to develop and pioneer a new approach to philanthropy that would empower disadvantaged groups by strengthening the capacity of their institutions to advance social change. Lynn cared deeply about the uplift of all poor and downtrodden people. She was proud to be African American and proud to be the daughter of Rev. Dr. Lawrence N. Jones, former Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and one of the most preeminent theologians of his generation. 
 
Lynn had a deep empathy for other people that enabled her to make an almost instant connection that made everyone feel immediately at ease, a most uncommon trait for someone working at a foundation. She was as equally at ease with the most pretentious people in the most grandiose settings as she was with everyday people in the most modest settings anywhere around the world, a quality she likely learned from her mother, Mary Ellen Cooley Jones.
 
It's easy to understand why Lynn saw joining the Ford Foundation as a unique opportunity to move from fighting for individual civil rights to championing human rights worldwide. Through Ford she would be able to address the systemic causes of poverty, oppression and racism. Lynn advanced from a program officer to become the director of the Rights and Social Justice Program. 
 
As director she created strategies and led a team of program officers who supported legal services for the poor, protected and advanced civil and voting rights, examined the portrayal of minorities in the media, championed the rights of refugees and migrants and provided opportunities for Black youth leadership development. However, it was the Black church program on social justice and economic empowerment that occupied a special place in Lynn’s heart. And it was through this work that Lynn met Jacqui Burton, a colleague at the Lilly Endowment, who would become her lifelong friend and sister in all but blood.
 
Lynn understood that to achieve her goals at Ford she would need to become something of a secret agent. Relying on her brilliance, eloquence, strategic acumen, charming smile and disarming humor, Lynn advanced the cause of social justice as only a lawyer’s lawyer could. She was able to successfully fund groups that had never received funding before she arrived. During her tenure, Lynn was, without question, one of the most prominent people in philanthropy, directing hundreds of millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations across the country and around the world. 
 
Among her accomplishments, Lynn led the effort within the Ford Foundation to help fund the two Eyes on the Prize documentary films. She was instrumental in getting other foundations to do likewise. In addition, she helped establish the National Commission on Educational Testing that examined how racial biases in standardized educational testing prevent students of color from gaining admission to the nation’s colleges and universities. 
 
But perhaps Lynn’s most enduring legacy was her commitment to recruiting, training and mentoring people. There were many of us at Ford who benefited from Lynn’s wisdom and tutelage, including: Anthony Romero, Mary McClymont, the Rev. Robert Franklin, Mora McLean, Natalia Kanem and Marcia Smith. Her influence was effective in a much broader sphere through her willingness to coach and mentor others throughout the field of philanthropy. Lynn was an active member of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, and in 2004 she received its highest honor, the James Joseph Award.
 
I know that Lynn was deeply thankful for the opportunity to work at Ford and was especially grateful to Shepard Forman for hiring her and supporting her efforts. Lynn continued her work in philanthropy after leaving Ford by serving as president of the Southern Education Foundation. She also was on the board of directors of CARE, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and the Atlanta Community Foundation, among others.
 
As you all know, it was virtually impossible to get the last word or the last laugh on Lynn. She was too smart and her repertoire of jokes—from polite to downright raunchy—far too extensive. However, there was one time, actually the only time, when I got the last laugh. 
 
Lynn and I were driving from Memphis to Greenville, Miss., for the Association of Black Foundation Executives’ annual retreat. This was a decade before cell phones and car navigation systems and so, while I drove, Lynn was the designated navigator. Normally, this is a drive that should take about two and a half hours but three hours later, with the sun setting, we were hopelessly lost on an unnamed, unlit, back-country road surrounded by cotton fields. When we finally arrived at our destination, nearly five hours after we started, we were bombarded with questions about what had happened to us. 
 
Before Lynn could speak, I responded that none of those present could possibly imagine what it was like to have to drive around with Ms. Daisy. The room erupted with laughter as Lynn turned bright red. Driving Ms. Daisy was a popular movie at the time in which a black chauffeur, played by Morgan Freeman, was driven crazy driving for a wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic and increasingly senile white woman, Jessica Tandy. Lynn was called Ms. Daisy throughout the rest of the meeting.
 
Lynn loved poetry and never passed up an opportunity to recite a poem from memory. Throughout our friendship, and to my chagrin, Lynn would often recite one poem in particular, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. It reads:
 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you, from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
 
Two weeks before Lynn’s transition, I was able to spend a very special day at her bedside. We both knew that it would be our last time together. We talked about world events, the good times and what we meant to each other. When it came time for me to leave, I told her that she needn’t worry, that I understood what she had been trying to tell me all those many years and that I would indeed pick up the torch. Lynn immediately smiled, looked me straight in the eye and while lifting her arm and making a fist she said in a strong and resolute voice: 
 
“To you the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields” 

 


 

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