LAFF Society


News about Former Foundation Staff: 3/2018


Elizabeth Alexander, poet, writer and former director of the Ford Foundation’s programs in arts, culture and journalism, has been named president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the country’s largest humanities philanthropy.
“I have lived my entire life with art, culture and scholarship as companion, guide and discipline,” she said after her selection in February. “I am guided by the justice values of increasing access to the power of higher education to open and strengthen minds, encourage human exchange and thus transform lives.
“The humanities show us deeply who we are and what it means to move through life by the light of cultural vision. I am excited for the work ahead of elevating the truth, beauty and rigor of the arts and higher learning and making them more accessible to all.”
While at Ford, she helped design the $100 million Art for Justice Fund, which promotes criminal justice reform and was supported by a grant from the philanthropist Agnes Gund.
At Mellon, said the foundation in announcing her appointment, she will be instrumental in “drawing new partners in to support the arts and humanities and in refining the Foundation’s distinctive blend of a commitment to the arts and humanities for social purposes and for their own sake” and in supporting “diversification of educational, scholarly and cultural organizations with an innovative focus on cultivating institutional capacity for inclusive leadership….”
“This appointment,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, “is a milestone in the history of philanthropy. It’s the combination of being both rooted in the arts and grounded in the humanities and understanding philanthropy that is going to make her a success.”
Alexander has written six books of poetry and two essay collections. Her memoir, The Light of the World, was a finalist in 2016 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 2009, she recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at the inaugural of President Barack Obama, just the fourth poet to have read at a presidential inauguration. 
Through the years she has worked closely with the Poetry Center at Smith College; the nonprofit Cave Canem, which trains aspiring poets; and Yale University, where she helped build the African-American Studies department while on the faculty for 15 years.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Yale, a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University and a doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She has received honorary doctorates from Haverford College, Simmons College and the College of St. Benedict.
Michelle J. DePass, who worked in Community and Resource Development at Ford from 2003 to 2009 and has been a dean at The New School in New York City, will become president and chief executive officer of the Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland, Ore., in April.
Meyer has been redesigning its programs to focus on housing, education, the environment and Oregon’s diverse communities, placing “equity at the center of its grant-making and internal decisions”.
“We’ve worked hard to transition from a dominant culture environment to a truly multicultural organization,” said the out-going CEO, Doug Stamm. “Numbers are important, but it’s really about whether people are free to voice their opinions. It’s about inclusion.” 
The Meyer board, in announcing the selection of DePass, said, “Michelle was an early leader in the environmental justice movement, and throughout her career she’s been an influential voice for equity and social justice in the governmental, academic, philanthropic and nonprofit areas.
“For nearly two decades, Michelle has sought out and excelled in roles where she can make a difference and shift the power dynamic to improve life for people of color, women, indigenous peoples and low-income communities.”
Darren Walker, Ford’s president, said in a statement that “Disrupting the forces that drive inequality in this country is vitally important work. Michelle is the right person to serve as Meyer’s new CEO. She has the vision, experience and courage to stand up for justice in Oregon.” 
After leaving Ford, DePass was the assistant administrator for International and Tribal Affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency and, most recently, dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School, as well as the Tishman Professor of Environmental Policy and Management.
Narisa Chakrabongse, who at one time was a researcher for the Ford Foundation in Thailand, was featured in an article posted by the Nikkei Asian Review on January 21 extolling her work as a publisher “devoted to challenging unfortunate stereotypes about Thailand—especially when it comes to books and critical thought”.
She is the founder and CEO of River Books, which publishes works on Southeast Asian art and culture, and editor of the Oxford River Books English-Thai Dictionary.
“People love to say that Thais aren’t interested in reading,” she said in the article, “and trot out surveys that conclude Thais only average 13 lines of a book in a year, but that’s obviously not true.
“Maybe we’re not as vibrant here as in London or New York, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of intellectuals, or universities, or book buyers. I think these misconceptions stem from the Orientalizing fantasies of foreigners, who come here for the wrong reasons and meet the wrong people because Thais aren’t the best English learners, and expats fail to learn Thai.” 
She has provided her home as headquarters for the two-year-old Bangkok Edge Festival, a gathering she founded and devoted to emphasizing Thai literature, music and food.
Chakrabongse, the great-granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn and granddaughter and daughter of Thai princes, was born in England, where her father had married an Englishwoman. She returned to Thailand in her 20s and has been living there ever since.
A strong environmentalist, she is founding president of Green World Foundation, which promotes environmental ethics and sustainability. She is also politically active, withdrawing from the torch-running ceremony of the 2008 Olympics to protest China’s actions in Tibet.



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