LAFF Society


NYC’s “Neighborhood of Conscience”

By Michael Seltzer

Michael Seltzer worked in Governance and Civil Society in 1995-1998. This article is from PhilanTopic, August 20, 2010 by Michael Seltzer.
Lower Manhattan is many things to many people: hub of global finance, a mosaic of ethnic enclaves, funky residential neighborhood with breath-taking views of New York harbor, and, of course, backdrop for the most devastating of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But thanks to a series of unrelated real estate transactions over the years, it has also emerged as the world's first "neighborhood of conscience." That term was coined in the 1990s after the Rockefeller Foundation invited a seemingly disparate group of nonprofit visionaries to its conference center in Bellagio, Italy—a group that included the leadership of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, Russia's Gulag Museum, and the District 6 Museum in South Africa, among others. At that meeting, these nonprofits found common cause: a shared commitment to relating the past to the present, building "lasting cultures of human rights," and engaging "ordinary people in dialogue on social issues...through the establishment of sites [of conscience]." In recognition of its importance, the sites of conscience movement has attracted the support of a number of foundations and philanthropies over the years, including the Compton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Oak Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Sigrid Rausing Trust. The emergence of Lower Manhattan as a neighborhood of conscience has occurred organically, with many nonprofits and cultural groups having set up shop or established memorials over the last decade on the footprint of what was once New Amsterdam. They include:

The newest group looking to establish a presence in this storied neighborhood is, of course, Cordoba House. Unlike its predecessors, however, plans for the 13-story Islamic community center and mosque have generated a firestorm of controversy. On Tuesday, New York governor David Patterson offered to mediate a solution to what has turned into a regrettable stalemate between the community center's supporters and First Amendment advocates on one side and opponents of the so-called Ground Zero mosque on the other. Many veterans of the New York nonprofit scene, including myself, have worked with Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and a board member of Cordoba House and can vouch for her unquestioned integrity and inspiring work on behalf of Muslims in America. Just as important is her long-term commitment to build lasting bridges between the American Muslim community and members of other faith communities. (Ed. note: Khan is married to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and CEO of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and, with his wife, co-organizer of the Park51 project.) Cordoba House's leadership, mission, and plans for the site on Park Place all make it worthy of a location in Manhattan's neighborhood of conscience. That's presumably why the local community board's financial committee voted unanimously in support of the new center and mosque. We in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector have much to gain from increased engagement with the nearly seven million Muslims who call America home. When I served as a program officer at the Ford Foundation responsible for the foundation's grant making to strengthen global philanthropy, I was often reminded by my Turkish colleagues that the very first foundations were established in Anatolia over a thousand years ago. Please join with me in calling on Governor Patterson and other civic-minded Americans to lend their support to reaffirming Lower Manhattan as the world's first "neighborhood of conscience." I, for one, will be sending a check to Cordoba House. 



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