The New York Foundation has been a leader in promoting the rights of grassroots organizations to define their own issues, develop their own leadership, and organize and advocate on their own behalf. In doing so, the foundation has made a mark on many of the key public policy issues affecting New Yorkers.
Employment and Workers’ Rights
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 was widely considered the greatest disaster in the city prior to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Garment factory owners had locked the exit door to increase worker productivity. A fire broke out, and 146 young immigrant women were killed.
The tragedy drew the ire of the city, the nation, and much of the world’s press. In a heavy rain on April 5, the second anniversary of the foundation, more than half a million New Yorkers watched the mass funeral procession.
The New York Foundation responded to a galvanized labor movement by funding national child labor projects and educational, vocational, and recreational programs for workers, as well as other labor-related projects for young women and girls. It supported factories designed with the health of workers in mind and efforts to organize department store salesgirls, janitors, and musicians.
The foundation continues its nearly century-long legacy of funding workers’ rights groups. In more recent years, foundation grantees have improved working conditions for day laborers, domestic workers, and street vendors, as well as New Yorkers who work in garment factories, restaurants, big-box stores, and other low-wage industries. The foundation also supports collaboration between community groups, laborers, and worker-owned businesses.
Law and Criminal Justice
In 1930, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York, appointed the Commission to Investigate Prison Administration and Construction, chaired by a foundation trustee. Its findings provided a blueprint for reforming the state prison system for decades to come. The commission sparked the creation of a better-organized program emphasizing education and rehabilitation at Elmira prison. This work influenced educational programs in newer prisons, including Wallkill and Clinton. The foundation also underwrote work done on a national basis by private organizations such as the Osborne Association, named for Thomas Mott Osborne, a former warden of Sing Sing Prison and one of the nation’s most renowned prison reformers of his day.
Other foundation-supported projects brought even more change to New York’s criminal justice system. Grants funded the careful study of successful antiracketeering efforts, prisoner reentry programs, prison issues for women, parolees’ concerns, and the treatment of first offenders between the ages of 17 and 19-boys who would ordinarily have been incarcerated. Recent foundation grantees have fought for the reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, the rights of prison families, and the fair treatment of incarcerated people who suffer from mental illness.
In the early part of the last century, many worthy education programs were not in a position to receive public support-they first had to prove their value. The New York Foundation sought out these experimental programs. An early initiative sent visiting teachers to the homes of children who were delinquent from school. The first such teacher was employed in 1911 with funds granted to the Public Education Association. Foundation support for the project continued for years, and the practice spread to other cities.
The foundation funded many other education initiatives. A 1932 project to “adapt the school to the child” by introducing progressive education methods resulted in the famed Little Red Schoolhouse. In 1947, the foundation financed a new center at New York University that housed the law school and focused on new formulations of modern law. It also funded innovative institutions, such as the New School for Social Research.
The foundation supported scholarships and fellowships for needy students, programs that brought retired top-tier faculty to smaller colleges, after-school and summer recreation programs, and financial assistance for African American students.
More recently, foundation grantees are organizing public school parents and students across New York. These grassroots organizations have led the movement for smaller schools, school-based budgeting, improved site management, and increased accountability to parents and communities.
Since its founding, the New York Foundation has sought to safeguard children by funding organizations working with and for them. These include groups concerned with child protection, recreation, vocational services, wartime care of children, and the emerging fields of youth development and social work.
As early as 1919, the New York Foundation supported “protective leagues,” which guarded the welfare of girls and sought to create “a movement of girls for girls” that could improve their economic condition and promote sex education. The foundation also funded infant-feeding programs, adoption agencies, and organizations that provided day care for the children of working mothers. It supported early work to promote reproductive rights, and provided a founding grant to Planned Parenthood.
In the first decade of the 21st century, foundation grantees are at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the child welfare system preserves families and involves parents and youth in determining the course of their own lives. Grantees include organizations that bring together young people- parenting teens, immigrant youth, young people in detention, and youth workers-to demand better schools, gender equity in public programs, immigration reforms, fair wages, and human rights.