Almost two and a half years ago, following an engaged and engaging discussion at the central branch of the Pratt Library about how Americans talk — and don’t talk — about race, Open Society Institute-Baltimore director Diana Morris weighed in with a pithy, insightful analysis of our nation’s seemingly institutional racism.
“In America, we focus a lot on individuals; we don’t think about systems,” Morris noted in December 2009, prefiguring the current cataclysm surrounding the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. “Even in school, we don’t talk often about systems unless we happen to take a course in college about sociology. So that’s very helpful to me when I think through ‘how can we really talk effectively about the criminal justice system, which so adversely affects people of color and people who are poor.’ And that’s a system at work, and some of them are sort of unofficial or informal systems, and some of them are formal systems, but it’s more than just an individual bias. And we want to be able to convey that, because unless we can really pierce those systems, we’re not gonna really get effective change.”
Since 1997, Morris has brought a pronounced passion to effecting change in this city as overseer of the local outpost of gazillionaire philanthropist George Soros’ international Open Society Foundations. Specifically, OSI-Baltimore, according to its website, concentrates on “three intertwined problems: untreated drug addiction, an over-reliance on incarceration, and obstacles that impede youth in succeeding inside and out of the classroom. We also support a growing corps of social entrepreneurs committed to underserved populations in Baltimore.”
During its first eight years here, the nonprofit pumped more than $60 million into local initiatives addressing those issues, all of it allotted from Soros’ personal piggy bank. Since 2005, he has matched dollar for dollar any donation to OSI-Baltimore.
A native of Altoona, Pa., Morris earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Smith College in 1975, and, after further study in that field at Princeton (1977-1978), snagged a law degree from Boston University in 1979. Disinclined to practice law privately, she embarked on a career devoted to social justice issues in 1980 by taking a post as an attorney-adviser for human rights and refugee matters in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State. Not exactly in sync with the policies of the Reagan administration, Morris leaped to the nonprofit Ford Foundation in 1982, working as a program officer on behalf of refugee and immigrant rights (1982-1987), and then in its Human Rights and Social Justice Program for Eastern and Southern Africa (1987-1990).
Morris landed in Baltimore in 1991 as executive director of the Blaustein Philanthropic Group, the umbrella organization for eight grant-giving family foundations. Six years later she signed on with OSI-Baltimore. Currently, she also serves as acting executive director for Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs, and contributes occasional guest commentaries on WYPR.
Now 58, she lives in Lutherville with her husband, Peter Shiras — also a nonprofit-sector veteran — who works as executive vice president of business development for the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation. The couple has two daughters: Tess, 21, and Chloe, 18.
Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
We are part of a global community, and things will only get better if we make connections, speak up, and support each other.
When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?
I first became interested in advancing social justice issues as teenager when I joined Cesar Chavez’s boycott of grapes (at supermarkets in Altoona). Later on, when I took a year off from law school to study anthropology, my interest in using human rights to protect individuals and communities — both globally and in the U.S. — really coalesced. My goal is to devote myself to ensuring that all people are treated fairly and equally.
What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?
Judge things for yourself.
The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?
In my third year of law school, I was advised to go to a corporate law firm for three years before pursuing a public interest law career in order to gain legal skills and establish my legitimacy as a lawyer. I went into government service instead.
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?
1) A city’s story about itself can suppress or bolster its aspirations and achievements.
2) Words matter.
3) Being a person of color in the United States can threaten your physical security regardless of your professional or economic success.
What is the best moment of the day?
Looking to see what new plant or flower has emerged in our garden.
What is on your bedside table?
A candlestick holder that I got in Kashmir, a pile of books, and a photograph of my husband when he had a mustache and of my kids when they were little.
What is your favorite local charity?
Open Society Institute-Baltimore!
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?
Follow your passion, study hard, listen, and travel.
Why are you successful?
I am surrounded by talented people who are committed to social change.
What do you make of the Occupy movement, specifically its Baltimore component? Has Occupy genuinely altered the public debate regarding economic disparity among Americans? Have any of Occupy Baltimore’s activities/objectives coincided with OSI-Baltimore’s various initiatives?
The Occupy movement has had a significant impact in the U.S. and internationally. It has not only shown a bright light on the enormous income disparity in the U.S. but also has made clear how many Americans are suffering as a result and are eager for change.
Occupy Baltimore adopted one of the campaigns on which we are working — to stop the construction of a jail for youth who are prosecuted as adults. Given the need for government support of education and youth development activities, building this jail seems wasteful. And the 40 or so kids who need to be detained to protect public safety should be housed with other youth, where they can get the services they need.
OSI-Baltimore has ardently supported recent efforts to reduce student suspensions in public schools. Could such a policy shift encourage a culture of increased student misbehavior — even violence? How will decreasing suspensions better serve Baltimore City’s public schools?
Students misbehave. The question is: How do adults respond? Our collective goal must be to correct student misbehavior and keep them in school, where they will have the chance to achieve academically, develop appropriate social skills, develop a broad range of interests, and become prepared to be responsible adults. The overwhelming number of suspensions has been for minor infractions, including being late to school and talking back to teachers. Students need to hear that this behavior is unacceptable, but there is no reason to exclude them from learning. Increasingly, schools and teachers have the training, conflict resolution programs, and support systems in place to ensure that children understand what is expected of them and receive timely, in-school correction. As the Baltimore City schools district has lowered its suspension rates, incidents of violence have not increased. And, most important, graduate rates have simultaneously increased.
In your estimation, what has been the most significant civic social change engendered by OSI-Baltimore’s efforts during its 14-year tenure here? What has been the organization’s biggest disappointment?
Our biggest disappointment is that, despite the great talent and wealth in the region, many people have turned their backs on the city and do not believe that its future is integrally linked with their own well-being.
On the other hand, we have helped to develop a growing community of energetic and innovative activists — from our community fellows and grantees to the civic leaders on our Board and Leadership Council — who are inspired by the many positive changes that are taking place, are willing to fight for greater opportunity and justice, and believe that Baltimore and its residents have a great future ahead.