Founded in 1993 by Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, Open Society Foundations (OSF) stands today as the second largest private philanthropic network in the United States, with annual expenditures of over $940 million and offices in over 100 countries. The mission of OSF is described as building “vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.” La Pietra Dialogues invited Patrick Gaspard, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, and the current president of Open Society Foundations, to speak to students about the work of the foundation.
Patrick Gaspard was born in 1967 in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haitian parents who relocated there after his father had been persecuted for his opposition to the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier. When Gaspard was three, his family emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where Gaspard later went on to Brooklyn Technical High School and then Columbia University.
Gaspard began his career as part of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid and David Dinkin’s successful 1989 mayoral campaign. He then worked as a special assistant in the Office of the Manhattan Borough President and New York Mayor David Dinkins. Gaspard moved on to become chief of staff to the New York City Council, and later national deputy field director on Howard Dean’s Democratic party presidential primary campaign. After Dean’s defeat, Gaspard became national field director for progressive political action group, America Coming Together. For nine years, Gaspard served as Executive Vice President for Politics and Legislation for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest health care union in America. In 2009, Gaspard worked as Director of White House Political Affairs for the Obama administration, before becoming Executive Director of the Democratic National Convention in 2011, and finally, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa in 2013.
If there was a word to encapsulate Gaspard’s career, serendipitous would suffice. During the question-and-answer segment of the evening, Gaspard made an important and memorable remark about our purposes in life: “Our biographies are beyond us, and the tracks are laid by those before us.” Gaspard believes that our purposes in life are determined long before we are even aware of them, but our lives are structured in ways that lead us to the realization of our duties. The son of a man who was persecuted for declaring that through the ballot “the most ordinary citizen could do an extraordinary thing,” became president of an institution that works tirelessly to ensure that citizens worldwide enjoy democratic freedoms like voting. A young man who spent his youth protesting apartheid in South Africa and anti-black racism in the United States became White House Director of Political Affairs under the first black president, and then the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. Gaspard’s life is evidence of serendipity.
In the Q&A, Gaspard talked about how critical collective action is. Describing the students in the room as belonging to the most powerful generation “in history”, Gaspard articulated the importance of assuming our power in times as disorienting as these, where globalism is increasingly rejected and democratic practices are distorted through the actions of “social media deities.” In his own life, Gaspard was told that his involvement in grassroots organizing and divestment campaigns against entities that supported apartheid would never amount to anything. He and his fellows in the young activists community were constantly treated as unnecessary or incapable of generating change, because they were young and lived an ocean away from the horrors of apartheid. Of course, the naysayers were proved wrong as apartheid inevitably ended, thanks to the collective action of those around the world, those like Gaspard and his fellow activists.
Gaspard’s final remarks were a call to action, encouraging to use their voices as a tool to help those around the world who might need it. Each one of our voices represents a ripple, as Gaspard described, that when placed together create a wave; and when we collectively decide to take action, like Gaspard and so many before him, our wave truly becomes the tsunami of change that the world needs.