Gara LaMarche: A 2016 North Star Award Honoree

Gara LaMarche is the president of Democracy Alliance. For more than three decades, he has been a leader in civil rights advocacy and philanthropy. He also fought against racial, income, and health care inequality, and worked to move the conversation about them into the public debate. Gara shepherds activist campaigns across the country to victory. Over the course of his career, he has used the tools of litigation, publicity and philanthropy, to build a national infrastructure that advances a more progressive agenda, while standing shoulder to shoulder with grassroots organizers.

Growing up in small-town Rhode Island, Gara was the editor of his high school newspaper and on the varsity debate team, where he learned the value of arguing both sides of the issues, and developed interests in government and democracy. In his first role as an activist, Gara volunteered for Nixon’s impeachment campaign in 1974.

After studying civil rights at Columbia University, Gara spent twelve years at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where he cut his teeth on a variety of interlocking social and economic justice issues including the death penalty, HIV/AIDS, abortion, voting rights, and migrant farmworkers’ rights. He subsequently joined PEN American Center, and advocated for activist free speech. Later Gara joined Human Rights Watch, where he gained a global perspective of the urgent need for democracy when he conducted human rights investigations in Egypt, Cuba, Greece and Hungary. He also wrote reports on freedom of expression issues in the 1991 Gulf War, Miami's Cuban exile community, and the United Kingdom.

In his forties, Gara moved beyond rights work, embarking on a career in social justice philanthropy. As the founder and director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), he put issues like mass incarceration and the drug war front and center at a time when they were not yet in the public debate. Under Gara’s leadership, OSF provided steady support to grassroots groups working on criminal justice reform, which allowed the movement to build, grow, and have the massive impact it has today.

Twenty-five years after graduating high school, while visiting Eastern Europe as a representative of OSF, Gara found inspiration in the Soros-funded debate clubs for young people. The clubs trained those who had grown up in communist regimes to engage in the long-forgotten culture of debate. When Gara returned to the Unite States, he partnered with Emory University and helped launch debate clubs in eight high schools that served poor students of color. Soon after, a network of leagues took hold, giving students new perspectives and experience in debate and democracy. One of the league's recently won the national debate championship and part of their prize was meeting President Obama in the Oval Office.

As the President and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, Gara used his lifelong analysis of racial, gender, and economic justice to make widespread change in our country’s healthcare system. He spearheaded the largest-ever grant made by a foundation for an advocacy campaign – over $25 million to push for comprehensive healthcare reform in the United States. Winning by two votes in the House, it was the single largest expansion of the public safety net in the United States since the Great Society.

Gara says, “my theory of change is [that] no change happens unless the people most affected are in the lead.” He has been a longtime supporter of North Star Fund’s efforts to support grassroots organizations and power building. He recognizes that, “we’re living in a complicated time, with a rise of violence and hate in mainstream political debate. But it is also a more vibrant time for social movements like Occupy, the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, trans rights, anti-rape, and climate justice. North Star Fund has had a great focus on being in solidarity and support at the origins of these movements.”

Gara is a frequent commentator on progressive issues in the news, and is the author of numerous articles on human rights and social justice issues, which have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, The Nation, and American Prospect, among many others. He edited the 1996 anthology Speech and Equality: Do We Really Have to Choose? Gara has taught courses on philanthropy, public policy, and nonprofit leadership at New York University’s Wagner School, as well as courses at the New School University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He serves on the boards of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, StoryCorps, and the White House Project, and is on the Leadership Council of Hispanics in Philanthropy. Gara is the winner of the 2010 Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Community Change Champion Award from the Center for Community Change.

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