Peter Brest: Why I Give

I’m from New York. I grew up in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side and  have lived in the Village for 35 years.

In late 1978, Martin Bunzl, one of North Star Fund’s co-founders, approached me to become part of a new initiative to have young people with money get together to fund social and economic change in New York, with the idea of having the grant-making decisions made by the people who were active in the community. I thought it was a terrific idea. I started going to meetings, and in 1979 we created the North Star Fund. It was an interesting group of people, full of energy, commitment to social change and quite diverse. After an initial period of active participation in North Star, including some time on the Board, I’ve stayed involved as a donor ever since, making a gift almost every year—and I participate in events whenever I can.

The one steady stream that has followed me throughout my life is the desire to improve peoples’ lives in one way or another. My association with social and economic change goes back to high school and college, when I was active in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. I went to Oberlin, which was a center of anti-war activism, and was involved in demonstrations and the education of students and faculty.

For the last 25 years, my work has been focused on housing development and housing related issues. I worked for the Cuomo administration for 11 years, developing housing for homeless people around the state and left when the administration changed. For the past 14 years, I’ve been at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, where I’m responsible for the programmatic side of the agency’s operations, including our housing portfolio.

Thirty years ago, we had a vision of creating a place where grassroots organizations could go for help. In addition to being a funding source, we wanted to be a center for New Yorkers who are interested in social and economic change to network and to be a general resource. Since then, other foundations have sprung up that are focused on individual areas of activism and community organizing. But North Star remains unique in New York as a kind of umbrella organization for community activists. The organizations that North Star has funded over the years, and the kind of work that North Star continues to support, is what the founders envisioned.

There are very few places where grassroots organizations that are starting out or still growing can go to for support—whether it’s financial support or technical assistance or networking. This is especially true for organizations that are pursuing causes that are controversial or not universally popular. I know that there have been times when I haven’t agreed with the policies or positions of some of the organizations that have been funded—but hasn’t changed my commitment to the organization. I feel passionately about North Star Fund and have remained a donor from Day One because North Star is unique in funding such a diversity of community activists.

There is a strength in numbers. It is critical for the continuation and growth of progressive politics in the city, the national, and the world that North Star Fund continues to be able to support grassroots organizations in the many ways that it does.


tags: Donor Voices
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