TOUCHING YOUNG LIVES
Linda Mason and Roger Brown
An Edited Transcript of a Conversation with
Boston Foundation Donors Linda Mason and Roger Brown for the
2017 Boston Foundation Annual Report:
The Problem Solvers
How a Group of Unusually Creative Philanthropists
Are Helping to Solve Some of Boston’s Big Problems
TBF: How did the work you did together abroad influence your decision to found Bright Horizons Family Solutions?
LM: We had been living and working in the Sudan and on the border of Eritrea, running emergency programs in response to both the famine in Western Sudan and the Eritrean refugee crisis in Eastern Sudan. As in most crises, the children were the most affected by the famine and dislocation. Through our work overseas, both in Africa and Southeast Asia, we saw that by intervening with young children, you can really dramatically impact the trajectory of that child’s life.
The work we did in Sudan was entrepreneurial: Save the Children hired us to create a program from scratch—and we built it into a national program. Eventually we needed a break. We had been working 24/7 under pretty tough conditions.
When we came back to the states we realized that we were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and and continued to be interested in work that related to children. We really wanted to create an organization of our own in our own country that would help children.
We also realized that we were witnessing maybe the most important sociological revolution of our lifetime—the entry of mothers with young children into the workforce, all needing child care. Our existing child-care system was really inadequate. There wasn’t enough child care, and unfortunately, much of what existed was inadequate quality. Out of that research we came up with the idea of Bright Horizons, high quality child care at the worksite supported by employers.
TBF: Shortly after founding Bright Horizons, you started Horizon’s for Homeless Children, right?
RB: Yes. When you work in a place like Sudan or in any refugee camps, you see massive amounts of human need, but there is need here too. Urban first-world poverty is a very brutal thing. We no longer have an agricultural society, where you can just have a small garden and feed yourself. It’s a monetized economy, and if you’re not participating in it, you’re really left behind.
And so all of those years working overseas made us think, “Let’s do something in our own country that will be of value.” I think our work with children and refugee programs had given us hope that that’s where you can have the most leverage and impact. How could you possibly doubt the good of helping a young homeless child have a more stable life, quality early education and care, happiness every day—and a big source of comfort for parents who are trying to get their lives back in order?
One of the big challenges is that if you have to take care of your children, you can’t work; if you can’t work, you can’t get housing; and if you can’t get housing, you’re homeless. So it seemed like child care would be the most powerful way to intervene to help the child, help the parent and help the whole family system. It just seemed like a good idea that really we were very passionate about.
LM: The model that we thought would be most effective was a two-generational model. We were, of course, focused on giving young children the best start in life that we possibly could. Those years—ages zero to five—are the most important, foundational years in a child’s development. Important brain research about early development shows that the first three years are especially critical to the development of the brain.
In the life of a homeless child, there’s so much instability. We believed that a stable, loving, developmental environment during those critical early years would provide that child a great start in life. But we wanted to look at the parent too. Most of the parents enrolled in the centers are mothers. Helping the mother to get back on her feet is critical as well. There is often a generational cycle of poverty; many of our mothers have grown up in poverty. We set up a system of family advocates who work with the parents on their life plan. Much of that plan entails finishing their schooling, job training, job placement and housing. The goal is to help the family unit onto a positive trajectory.
TBF: How soon after launching Bright Horizons did you start Horizons for Homeless Children?
RB: It was just about a year into Bright Horizons. We actually didn’t inform the venture capitalists who helped us launch Bright Horizons about our nonprofit project right away. You could imagine how they might say, “Why don’t you just work on this business that we’ve invested in? Let’s make that really successful—and then you can do anything you want to do.” But once we had the courage to ask them if they would support us, they became some of our biggest supporters.
LM: Remember, this was the late 1980s, when New England had sunk into a serious recession and many companies were going bankrupt. We realized that we were seeing a new category of homelessness - mothers of young children. Once they lost their jobs, with rents so high in Boston, they had no cushion to lean back on. This new category of homeless mothers with young children was getting almost no services at that point. As we talked about this issue with our good friend, Michael Eisenson, we all felt we couldn’t ignore this. Together with Michael and Barbara Eisenson, we created Horizons for Homeless Children in 1988.
RB: I think it’s also important to note that because Michael and his wife, Barbara, had children--and our first child was born in 1988—it gave us enormous empathy. Here we were in a relatively stable situation and it was hard to be a parent. And so you think: what if I were doing this alone? What if I had no money? What if I had no place to live? What if I had just left a violent relationship and I was still trying to recover from that? And I love my children just as much as anyone else. How do I do this? So, all of us, in those days, were parenting ourselves and just had enormous empathy for what it would be like. Certainly the children don’t deserve this, but the parents don’t either. It was just a fragile situation that got them into this bind.
LM: There but for the grace of God… One thing can happen: literally it can be the loss of a job that can start the spiral of homelessness.
TBF: When it comes to public policy and advocacy around the issue of child and family homelessness, what needs to happen to move this issue forward? Are there things that can happen on a local or state level?
LM: It is in all of our interests to focus on the issues of child and family homelessness. In a city and state where rents are very high, many families are just one paycheck away from losing their homes. This is an issue that can appeal across the political spectrum. If children are given a healthy, stable start in life, they do much better in life. Research has shown that $1 invested in early education leads to $7-10 in later savings in delinquency, high school completion and ultimately higher wages. In addition, when a homeless mother can find excellent child care and housing, she is then able to work and reduce her dependency on public assistance.
TBF: You conduct your philanthropy through a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) at the Boston Foundation. What would you say to someone considering opening a private foundation about the DAF alternative? What are the advantages of working with the Boston Foundation?
LM: There are important advantages in conducting your philanthropy through a DAF. You ultimately have full control over where the funds are dispersed but you also have a team of professionals who can advise you and put you together with other donors passionate about the same issues for greater impact. Together with other donors and the Foundation, you can leverage your giving and impact. It’s very powerful.