Philanthropy and Prometheus

January 22, 2013

Pro-me-the-an (adjective): 1) Relating to the Titan Prometheus; 2) Boldly creative and imaginatively original

Wikipedia reports that the word “Philanthropy” was first coined by the Greek playwright Aeschylus (or one of his contemporaries who didn’t get the appropriate credit) in Prometheus Bound. The myth begins with Zeus, the king of the Olympian deities, wanting to destroy primitive humans because they lacked knowledge, skills, or culture of any kind.  The Titan Prometheus, whose name meant “forethought,” out of his “philanthropos tropos” or “humanity-loving character,” took pity on these primitive creatures and gave them two life-enhancing gifts: fire, representing all knowledge, skills, technology, arts, and science; and “blind hope” or optimism.  The two gifts were complementary.  The fire allowed the humans to feel less fearful and be more optimistic.  With this newfound optimism, they were empowered to develop innovative uses for fire that improved the human condition.

Fast forward 2500 years or so from our Greek scribe’s first use of “philanthropos” and you will find that modern philanthropists still endeavor to support innovation that improves the circumstances of individuals and the communities in which they live.  Foundations, which have become the predominant vehicle for modern-day philanthropy, essentially provide “optimism” in the form of grants to organizations and/or individuals who are working to find new ways to use the life-enriching “fire” of technology, arts, science, and improved knowledge to solve society’s greatest challenges.

You have likely seen Paul Manship‘s highly recognizable bronze gilded statue prominently featured at Rockefeller Center, a famous landmark in its own right, built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one of our nation’s greatest titan philanthropists.   This statue and the inscription from Aeschylus on the granite wall behind which reads, “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends,” exemplifies the potential of philanthropic work.

According to the Council of NJ Grantmakers website, New Jersey is home to approximately 2,400 private grantmaking foundations, including independent, family and corporate-affiliated foundations. Over the past 10 years, more than 1,400 foundations have been created in New Jersey including more than 100 of the top foundations in the state. According to the most recent data available, the top 366 foundations in the state hold approximately 95% of the assets and contribute 91% of the giving.  Each philanthropic organization focuses on individualized giving priorities ranging from Health, Aging, Human Rights, and Social Services to Arts, Immigration, Media, Education, Environment, and Civic Participation.  Every societal challenge has a benefactor looking to support creative solutions.

As followers of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation blog or a grantee, you likely know that the “R” in our name stands for Rockefeller.  Our patron namesake was the daughter of Almira Geraldine Goodsell and William Avery Rockefeller, Jr. who, with his brother John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and four other partners helped found Standard Oil.  Over the course of nearly 40 years the various emissaries of Geraldine R. Dodge’s philanthropic spirit have aspired to carry out the intentions of both Mrs. Dodge and Prometheus.  Most recently our efforts are represented through funding innovative grantees working to “Imagine a Better New Jersey.”   Together we plan backwards from a mental image of what a more sustainable and creative New Jersey would look like and fund the best ideas in Education, Arts, Environment and Media to help get us there.

I have the honor to lead our Education grantmaking docket which endeavors to provide school leaders and teachers with “fire-like” tools that can spark a school culture for creative learning.  We want to fuel innovative training practices for pre-service teachers that will yield a teaching force that is able to inspire the future leaders of our nation.  We believe that Arts Education is a primary accelerant of creativity-infused curriculum and practices that will ensure our children are college and/or job-ready and can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading Crayola grant proposals from Promethean school leaders across New Jersey determined to improve student learning through creativity, arts education, and arts integration into the common core curriculum.  Each school hopes to win one of Crayola’s six “Championing Creatively Alive Children” grants of $2,500 plus $500 in Crayola art supplies.  The Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association are partnering with Crayola to stimulate the best ideas that integrate creativity across the curriculum and strengthen creativity leadership.

The schools have put together Creative Leadership Teams to explore how they can establish cross-discipline teacher collaborations and generate student learning opportunities that require critical thinking, creativity, and analytical skills.  The schools have some terrific “What ifs…”  What if teachers and students alike were encouraged take risks and try creative ways of solving problems?  What if teachers and children felt empowered to make mistakes, make adjustments and try again?  What if teachers and students didn’t search for single answers but instead explored complex problems that didn’t have predictable outcomes and required innovative solutions?

There were many exciting examples of creativity in action that demonstrated Aeschylus’ inscription (with a minor tense change) and reflects our expectations of our state’s education titans: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, [bring] the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” We look forward to announcing the winners in a few weeks.  Though we know the real winners are children across New Jersey.