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Remembering Alison Bernstein

We are saddened by the passing of Alison Bernstein, a beloved colleague and friend. Alison was a ferocious defender of and advocate for the rights of women and girls, but those were just some of the many issues she worked to advance.

A highly regarded scholar in the field of humanities and women's studies, Alison served as associate dean of faculty at Princeton University before joining the Ford Foundation in 1982. At Ford, she served first as a program officer, later as director of the Education and Culture program, and then as vice president for Knowledge, Creativity and Freedom and its successor program—Education, Creativity, and Free Expression. Most recently, Alison was director of Rutgers’s Institute for Women’s Leadership, where she championed a new agenda, including the creation of the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies.

Alison played a critical role in some of Ford’s most enduring and successful programs, and over her years here she became a national and international leader in higher education and culture, and a powerful voice for justice. She cultivated the talents of others, encouraged bold programming pursuits and original thinking, and was a vibrant presence. Although she never backed away from an intellectual fight, she also gave with real generosity to everyone around her.

I first met Alison at an officers meeting in the 1990s. I was a fairly new program officer and made a presentation on our new work on sexuality. In those days, the meetings felt quite formal and Alison leveled some very tough questions. At the end of the meeting, she got up, leaned across the table, and said, "I have to shake the hand of the person who probably talked about sex for the first time in this room or at any officers meeting." I had made it through the whole presentation without feeling too flustered, but she made me blush. Her genuine warmth and ability to change the tenor in a room with a simple gesture or statement was, I would learn, true Alison. And with that, she took me under her mentorship—pushing me to think big and strategically, and always to be open to new and quirky opportunities. She encouraged exploration and risk taking.

She knew how to break the ice with new groups, set a tone of candor and humor, and then drive a wide-ranging, smart, strategic, challenging conversation, leaving us all the wiser for it. She had a way of taking off her glasses and waving them in the air when she really wanted to make a point. Alison was dedicated to her work at the Ford Foundation, and to her teams. She would never cancel a team meeting just because program officers were not there in force, driving home the fact that "program" was not "program officers," but everyone on the team. She always had time for a conversation. And she made it okay to put your home life in balance with your work life—never hesitating to step out of a meeting if her beloved daughters, Emma or Julia, called. She was a truly wonderful woman and is deeply missed by everyone she has touched.

Shortly after the news of her passing, remembrances from her colleagues, family, and friends started pouring in. Below are just a few.

Lori Matia, senior grants manager, Ford Foundation: Ever the historian, Alison invited colleagues to her Long Island home to witness horseshoe crab spawning by the light of the May full moon—she didn't want us to miss out on this brief but powerful scene that has occurred once a year for 450 million years. Alison savored every drop of life, and shared it too.

Darren Walker, president, Ford Foundation: It was an honor to succeed Alison as vice president of Education, Creativity, and Free Expression. When I joined the foundation she was enormously gracious, extending herself, spending time onboarding me, providing insight on Ford’s history and culture, and ensuring that I felt welcomed and warmly embraced. After she left Ford, I often sought her advice and counsel while she was a visiting professor at Spelman College and later at Rutgers. Alison was the embodiment of intelligence and grit and her quick wit and laughter filled every room she occupied.

Dorinda Welle, assistant professor, University of New Mexico College of Nursing; Ford Foundation program officer, 2006-2010: In 4 years, I learned more from Alison than I had in the previous 40. During our time together at the Ford Foundation, I experienced the thrill of thinking together and the humility of sharing and being responsible for power—the collective joy of wins, and the wisdom of knowing when it's not about winning.

For all of us who knew Alison, the love that has always been around her now becomes visible in us. Alison did so much good with all of this love. I wish she had another 40 years—or even another 4—for us, and for this world in the throes of some deep changes. Alison is a part of each of us, and we will carry on, with her, and missing her, for as long as this work takes. Because that's what she'd want.

Ken Wilson, Ford Foundation program officer, 1993-2002: Alison was always a bundle of uncompromising and challenging loving energy. The last time I saw Alison a few years ago, I thanked her for her crazy decision to haul me from Mozambique to New York, but I don't think I did justice to conveying my gratitude for the experience of working with her. She was wild, clear, and shameless. She didn't separate the personal from the professional and yet had total integrity. She stretched herself at every opportunity.  She never stopped talking and yet had listened to where you were at too.  She could even do that while driving in New York.  Above all she managed Ford’s Education, Media, Arts, and Culture work in a way that kept our eyes on the vision and the world outside those fancy walls.  And she always kept the work fun.

Steven Zwerling, author: While an undergraduate at Vassar, Alison was involved in pressing the administration to place students on the board of trustees and earned a seat for herself. She established a national organization for student trustees and a national conference. During her senior year in 1969, she invited Bill Birenbaum, the president of Staten Island Community College (SICC), to speak at the annual conference.

Bill was an inspiring educator devoted to providing access to quality education through community colleges and gave a compelling speech. At the time, he was working on rounding up a group of progressive educators to join him at SICC to further this mission. Following his speech, Bill urged Alison to start a real revolution in education at two-year colleges like SICC. He promised to make her a special presidential assistant and provide her an opportunity to bring about social change. I met Alison in 1969 when she joined me and several others at SICC to help Bill start this revolution.

Alison began a nearly 30-year deep involvement with community colleges, first at SICC, then at the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education in the Department of Education, and later during her two assignments at the Ford Foundation.

With the support and encouragement of Susan Berresford [Ford Foundation president, 1996-2007], Alison conceptualized and ran the Urban Community College Transfer Opportunity Program, which was mold breaking. Thousands of students who didn't have a friend in philanthropy benefited mightily by the work that Alison pioneered, advocated, and protected. Throughout her career, Alison thrived, inspired, and made a measurable difference in the lives of many.