Claudine Brown: Supported Yonder ‘Before We Had a Name’

Colleagues remember the former foundation program director and Smithsonian assistant secretary as an innovator who wanted everyone -- including rural America -- to be at the table.

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Claudine K. Brown, a cultural advocate whose grantmaking was instrumental in creating the Daily Yonder, died last week.

Though she lived and worked in the major cities of the Eastern Seaboard, her ideas about diversity, inclusivity, and the power of community culture went far beyond the city limits. She understood that rural America was an important element of the nation’s culture, heritage, and democracy, colleagues said.

Brown grew up in Baltimore, attended school in Brooklyn, worked for the Brooklyn Museum before joining the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. From 1995-2010 she served as arts and cultural programs director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York City. At the time of her death, she was assistant secretary for Education and Access at the Smithsonian.

In 2005, while with the Cummings Foundation, she shepherded through a grant proposal from the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Publisher Dee Davis said Brown didn’t like the first project he proposed in 2004:

We had been fighting an uphill battle to get real coverage of rural news that wasn’t all hillbilly stereotypes and pity for the poor. At first we went to Claudine to mount an FCC campaign. We wanted to go around the country and challenge TV licenses of all these broadcasters who said they were serving rural audience but did nothing more than air reruns of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” It was a mean-spirited idea. She said, “no.”

Then Frank Guajardo, our board chairman, and I traveled back to New York in 2005 to propose an online rural news service, rural culture from all over, links between urban and rural. We called it the Rural Vortal (vertically integrated portal), and I still don’t know what that means.

Frank told her we would shine a light on people living in the margins. We had no idea if it would work. But she bet on us, on what became the Daily Yonder.  

The Daily Yonder launched in June 2007, with primary support from the Cummings Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Just as she supported the Daily Yonder before it had a name, she also supported philanthropic innovations at early stages of development, said Judith Jennings, former executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, who worked with Brown with Grantmakers in the Arts, a philanthropy affinity group.

“Claudine promoted cross-sector funding before we knew to call it that,” Jennings said. “She practiced inclusion before we had a name for that, too.”

Jennings said Brown helped organize the field of social-justice and cultural funding. “She convened us at the Council of Foundations and hosted meetings with social justice funders who weren’t so sure why arts and culture matter,” she said. “We were African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Latino/as, urban, rural, straight and LGBTQ. Together, we honed the critical importance of working together across differences that can divide us.”

Another colleague said Brown’s work at the Cummings Foundation was instrumental in nurturing a generation of artists, organizers, and nonprofit leaders.

“One of the things I’ve heard most in the past few days is people saying how important it was to them that she believed in them,” said Caron Atlas, director of Arts & Democracy, a nonprofit that received Cummings Foundation support for its work to encourage collaboration between cultural and civic leaders and groups.

“She was the first to invite them to a foundation and [give] them their first grant. This inclusion was rooted in visionary risk-taking and deep respect. Claudine was a powerful mentor to people of all generations.”

A statement from Nathan Cummings Foundation emphasized Brown’s leadership in connecting art and social justice. “She worked with her colleagues within the foundation and outside its walls to break down silos, and build coalitions amongst even the most unlikely of allies,” the foundation’s president and CEO, Sharon Alpert, wrote in an email to grantees and colleagues. “The result was and is a more robust and informed community.”

Former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a founder of Arts & Democracy, said Brown was a clear and loud voice for inclusion.

“Whether the subject was access and inclusivity in regards to museums or the importance of remembering and celebrating all cultures, she was one of our national leaders and beacon of hope during especially hard times,” he said.” The world has lost a leading light. All of the rest of us need to work harder.”

Brown’s own cultural background was rooted in her upbringing in Baltimore, according to a speech she gave to the Alumni Association of Bank Street College, where she earned a master’s degree and served as an instructor and faculty adviser.

“I spent my formative years in my grandparents’ home surrounded by a gregarious group of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends,” she said. “It was a home filled with unconditional love, where we valued hard work, perseverance, consistency, great meals, and above all else, great story telling. I have sustained those same values in my own home with my immediate family.”

Brown began her professional career as a CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) worker at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977, serving the institution in a variety of capacities for 13 years. From 1990 to 1995 she was director of the National African American Museum Project at the Smithsonian. After a 15-year career with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she returned to the Smithsonian in 2010.

Brown held an undergraduate degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and a law degree from the Brooklyn Law School.

Disclosure: The Center for Rural Strategies is a current grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

 

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