Patty Stonesifer, 60, is the president and CEO of Martha’s Table. She is the former co-chair and CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and former chairman of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents. She lives in the District with her husband, journalist Michael Kinsley.
What does Martha’s Table do?
Martha’s Table is a 37-year-old community-based organization that has had the same values from the beginning — this belief that every child should have their greatest opportunity and a community and family committed to their success. So we focus a lot of our efforts on strong children but also on supporting strong families and, through both our volunteer service and other efforts, on a stronger community. We do early-childhood education and all through elementary and high school. But we also do parenting support programs and workshops. We do a big healthy eating program through over 30 pop-up markets all over town in partnership with the Capital Area Food Bank. Our goal is to have a pop-up, monthly, free, fresh and beautiful market in every elementary school east of the Anacostia River. Those have two goals. One is to reduce hunger in the District of Columbia, where one in three households with children experience regular food insecurity, probably even more east of the [Anacostia] river. But also to encourage the consumption and enjoyment of healthy foods. In the first pilot year we’ve seen hunger drop in the families that access the market and a real eagerness to change eating habits.
You led the Gates Foundation for many years. You could just call Bill Gates up and ask for donations for Martha’s Table.
[Laughs.] People say that all the time. My response is that this is a community-based organization and the community that we all are part of needs to come together to create the support. And that happens through the government support, but also through the individual support from this neighborhood, from this region, from this part of the country.
Pope Francis recently said that you should give money to beggars and not worry about how they spend it.
It’s an interesting question. I believe that this pope, who I think is amazing, is saying, “Who are we to judge?” And I agree with that completely. I still think that the best use for my dollars is to give it to someone who can get the maximum purchasing power with those dollars. There is an efficiency to saying that your $10 for food can go further with a basket that Martha’s Table buys than it can from the local sandwich store.
When someone on the street asks for money, do you feel badly if you walk past them and don’t give them any?
I do feel badly. And sometimes I don’t follow my own advice and I do give money. But I also make sure that people know where the services are that are nearby. My general guideline is: Give it to an organization that can make the dollars go further, but break that rule when you feel that your heart tells you otherwise. And make sure you acknowledge the people. Acknowledging folks is a big part of it. And I think that embarrassment we have often keeps us from seeing their humanity.
I do feel embarrassed when I give money to someone on the street. Why do we feel that?
Because it’s not enough, right? It’s not enough. It’s a token to say: I saw you, I acknowledge you, I respect you. But it isn’t enough. We get over that embarrassment by doing the work that we do. We’re doing it, in part, because it’s important for society but also because it sustains us. The people that are in this work with me are in this because they look at that and say, “That’s just not right.”
You’ve talked recently about white privilege. Some people just want to run away from that conversation.
Why do you embrace it?
Because I think that so many of us, of my own family and extended community who are white, have a narrative of having made it on our own. And sometimes you have to remember the privilege of having generations before us, not necessarily of putting dollars in the bank, but who had access to education in their neighborhoods that was different, had access to a neighborhood with resources, had access to a whole series of things that were often unavailable even in that same generation in the African American community but for sure prior generations. So we should recognize that there is a lot of luck to our situation. And that’s what white privilege is. It’s owning the idea that you got started on a base that presumes certain things, that provided certain things in part based on a history where education and services were disproportionately allocated to neighbors and families who were white.
That seems so logical and easy to understand, and yet people want to reject it.
Well, they don’t want to worry about history, they want to worry about today. And I’m afraid that too often we have been taught, and I believe that I was taught, that racist people were bad and we were good because we were doing all the good things. We knew what racism looked like. It was bigotry. But racism is much more complicated than that. It is a school system that has PTAs that can raise millions of dollars to enhance the services in the school. Well, if you go down the street here, I don’t believe that PTA could accomplish that. So even when we try as a system to make distribution and access to goods and services equal independent of race, the way our neighborhoods are structured and the way our government is structured and the way our education system is structured leave all of us participating in a system where the color of our skin has a predictive value on our access to goods and services. And our access to good and services, including education, will definitely affect the quality of life we have.
You mentioned earlier that you believe in a zigzagging career.
This is my last zag [laughs].
I can’t see you retiring and just sitting on a beach.
No, but I didn’t say I was going to retire and sit on a beach. The puzzle we are presented with about how do you ensure that a child born in the Hillsdale, Fort Stanton neighborhood has the same opportunity as a child born in Foggy Bottom is one that is going to keep me interested and motivated and standing with these families for years to come. This feeds my head and my heart at a level that is perfect for my final chapter in creating change and supporting change.
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