Susan Vail Berresford was born on January 8, 1943. She attended Vassar College from 1961-63 and worked with the United Nations Volunteer Services in New York City during the summer of '62. In 1964 she served as a secretary to historian Theodore H. White, and in '65 she graduated from Radcliffe College with a BA in American History. Berresford's immediate goal following graduation, she once told the New York Times, was to “engage directly with antipoverty work.”
After serving as a program officer with the New York-based Neighborhood Youth Corps from 1965-67, Berresford took a job as a program specialist for the Manpower Career Development Agency, where she was responsible for evaluating education, training, and work programs. In 1969-70 she worked as a freelance consultant and writer in Europe and the United States.
In 1970 Berresford was hired as a project assistant in the Ford Foundation's national affairs division, beginning a 38-year tenure with the Foundation. She subsequently served Ford as a program officer (1972-80); vice president for U.S. and international affairs programs (1981-89); vice president of the worldwide programming division (1989-95); and executive vice president/COO of the Foundation (1995-96). In April 1996 Berresford became Ford's first female president. In her inaugural address, she pledged especially to fund programs promoting “racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.”
In an April 2002 speech to the Federation for Community Planning's Human Services Institute in Cleveland, Berresford announced that one of Ford's leading priorities post-9/11 would be to support organizations representing “people from moderate Islamic communities,” so as to help “explore the issues behind the headlines and broaden understanding about the countries from which the attacks came.” She also cautioned Americans against repeating the mistakes of “earlier periods when the U.S. felt at risk from foreigners” and reacted in ways “which our country now regrets, such as the internment of Japanese individuals and families.”
Subsequent to Berresford’s remarks, the Ford Foundation gave a $150,000 grant to the Center for Constitutional Rights, specifically “for racial justice litigation, advocacy, and educational outreach activities related to the detention and racial profiling of Arab Americans and Muslims following the World Trade Center attack.” Another $100,000 was funneled to the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild as “core support for activities to ensure the human rights of noncitizens detained in the United States in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.” And $300,000 was earmarked for a Fenton Communications campaign “to promote informed voices in response to the September 11th attacks, with an emphasis on the protection of civil liberties and prevention of discrimination.”
In 2003 Berresford was embroiled in controversy resulting from revelations that the Ford Foundation: (a) had given considerable financial support to a number of anti-Semitic non-governmental organizations (NGOs), among them Adalah, Al-Mezan, and the Palestinian NGO Network; and (b) had been instrumental in funding several of the NGOs responsible for creating and disseminating the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist literature that appeared at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism. In response to these disclosures, 17 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to Berresford, asking that Ford “cease [its] funding of subversive groups.” Berresford, in turn, agreed in November 2003 to develop “a series of measures to ensure that no future grants would go to organizations that in any way support terrorism, bigotry, or the delegitimization of Israel.” Three years later, however, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations co-funded a three-day conference in Italy where more than a third of the participants publicly supported a boycott of Israeli universities.
Steeped in an identity-politics mindset, Berresford emphasized “diversity” as one of her leading concerns throughout her tenure as president of the Ford Foundation. In one 2007 speech, for instance, she boasted that the Foundation's “diverse talent” was reflected in the fact that 40% of its trustees were “minorities” and 23% were “citizens of other countries.” Her preoccupation with diversity extended also to the staffers employed by Ford Foundation grantees. According to administrators who dealt with Ford, Berresford often bullied grant applicants into hiring more nonwhites before she would even consider their applications.
In her later years with Ford, Berresford was a member of the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector, an independent group of foundation leaders who lobby Congress on issues pertinent to charitable organizations. Her fellow panel members included Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza, and officials of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Council on Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and the United Nations Foundation.
Berresford retired from her position as Ford Foundation president in 2008.
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