Steering Dollars Toward Action

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Robert F. Sherman, who used his position at the Surdna Foundation to help youth rock the boat for their own causes, has moved on.

After 15 years at the Manhattan-based foundation, where he was the founding program director for Effective Citizenry, Sherman, 54, left in October to become executive director of Mercy Corps’ Action Center to End World Hunger, in Manhattan’s Battery Park. His new mission is right in line with his work at Surdna, where he left an indelible mark through a shift from service learning in the classroom to direct action by youth groups.

Through grants from Sherman’s effective citizenry program, poor Los Angeles teens lobbied to receive the same college prep courses as other students; teens in Philadelphia ensured that standardized testing preparation would not force them to sacrifice class time in history, gym and art; and New York teens won a program to help fill a shortage of adult college counselors by using trained student advisers in high schools.

Sherman: As devoted and energetic about roller-skating as he is about getting youths to lobby for their own causes.

Photo: Mercy Corps

Aside from overseeing financial gifts, Sherman has also dispensed advice.

“He is never shy about sharing his opinion and really enjoys debate and conflict in the context of pushing one’s thinking,” says Steven Patrick, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, who served with Sherman on the board of PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement), an organization of like-minded grant makers. “That can make for longer board meetings. You’re not going to get the candy-coated point of view from Robert.”

Steered Toward Youth

A clinical psychologist by training, Sherman grew up privileged on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with socially concerned parents: his father a lawyer, his mother a homemaker and volunteer for UNICEF and the city’s public TV station. He attended a Manhattan prep school, graduated from Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, and obtained a doctorate from Adelphi University, in New York.

His work as a psychologist in schools, clinics and Head Start pointed him toward a youth-centered career. He also worked for former New York Mayor David Dinkins and the city’s human rights commission, trying to resolve ethnic conflicts by involving young people in improving race relations.

Sherman’s clinical work with youth seemed a natural fit when he joined Surdna in 1993. “I was really glad to have the chance, from a philanthropic vantage point, to look at how young people could step off the sidelines and play a role in significant community issues,” he says.

At Surdna, Sherman says, his “particular focus has been on how young people could become effective citizens, participate and play a meaningful role in life.” But his grant making at the foundation did not meet with immediate success.

Sherman says he struggled through several phases and three sets of guidelines that set the foundation’s priorities for his programs. “We had to figure out whether to skip stones on a very large pond, barely rippling the surface, or go where the ripples would build a field,” he says.

He believes he was least successful “when we were spread across a large number of fields” that included social and emotional learning, deliberative democracy and service-learning. “We hadn’t figured out how to narrow the field, where we could be most effective.”

In particular, he says the grants were not “consequential” in combining formal academics with community service.

Then about seven years ago, he says, “we decided to lay down our bets on young people, focusing on the public institutions that, frankly, were failing them – inadequate schools, juvenile justice policies – and we really changed the program to focus on young people’s direct involvement.” He felt his efforts had at last achieved programmatic coherence.

That meant focusing on efforts like HOME – an agency in Alameda, Calif., through which teens worked for change, such as lobbying for a skate park and a charter high school.

Surdna funded HOME for 12 years, but Sherman provided more than money. “I could call him to help me think through what and how we were doing,” says educator Leslie Medine, then HOME’s director.

“When we got it right,” Sherman says of the funding strategy, “two things came into focus: young people focusing on political realities and institutions that were failing youth locally, and young people as significant social actors in their communities, taking on significant policy challenges.”

During Sherman’s tenure, the foundation’s effective citizenry program increased its annual giving total from about $4 million to $6.5 million, although that funding has held steady at about one-sixth of the foundation’s total grants. The program has continued with program officer deputy Jee Kim functioning as acting director.

Rolling On

Sherman lives in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn with his wife Rhonda, founding director of The New Yorker magazine’s annual fall festival, and their two children, who are 11 and 16. “I’ve seen him get up at 5 a.m. to drive across two states to make a site visit and then leave the site in time to get his son to a gymnastics meet,” says Patrick, still a close friend (even though Sherman once turned him down for a grant when Patrick directed the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, in Colorado).

Sherman is also an avid roller skater, even during business trips. Until it closed in 2007, Sherman was a Wednesday night regular at the Empire Roller Rink in Brooklyn. Now he travels regularly to a New Jersey rink to indulge his mania. Says Patrick, “I have an image of him skating to the Bee Gees and it scares the bejesus out of me.”

In a way, says Nat Chioke Williams, executive director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation and co-founder with Sherman of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, the skating “connects him to the youthful energy of young skaters.” Williams says Sherman resembles “the happy uncle at times. His eyes are always twinkling.”

In his new job at Mercy Corps, Sherman is once again, as he puts it, a “start-up specialist,” launching the Action Center to End World Hunger to mobilize Americans, especially young people, to fight against world hunger. The 4,000-square-foot center contains multimedia exhibits and displays. It will host panel discussions, welcome school groups and maintain a website.

“The strategy is still quite youth-oriented,” Sherman said. “This will be a challenging and exciting next step for me.”