Why This Advocate Gets Big Bucks from Ford to Push Family Leave Policies

The United States is a comparatively abysmal place to be a parent—or, for that matter, a worker or a child. Our family-unfriendly country is among four in the world, along with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland, with no guaranteed maternity leave. Meanwhile, the United States holds the distinction of being unique among 22 developed countries for having no guaranteed paid sick leave policies for its workers.

It is enough to make this frustrated young mother contemplate a move to France.

Fortunately, a more tenacious mother than I, by the name of Ellen Bravo, saw fit some decades ago to advocate and successfully lobby for more humane family leave policies, and now helms a nationwide coalition of legislatively effective labor advocacy groups under the umbrella organization she founded, Family Values @ Work. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Ford Foundation, which has awarded the group over $11 million in grants since 2009, with this year's grant ca-chinging in at $2.1 million.

Through its latest grant to Bravo's organization, Ford is helping fund the development of paid sick day and family leave insurance policies at local and federal levels. American legislatures aren't overwhelmingly going to bat for workers' rights these days, in any case you haven't noticed, but during her long-time activist tenure, Bravo has racked up an impressive number of legislative successes in the area of sane labor policies, even in legally and politically hostile environments.

Prior to founding Family Values @ Work in 2003, Bravo spent more than two decades at the women's labor rights advocacy group, 9to5. Bravo was an early agitator for family leave policies in Wisconsin, and eventually the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Bravo is widely published, having written articles for the Nation, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among others. She's also the author of a book called Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation.

In the closing statement of her official bio, published on Family Values @ Work's website, Bravo notes that she is in the market for an agent to represent her novel on date rape and politics. Sounds timely, right?

With operations in 21 states (including Washington, D.C.), Family Values @ Work brings together a diverse coalition of entities with interests in family-friendly labor policies, including unions, business owners, disability rights activists, environmentalists, women's groups, educators, educators and children's activists, LGTBQ advocates, immigrants groups, economic justice organizations, and public health advocacy groups.

Did I leave out anyone out? Maybe, but the long list gives you a sense of the terrain in which this group operates. Terrain we might call "Ford Country." 

All together, more than 1,000 grassroots groups comprise the state-based coalitions that form Family Values @ Work, and they collaborate to effect change in their state and local legislatures at home as well as in Congress.

Family Values @ Work touts an impressive number of legislative victories: Paid sick days in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland, New York City, and Connecticut; family leave insurance in New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island; and paid parental leave in Washington State. With the Ford Foundation's ongoing backing, Family Values @ Work will be able to expand its political influence still further, and maybe bring about even more laws empowering working families in the United States.

What motivates Ellen Bravo to be such a trailblazer? I found a statement she made in an interview with the Ford Foundation to be particularly revealing:

My vision of a just world is one where taking care of yourself and your loved ones, and doing work you are engaged by, is the norm. The hard work that we do should be valued. We shouldn't be punished for being good parents, sons or daughters.

Any time there's been a social reform, we hear the same arguments: The sky will fall, it will kill jobs. And over and over, we've shown that in fact the economy grows and communities grow when we allow families to be strong.

Family Values @ Work, it should be said, does have other funders, and over recent years, these have included the Bauman Family Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Moriah Fund, the Open Society Foundations, the Surdna Foundation, and the Public Welfare Foundation. But the grants from these funders have been modest compared to Ford's giving. 

Which is another reminder of how Ford remains the 800-pound gorilla in the progressive philanthrosphere