Acceptance of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal

Acceptance of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal
Municipal Arts Society Gala
Grand Central Terminal
New York, NY
June 13, 2013

Thank you, Shaun, for that generous introduction and for your leadership of the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Taskforce. President Obama could not have chosen a better champion for helping New York rebuild: a lifelong New Yorker, a trained architect, and – of course – a hardcore Yankees fan.

To Vin Cipolla, Genie Birch, and all our friends at the Municipal Arts Society, thank you for your inspiration and your partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation. So much of what we’ve learned over the last 100 years about being an iconic New York institution, we’ve learned by watching MAS.

To David and Susan and to the members of the Rockefeller family here tonight, I want to say a special thank you for the contributions your family has made, and continues to make, for New York and people all over the world. It’s an honor to be a part of this incredible legacy.

To the senior Rockefeller Foundation leadership here.  This is really about our work together, and I am very grateful to all of you.

And to my extraordinary son, Alex, here with me tonight, who at least no longer thinks – as he did when he told his teacher at the age of 7 – that his mother’s job is to have meetings.

It’s thrilling to be celebrating in Grand Central Terminal. It is one of those New York spaces that, except for the names on the storefronts and the size of the lattes, has remained untouched by time. Thanks in large measure to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, we can still imagine David’s great-grandfather waiting on Track 42 for the 9:21 to Tarrytown on the Hudson Line, and I feel deeply honored to receive this iconic award that bears her name.

So many of my own New York memories begin and end in this Terminal. Full disclosure: I was born and raised a Philadelphia girl. But in the late ‘60s, I attended Columbia, where I earned my PhD in Psychology. After packing my meager belongings to begin a faculty position at Yale, I did two things: first I went to Zabar’s to load up, because I wasn’t sure where my next good meal would be coming from in New Haven. Second, as I ran for the train, I paused for a moment on these steps and silently shouted, “Goodbye, New York! I’ll be back!” It would be a few decades, but I made good on that promise to myself. I feel privileged to have made my return as the President of one of the city’s oldest philanthropic institutions, the Rockefeller Foundation. And I am particularly delighted to serve in this role on our Centennial.

Grand Central Terminal may transport us to another era, but you need only exit the station to see how vastly the world has changed: the lights of Times Square, the skyscrapers at Rockefeller Center, the flags outside of the United Nations, all symbols of our globalized, dynamic and interdependent world. Indeed, you don’t have to circle LaGuardia for hours to know that New York endures as the most iconic and important crossroads in America, if not the world.

We are connected by more than just our transportation systems – not only by air, water, and train but through our markets, our institutions, and our extraordinary and diverse cultures. On the whole, this has provided for enormous opportunities. But, it also brings challenges, some new –threats brought on by climate change, and cyber attacks, to name just a couple. But also some not so new – for instance, health pandemics and the stresses of economic inequality.

It is hard to imagine, but when the Rockefeller Foundation opened its doors, only 1 in 10 people in the world lived in cities. By 2050, three-fourths of the world’s population will be packed into urban places. While most of this growth will occur in the developing world, New York is the only city in America predicted to experience accelerated growth. That means more people cramming into every nook and cranny of our five boroughs, including along our fragile coastlines. Superstorm Sandy reminded us just how vulnerable those areas truly are.

These aren’t challenges unique to New York.For the last four years, we’ve worked around the world to build urban climate resilience. So when Governor Cuomo asked me to co-chair the Commission to improve the resilience of the state’s infrastructure after Sandy, we brought this globally-developed expertise to bear in designing recommendations. What’s more, we will be taking the knowledge we’ve gained in New York out to cities around the world, through our 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, supporting 100 cities across the globe to build greater urban resilience, beginning of course, in New York, with Mayor Bloomberg’s fantastic announcement on Tuesday. In this way – and in so many others – New York continues to be a beacon, an inspiration, and a laboratory for our work in urban planning, community development, affordable housing, poverty reduction, the arts – too many ways to count.

Whether it’s support for piloting a controversial conditional cash transfer programs in the city or our catalytic investment in the New York Affordable Housing Acquisition Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation’s current portfolio of work demonstrates what philanthropy does best, and what our dollars are tax advantaged to do: peel back the first layer of risk, experiment where other actors cannot, and focus on the root causes of our biggest problems in ways that other sectors can then scale and replicate.

But there is one thing we’ve learned from New York that we’ll never be able to teach others, that intrinsic quality of what it means to be a New Yorker. The belief that anything is possible, and the strength to overcome anything thrown our way. That’s the immense and unique quality of the New York spirit. Our work here continues to fund efforts that catalyze that spirit, enabling us to contribute to transformations that unlock opportunity for New Yorkers every day. Perhaps in 100 years our successors will meet again, maybe at a transportation hub using a means of transport we have not yet imagined. But no matter where they meet, we know they will be celebrating the strength of New York, building on the work of the people in this room, the ideas and the innovations we’ve incubated and brought to life together, and the deep, abiding love we feel for this city and its extraordinary people.