The following is a conversation between Loreen Arbus, the President of the Loreen Arbus Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: If I read all the things that my next guest has done, the organization she has started the causes that she has been involved with and the recognition that she has received, you would think we were about to have a panel discussion, but we’re not. She is Loreen Arbus, the first woman to head programming on a television network for Showtime and then again later at the Cable Health Network, Lifetime. And among other things is the President of the Loreen Arbus Foundation.
Good evening, Loreen, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Loreen: Thank you for having me. I love what you’re doing.
Denver: Thank you. You had a very eclectic array of interesting causes that you support and essentially though, it really comes down to those people who’ve been marginalized in one way or another. And this is something that you experience while growing up. And to understand your philanthropy more fully, we first really need to understand that. So, tell us about it and what it feels like to be marginalized.
Loreen: Most people would never suspect that that could and would be my experience in life because I was born into extraordinary circumstances. My father was the Founder/Chairman of ABC and that’s an amazing position to hold. And wherever we went, he was accorded many special privileges and by extension, I was as well. But I was marginalized and this is so important for people to not judge people and assume that they understand another person’s experience when they couldn’t possibly…
Denver: How many people in this country have some kind of disability?
Loreen: Between 55 and 57 million and growing… It shouldn’t be. In this world where science is making so many strides and technology rules, why would that be? Well, we’re living longer and getting older and disability is just around the corner as we age. And another little-known fact is that with multiple births, there’s a higher incidence of disability. When you have four, five or six babies at one time, very often there’s prematurity and these babies have underdeveloped organs. And then the preemies are kept alive, which is good and bad. The fact is that their organs don’t develop in many instances, they have disability because of the circumstances of their birth. So disability is growing more and more.
Denver: Let’s talk about some of your efforts to improve the lives of those who are disabled. One is called the Media Access Office that you founded out in California. What does that organization specifically do?
Loreen: I’m a co-founder and it is still extremely important to realize the power of the media and in creating imagery and helping us understand ourselves and the world around us. So the Media Access Office was setup to interface with studios, networks, writers, producers, and ultimately the advertising world and even theatre to increase the presence of people with disability and to pick them in a more accurate fashion and very importantly to increase hiring of people with disability. So what the office did, we had an executive director full-time and her job was to knock on every door and really force the issue. Everything has been secular and there’s been not a lot of progress but we go back and we fight.
Denver: You’ve never really fully understood why so few people are creating fashion designs for people who have disabilities and particularly in light of that significant population you spoke about a moment ago, tell us what you’re doing here to try to address that issue.
Loreen: Three years ago, in association with the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation, which has now been renamed Cerebral Palsy Foundation, we have an event called Design for Disability. We have 12 models, all of whom have disability, and they’re not your stereotypical idea of a model. These are young women who have disability and may roll down the runway or hobble down the runway but they work with individual designers who at the beginning all came from the Fashion Institute of Technology and now we’ve expanded to include Parsons and Pratt in addition to FIT. And now we’re going to expand to the West Coast so I’m working hard on that. And my feeling is the design should not be thought of as specifically for someone with disability, that they need to be universal. I mean, I challenge everyone in your audience to put their hands halfway down their back to pull up a zipper whether you go from over your shoulder or under. You can’t reach there. So, the designs that are created for people with disability should be able to be utilized by everyone.
…the great equalizer in the world is art. And it is one of the most therapeutic avenues one can take, whether it’s painting or sculpting or singing or theater, because it takes you outside of yourself but deeper into yourself using art. And it is such an important place for people to know themselves better and increase their own opportunity…
Denver: That’s a nice concept. As I said at the beginning, you have a very eclectic array of things you do and one also is the arts and creative art therapies that can play in recovery and transition for the military and veterans who are returning from war. Tell us about that.
Loreen: Well, the great equalizer in the world is art. And it is one of the most therapeutic avenues one can take whether it’s painting or sculpting or singing or theater because it takes you outside of yourself but deeper into yourself using art. And it is such an important place for people to know themselves better and increase their own opportunity…
So many people returning from serving our country and many others who’ve dealt with traumatic experiences in their lives have PTSD and can’t open up, put into words and catharsized themselves of these experiences. And through art, they begin to communicate and get to a place of acceptance and meaningfulness in their lives. Art has such a healing power.
Denver: You have been at this work, Loreen, for many many years working with people with disabilities in trying to change society. Where do you think we stand as a society? Where have we made the greatest advances and where do you believe that we are still falling lawfully short?
Loreen: Everywhere. The tragic fact is that advances notwithstanding so little really in the scheme of things has changed. Prejudice is always there underlyingly as far as people with disabilities are concerned and the next generation inherits the prejudices. And there’s been tremendous lack of improvement. But I’m an optimist. I don’t want to be so negative. I think more people are conscious about the challenges of people with disability have and more and more people have become philanthropic and want to help improve the lives of others. And there is no more philanthropic country than ours, which is something so wonderful and needs to be acknowledged a lot more. So, there’s a mindset to try and that’s good.
It means that most people don’t have a consciousness about equality and diversity, and this goes not only for women but it goes for all the minorities.
Denver: We have our ways to go. As I mentioned earlier, you grew up and spent much time of your life in television and in the media. You headed a program for Showtime and then Lifetime among many other assignments. And you’re shocked how today, women are still marginalized in the media. Paint for us what that picture looks like.
Loreen: It means that there are virtually no women heading up news departments and assigning stories to women. It means that there are very very few women at the helm of the studios and networks. There are more than there were but they’re far and few between. It means that most people don’t have a consciousness about equality and diversity, and this goes not only for women but it goes for all the minorities. Women are not a minority but in the scheme of things, we are.
Denver: Although we see little women on our television screens being anchors and other positions, that really is not telling the full story by any stretch of the imagination.
Loreen: Negligible improvement. I support the research of somebody at USC who for quite some years has tracked the number of women in decision-making roles and women as producers, directors and writers in film, but I asked her if I funded it, would she track people with disability in media as well and she now does. Every time she sends me the report for the year, it’s just shocking. There’s so little change.
Denver: You have started so many initiatives and one of them has been the Lucy Awards for Women in Film. Tell us about that.
Loreen: Women in Film which is over 30 years old now, the organization started in Los Angeles and it’s all over the world, but television folks were the poor cousins. And television didn’t get the recognition and I, a child of television and deeply embedded in the television world really resented that. So I co-founded the Lucy Awards named after Lucille Ball. No easy task to clear with her estate, the right to use that title, and for about 9 years we hummed along very well and had an annual fundraising event around the women of television and a few good men. Since then, the organization has melded the television and feature film world and the Crystal Awards, which were always given to the feature film folks has a component that is about celebrating television. And I mean this is the most influential place one can be in television.
Denver: No doubt about that. There’s probably no project that melds all these different interests of yours: women, the media and those with disabilities than the Women’s Media Center’s Loreen Arbus Journalism Program. How does that work?
Loreen: Well, the Women’s Media Center was started by Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan who’s a well-known writer and I thought it would be so fantastic if we could have recognition for those, as I do in many other areas, who are aware of and supportive of people with disability in that world of journalism. Not just the people with disability but people who do stories on people with disability. And so my funding of that project goes exactly towards that and I fund, maybe, I think it’s over 10 grants now through different organizations, not all for women but mostly women to support filmmakers who do one of two things or both. They either have a disability or they focus their projects in film or television on the subject of disability.
So my causes are many, but there’s always that common denominator: helping somebody who may not be able to help themselves.
Denver: Speaking about your philanthropy, what’s your overarching philosophy and approach to it? I know you don’t have a particular interest in capital campaigns, let’s say. So, how do you think about where you’re going to direct your energies and your resources?
Loreen: I’ve never been one to simply support — and I think it’s great that others do one issue people are many — but I was giving money and support across the board to a large number of nonprofits because I’m so interested in so many subjects and so many things. And a friend of mine said, “Loreen, you can’t answer what do you support and rattle off 20-25 different kinds of things. You have to get an elevator speech.” And I thought about that. Then I thought it was a great learning experience. What is the common denominator that drew a line for my giving and there is one. Everything including animals, by the way, are marginalized in that scheme of what I contribute to. So whether it’s women in art, less than 5% of every painting on any wall of a museum or any sculpture for that matter, less than 5% are by women. And in terms of medical research, women don’t get the money for their labs that men do. I support women in science and their labs and across the board. Animals are so marginalized in so many ways and killed ruthlessly, inhumanly and I can’t abide that… So my causes are many but there’s always that common denominator: helping somebody who may not be able to help themselves.
Denver: That’s a wonderful common thread. Let me close with this, Loreen. You said what motivates you is the absurdity of intolerance to do away with this us versus the mindset and create a society defined by inclusiveness. Now, these are challenging times for that and people today seem and they really seem quite intolerant even of those who just have a different point of view. But as you said a moment ago, you’re an optimist. You’re a positive person. Where do you see the light that the kind of society you’re working will begin to emerge and become more pronounced?
Loreen: Largely, it’s going to depend on our next candidate who wins as President of this country. Your listeners may not appreciate hearing that but I’m not shy and that’s exactly what we need is a change of administration. And I think that we all benefit if we are inclusive.
Denver: Loreen Arbus, the President of Loreen Arbus Foundation and Loreen Arbus Productions, thank you so much for being here this evening. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Loreen: Thank you, and thank you for doing what you do and giving attention to the importance of philanthropy and the diversity of philanthropy. Everyone can be a philanthropist. It can be as little as a nickel but they are giving, and we can all do that.
Denver: I can’t agree more.
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