Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Loreen Arbus, producer, writer, author, and disability rights activist. She is the Founder of the Loreen Arbus Foundation, President of the Goldenson-Arbus Foundation, and sponsor of the WMC Loreen Arbus Journalism Program, among other projects. On October 21st, Loreen received the Eagle Award at the Disability Rights Advocates’ 2019 Gala at the American Museum of Natural History. Her work as an advocate for people with disabilities, including her commitment to inclusion and integration of differently-abled people and minorities, spans a lifetime of exemplary philanthropic efforts.
To learn more about Loreen, go to www.arbusprod.com.
How did you discover your passion for philanthropy?
I was born into philanthropy. My parents didn’t give me an allowance on which I could snack, but I was directed to allocate money I earned to causes — I did get to choose which ones.
How did your childhood and family life have an impact on your outlook toward philanthropy?
Ever since I can remember, I was always on the “outside”—I did not have the same religion as everyone else at my school—which made me the subject of discrimination many times over, by both teachers and students. My older sister was born with severe disability, which ostracized my family and me. Additionally, my mother had many issues due to mental illness and people were terrified of her. Being marginalized was a pivotal and profound process for my growth and compassion.
What did you do to get started?
I started giving money away from the moment I had money in my hands, as explained earlier. What time allowed for was choosing issues that I really cared about. Many causes were those my parents had; many were not. Always the biggest challenge was to narrow down the list of “actionable to-do’s”.
What are some of the unexpected hurdles you’ve had to face in your philanthropic work?
Probably the two biggest hurdles have been the assumptions, by many, that I have more resources than I do and that I was born with a proverbial silver spoon.
What are some of your proudest philanthropic victories or “Aha!” moments since the creation of the Loreen Arbus Foundation and heading up the Goldenson-Arbus Foundation, the WMC Loreen Arbus Journalism Program, and your other projects?
I am particularly proud of my shining light on the intersection of violence against women and violence against women with disability, which I spoke about at the United Nations.
Another key issue for me for quite some time has been the importance of employing people with disabilities. I served as Executive Producer of the documentary, A Whole Lott More, which examined work and disability through new perspectives, revealing the struggles of over 8 million people in America with developmental disabilities as they attempt to join the work force.
I also co-founded the Media Access Office, now operating in partnership with the California Governor’s Committee, to increase employment, improve depiction, and raise consciousness throughout all media regarding disability.
As the Founder of The Women Who Care Awards Luncheon, I was also proud to have raised over ten million dollars to help children and families with disabilities. So the philanthropic work that I gravitate towards really carries the ongoing thread of helping the marginalized in tangible and significant ways.
What concepts and movements are you currently most passionate about, and what do you hope to achieve in your work supporting them?
The need is so great to increase awareness about the largest minority in the world—people with disability—the advancement of women and girls, and the ethical treatment of animals.
My great interest goes beyond supporting existing movements, but also introducing new ideas and engendering others to follow suit—featuring people with disability in unexpected contexts. For example, I made it possible for the first woman with disability to be a runway model at New York Fashion Week. I also made art more accessible at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and have made many institutions conscientious about the importance of accessibility. I have helped with showcasing talents for the Design for Disability Fashion Show and introducing more options into Rent the Runway.
It’s really important to me to support women in the arts and, most particularly, women with disability in the arts. Dance, museum and gallery representation, design, etc.—there is such a large talent pool that mainstream institutions often overlook. Women, so underrepresented throughout the universe, get support from me in the science and medical research areas. Interestingly, many men have told me they prefer joining a research project headed up by a woman because women value everyone’s opinion and innovative ideas, and support teamwork, which is so gratifying.
From your perspective, how does gender impact philanthropic work?
Women are more empathetic; women look for and tell the human stories; women are much less interested in credit for what is accomplished. Women can, and do, get involved with philanthropic work by donating more than money. They give their time, other resources, and their knowledge in specialized fields. Volunteerism is far more a female-identifying phenomenon.
How can philanthropic organizations and individuals better represent and work with differently-abled or marginalized people?
My hope is that philanthropic organizations and individuals actually work with differently-abled or marginalized people and better understand the issues that raising money could address. A lot of the times, you see the glamorous side of philanthropy (galas, luncheons, etc.), but it is so important to highlight the work and the results.
Are you optimistic about the future of philanthropy?
Here is where I can’t help but get political. If our leadership in this country was more meaningful and set a better example of giving for altruistic instead of egocentric reasons, I would be more optimistic about the future of philanthropy. The current president is not about supporting minorities of any kind, and his vitriol is so damaging and divisive. With different and better leadership, we can continue to raise the bar on supporting marginalized groups and making every American know that their voice is important and heard. My great hope is that after 2020 we will be back on track to setting a global example in terms of the inclusive and important efforts of the philanthropic community.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in philanthropy, but isn’t sure how to get started?
Before diving in, there are two requisite steps to take: identify areas of personal interest (no matter how generalized) and research the organizations that are doing on-the-ground work as well as other organizations in these fields. Are they messaging effectively? Where is their money going?
And one extra, just for fun… why Argentinian Tango? How did you discover your passion for that?
I knew absolutely nothing about the music or the dance. I heard and saw it one night and it hit me very hard. I fell madly, emotionally, insanely, obsessively in love. Tango has been a metaphor for everything in my life. My favorite memory is dancing in Tokyo for the emperor of Japan. He rewarded us with a private visit to his celebrated Koi Pond.
Loreen Arbus is currently the President of The Loreen Arbus Foundation, The Goldenson-Arbus Foundation, and Loreen Arbus Productions, Inc. Through these organizations and in her personal endeavors, Ms. Arbus is a tireless advocate for women and girls; a champion for one of the world’s largest minorities, people with disabilities; and is passionate about encouraging equal opportunities in television, film, communications, and the arts.
For more interviews with leading ladies in the philanthropy field, read our spotlight on Suzanne Lerner, CEO of Michael Stars, or our interview with Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Executive Director of 100Kin10.
Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.