June 24, 2011

Foundation Leaders Become Jailbirds in Push for D.C. Voting Rights

Foundation leaders are not usually known as lawbreakers. But in Washington, some have been writing articles lately with titles like “Confessions of a Jailbird” and “Why I Got Arrested for D.C. Voting Rights.”

The reason: They have been arrested for protesting the District of Columbia’s lack of voting representatives in Congress—and the ability of Congress to overrule its laws and budgets.

“We’re the real Tea Party,” says Trish Vradenburg, vice president of the Vradenburg Foundation, referring to the political group named after the Boston colonists who protested “taxation without representation.”  “It’s just outrageous.”

Ms. Vrandenburg, a playwright and television writer, is on the board of DC Vote, a nonprofit that is working to get voting representation for the District in Congress and is planning a White House rally on Saturday.

Her foundation, which she runs with her husband, George, gives the group at least $10,000 a year. But just two months ago, Ms. Vradenburg was making her case in a more dramatic way—by getting arrested, along with 40 other people, for blocking traffic at a rally on Capitol Hill.

In “Confessions of a Jailbird,” she wrote a humorous account for the Huffington Post of her experience with handcuffs, paddy wagons, and 10 hours of incarceration.

Also locked up at that rally: Daniel Solomon, a trustee of the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, a Washington grant maker created by his grandparents. Mr. Solomon helped create DC Vote in 1998 and says his foundation contributes six-figure amounts to the group every year.

He says he didn’t plan to get arrested when he attended the Capitol Hill rally, but was inspired when he saw other Washingtonians, including Ms. Vradenburg, commit civil disobedience.  “It felt great,” he says. “We finally sat down in the street and said, ‘That’s it, we’re not going to go. We’re not going to be quiet. We’re not going to be polite.’”

Several other people from the foundation world were arrested at another rally last month: Diane Bernstein, president of the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation, and her assistant, Annalee Ash; and Tamara Copeland, president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. (Ms. Copeland wrote about her experience in the association's newsletter.)

“Our second-class status is a blight on American democracy,” Ms. Bernstein wrote in the Washington Post. Noting that she has worked as a staff member, founder, or grant maker to organizations serving Washington’s children for 40 years, she added: “I want children living in the nation’s capital to have the opportunity to be members of Congress one day.”

Activists have been fighting for many years to make D.C. a state or to give Washington the opportunity to have voting members of Congress. The recent protests were triggered partly by the compromise budget deal that Congress reached last spring to avert a government shutdown. The package included a measure pushed by House Republicans to bar the District from using its own money to pay for abortions for poor women.

Ms. Vradenburg says she has no plans to get arrested again. But Mr. Solomon says he doesn’t rule it out. “I’ve written letters, I’ve made phone calls, I’ve marched, I’ve protested, I’ve e-mailed friends, family, and their acquaintances,” Mr.  Solomon says. “At some point you get frustrated.”