Creating change, improving lives through philanthropy

Maria Torres-Springer, Ford Foundation vice president for U.S. Programs: ‘She understands how to pursue justice within complex systems.’ Photo: Ford Foundation

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

In 2019, Maria Torres-Springer became one of the first highest-ranking Filipino Americans in philanthropy.  She is vice president for U.S. Programs at Ford Foundation.

The Foundation website provided a brief history: “The Ford Foundation was established in 1936, with an initial gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford, whose father, Henry, founded the Ford Motor Company. When Edsel and Henry died in the mid-1940s, they left an additional $250,000 worth of Ford Motor stock to the foundation—creating the largest philanthropy in the world. Through prudent investment, this original endowment has grown to some $14 billion today…They (the Foundation and FMC) are two separate and legally unrelated entities whose operations are completely independent and have been for more than 50 years.”

As the vice president for U.S. Programs, Ms. Torres-Springer “oversees the foundation’s domestic programming for Civic Engagement and Government, Creativity and Free Expression, Just Cities and Regions, Technology and Society, Future of Work(ers) and Gender, Race and Ethnic Justice,” according to a press statement.

During our interview at the Harvard Club, Maria told me that her father, Manuel Torres from Pampanga, and  her mother Elsa Torres from Batangas, immigrated to California in 1976, a year before Maria was born. She was the second eldest child. When she was 9 years old, her mother passed away from cancer. Maria believes that this loss strengthened her resolve to work hard and do her best in school.

She graduated salutatorian in High School and went to college at Yale University.

While Yale was a very different environment and she initially experienced culture shock, she eventually learned to adapt to both the institution and the East Coast weather. But remembering that her father sacrificed for her to attend Yale, she shouldered on and prospered academically. She graduated with a BA in ethics, politics and economics.

She was intending to go to law school but working for two years in a law office made her turn away from law and moved on toward more mission-driven work.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. There she met her future husband Jamie Torres-Springer from Canada who was also studying at Harvard. They have two daughters and live in Brooklyn.

Thus, she started her public service career in New York City lasting close to 15 years. She was a Senior Policy Advisor in the Mayor’s Office under  Mayor Mike Bloomberg and then served as chief of staff at the New York Economic Development Corporation. She left City government for two years to serve as Chief Operating Officer for Friends of the High Line.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, she was the first woman to serve as president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation. She implemented the new Citywide Ferry service, made major investments in NYC’s economy including technology, life sciences and modern manufacturing.  She then served as commissioner of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the nation’s largest housing agency. She led the Mayor’s five-borough, 12-year plan to create or preserve 300,000 affordable homes and apartments. During her tenure, she financed a record 60,000 affordable homes, producing housing for seniors, the formerly homeless, the lowest-income New Yorkers while launching programs to protect tenants’ rights.

Earlier, Mayor de Blasio appointed her as commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services. She worked to raise wages and expand skill-building in workforce placement programs, grow women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, streamline the regulatory environment for small businesses, and launch path-breaking initiatives like the Tech Talent Pipeline to grow the tech sector and prepare New Yorkers for 21st century jobs.

The President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker said upon her appointment “I have known Maria since she was COO of Friends of the High Line and I was on the Board, and have watched with administration as she has grown into one of the most impressive social justice leaders around. She is a creative leader and manager who understands how to pursue justice within complex systems and that’s a skill we need more than ever.”

Maria has this to say, “Surviving the loss of my mother at a young age was incredibly hard but that experience has shaped who I am and I believe given me the strength and faith to overcome all other obstacles.”

© The FilAm 2021

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