In 2013, the day before I met Ann Marie Habershaw for the first time, I was laid off from my job at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It was a bump in my career path that, at the time, felt like a disaster. As if by fate, she showed up to give me a new direction. And not just me, but, over time, that first coffee would lead to new career opportunities for hundreds of our neighbors who lack the privilege and resources that I have enjoyed.
Honor Ann Marie’s memory today and make a donation to BUILD, the Lever Fund grantee that meant the most to her. Please fill out the “in honor of” field and designate your gift to Build Metro DC.
Ann Marie had caught a 60 Minutes segment on the Robin Hood Foundation, the powerhouse charity that “Fights Poverty Like a New Yorker,” and a mutual friend, Nathaniel Pearlman, introduced us because I used to work there.
We met at the Caribou Coffee on 17th Street near the White House. After we found each other but before we sat down, a young woman threw her arms around Ann Marie and thanked her for a job recommendation that had led to a new position. She was a former staffer at Obama for America, the re-election campaign where Ann Marie had served as Chief Operating Officer. Over the years I would meet quite a number of people whose careers she’d helped along. That was her super power and, I suspect, her greatest joy.
When we took our seats, she told me how inspired she was by the example of Paul Tudor Jones, the founder and guiding spirit of Robin Hood. It impressed her that he hadn’t named the foundation after himself, which allowed others to join the effort. She admired his tenacity—after a well-intended but ultimately disappointing foray into helping low-income Brooklyn kids, he had reimagined a new and more powerful way to apply his specialty, investment principles, to charitable giving.
When I told Ann Marie that the Bay Area had launched a similar endeavor, she said that she thought D.C. could use a Robin Hood of its own.
“You should do that,” I said.
“No,” she said. “We should do that.”
That was the beginning of a long partnership that proved to be the most important of my life. Like any meaningful adventure, it has been full of challenges, reversals, and frustrations, but on balance it has enriched my life by exposing me to powerful local change-makers, committed philanthropists, and young people with astonishing determination to “learn and earn”—a favorite construction of Ann Marie’s—their way to a better life.
Although she recognized that our new organization had to be nonpolitical, President Obama’s idealism was an obvious inspiration for her, and specifically his definition of inequality as “the defining challenge of our time.” She contrasted the opportunities that her parents enjoyed to the limited horizons for those trapped in today’s low-income communities.
Along with Nathaniel and Ann Marie’s friend, Jeannette O’Connor, we began meeting weekly, imagining what our new force for opportunity should look like. We started out calling it Capital Heroes. Ann Marie and I visited Robin Hood’s offices in New York City to learn from Michael Weinstein, Mark Bezos, Krissy Sudano, and some of the other leaders who inspired us. For me, the return trip to Robin Hood meant mixed emotions, returning to the scene of career victories and failures, but Ann Marie’s steadying presence got me through it.
In the next few months, our founders group grew by one. Gary Jonas didn’t like the name Capital Heroes. (Actually, he hated it.) We became the Lever Fund, acquired our 501(c)3 status, and brought in our first donations.
Losing Gary three years ago nearly meant the end of the Lever Fund, but thanks to the determination of Ann Marie, the other founders, and our small but growing board, we recommitted to the mission of fighting poverty right here.
Way too many board meetings later, some of them more productive than others, the Lever Fund decided to focus on career opportunities in our region, and the Jobs of Tomorrow campaign was born. Ann Marie was a constant champion of supporting the local jobs programs that showed the most impact. When one of our first grants failed to yield the hoped-for results, she chalked it up as a lesson learned and moved on to championing another grantee.
Ann Marie: Whatever happens to the Lever Fund now, I will always be grateful for your strength and wisdom. Students and workers from our region who have benefited from the investments we made together will never get to say thanks, but I doubt that really mattered to you.