Patrick Gaspard is 2019 Spingarn Medal Recipient

When it comes to human rights, Patrick Gaspard is no stranger to wildfires. At any given time, he's closely monitoring the latest developments from a slew of global flashpoints as president of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a New York City-based philanthropic network that supports a range of pro-democracy causes worldwide.

And there's no shortage of hotspots these days — from the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and post-election violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to America's southern border, where the Trump administration's migrant policy has sparked a bevy of lawsuits from civil liberties groups.

“There's a lot of challenges that one faces in these roles,” says Gaspard, 52. “But this organization is proudly standing up and defending people who are in peril. So much to do, so much to draw from.”

In that sense, Gaspard — who has held the OSF post for more than a year — brings a ready-made playbook from his years as a labor organizer, White House insider and powerbroker who battled in the bare-knuckle world of New York City politics.

In conversation, Gaspard is inclined to invoke the names of seminal historical figures (Paul Robeson comes up a lot.) But in July, Gaspard who — like the iconic artist, athlete and activist back in 1945 — was recognized at the 110th annual NAACP convention in Detroit, where he received the prestigious Spingarn Medal, the civil rights organization’s highest honor.

“To say that I'm overwhelmed would be a great understatement when I consider the history of the award and the fact that there are people who, for the last century, have had this honor bestowed upon them while shaping history,” says Gaspard. “It's not a false modesty to say that I feel profoundly undeserving of this consideration.” Still, for Gaspard, the award is yet another major milestone in a life that has already been full of them.

Gaspard was born in DR Congo's capital city of Kinshasa in 1967 as a result of the dramatic events of the day. His Haitian-born parents opted to flee the Caribbean island after the despotic François Duvalier came to power.

At the same time, the Congo's Pan-African leader Patrice Lumumba was issuing a call for French-speaking professionals from across the African Diaspora to help develop the country as part of its independence movement.

A United Nations program took up the cause, recruiting hundreds of Haitians — who traveled 6,500 miles — to serve as professors, engineers and doctors in the Congo. Among them was Gaspard's father, a lawyer by training who became a teacher there.

But widespread unrest enveloped the Congo after Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. Gaspard was 3 years old when he left the country with his parents to escape the turmoil. They moved to New York City, where they lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side — at a time when it was largely a struggling, working-class enclave — before settling in the residential neighborhood of St. Albans, Queens.

Even in his newly-adopted home, Gaspard's father remained politically active. Along with three older brothers and two younger sisters, Gaspard regularly joined his parents at rallies over hate crime incidents and police misconduct cases in the city during the 1970s and '80s.

But it was the nationwide anti-apartheid protests that still resonate with Gaspard. Following massive demonstrations in major cities, with young activists like Gaspard at the forefront, Congress imposed stiff economic sanctions — in defiance of President Ronald Reagan's veto — against South Africa in 1986. “I had an epiphany about how change happens from the inside and the outside,” Gaspard recalls. (Later, he was one of the principal organizers of Nelson Mandela's first trip to New York City in 1990.)

And yet Gaspard didn't take the standard political path of earning a law degree. Instead, between 1994 and 1997, he studied literature at Columbia University. Ultimately, though, street-level organizing proved too alluring for him to stick around long enough to earn a degree.

As early as high school, he worked a head-spinning number of gigs. At one time, Gaspard was a messenger, delivering packages to companies across the city (“It was interesting to navigate corporate spaces as an invisible man,” he says.) and in the next breath, he was volunteering in the 1988 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. Gaspard also worked for David Dinkins, who in 1989 was elected as the first Black mayor of New York City. That also brought Gaspard his first high-profile job in politics as a senior aide at City Hall.

Other posts followed. By the end of the 1990s, he was the New York City Council's chief of staff. He also worked as national field director for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during his bid for the White House in 2004. Still, what Gaspard says that he's proudest of is his nine-year stint as executive vice president with 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “I had the extraordinary opportunity to work on behalf of women — mostly women of color — who gave the best of themselves to provide frontline healthcare for others, even though their families and their communities lacked essential services and benefits.”

In some respects, working for 1199 SEIU placed Gaspard back into the outsider role that he relished.

And then he met Barack Obama.

Gaspard was huddling with other labor leaders in Cleveland when the then-Illinois state senator addressed them while making a run for the U.S. Senate in 2004. “I knew right away that this was somebody who just had an extraordinary ability — and a gift — to take complex issues and make them accessible,” Gaspard notes. “I thought, ‘OK, this is a guy who is absolutely different and I want to have some association in supporting his leadership.’”

After freelancing with Obama's leadership PAC, the Hope Fund, Gaspard joined his 2008 presidential campaign. On Jan. 20, 2009, Gaspard walked into the White House as President Obama's political director. He remembers having visited those grounds once before during a class field trip. He also marched at the front gates as a protester.

But the first thing that Gaspard did upon entering his West Wing office was to place a lithograph of Frederick Douglass onto the wall. “I wanted to keep a sense of perspective,” he says. “And I wanted to remember that there was no struggle that I would be going through that would come remotely close to what this man went through.”

Gaspard would often stare at the portrait of the man he affectionately calls “Fred” while the Obama administration was consumed by the fallout from the Great Recession during its first term.

“We had this great crisis in the economy while working on health care and any number of other social challenges,” Gaspard reflects. “This was a presidency that was just on 24 hours a day, seven days a week because of social media. People would always say, ‘You guys were so great at communicating on the campaign. Why can't you guys get your message out now?’ They just could not appreciate the volume that was coming at us.” In the second term, Gaspard was the U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Obama, says that Gaspard played an essential role “when the president was called upon to do some really difficult things” in those years. “Marshaling the political support for them was an extraordinarily challenging assignment,” he adds. “We were lucky Patrick was there to do the job.”

A comic book buff (“Make mine Marvel for life,” he proudly declares) and a New York Knicks fan, Gaspard is married to the writer Raina Washington and resides in Washington, D.C., with their two children.

While slyly avoiding any mention of President Trump by name, Gaspard sees the current administration as part of a populist wave sweeping the globe. “In politics, one is motivated either by hope or by fear. And regrettably, we have too many politicians who are skilled at amplifying fear and then presenting themselves as the only solution to the challenges that they themselves have created,” he explains. “But you can't do this work if you're not hopeful about the opportunity for change and progress.”

With an annual budget over $1 billion, OSF was founded in 1993 by mega-investor and philanthropist George Soros. (In 2017, he transferred roughly $18 billion to OSF's coffers.) The network funds a vast array of social justice, public health and education-related initiatives globally. But it's also drawn condemnation from critics who charge that OSF seeks to undermine governments and is lacking in fiscal transparency. In 2015, Russia banned OSF. Last year, the group terminated all activity in Turkey in the face of increasing hostility. And online, conspiracy theories about Soros and OSF take on a life of their own.

For his part, Gaspard takes the criticism in stride. “There's an old saying, ‘Know me by my enemies,’” he says. “The Open Society Foundations was at the forefront of funding efforts to end mass incarceration long before we had a language to talk about what was happening. It also has a rich history, during and after the Cold War, of fighting for openness in Eastern Europe. So yes, it's only natural that it would attract the ire of those who stand on the other side of those issues. But that's OK. This is an organization of tremendous strength.”

Asked whether he has political aspirations of his own, Gaspard delivers a hasty “Absolutely not!” The only goal, he says, is to keep the job that he's always had — agitator. “I just want to create transparency in the issues I pick up and the community that I humbly put myself in,” says Gaspard. “And to try, as John Lewis says, to make some good trouble while I'm at it.”

— Curtis Stephen