Adrienne Arsht has followed in her high-achieving parents’ footsteps. The Mount Holyoke and Villanova Law graduate was the 11th woman admitted to the Delaware Bar. She worked as a lawyer, including in TWA’s legal department before moving to Miami to run her family-owned TotalBank in the 1990s. She was married to the late Myer Feldman, former counsel to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Arsht’s mother Roxana Cannon Arsht was the first female judge in the State of Delaware. And her father Samuel Arsht was a prominent Wilmington attorney.
Arsht’s parents gave her the foundation on how to make a difference and how to be active in philanthropy. “Their giving interests were focused on where they could make a difference…. all of their giving was transformational,” Arsht told me. Her parents funded Arsht Hall at the University of Delaware Wilmington’s campus, which housed one of the first adult lifelong learning institutes. Many years later, it housed the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The couple also created the Roxana Cannon Arsht Surgicenter within the Christiana Care Health System. And after Sam died from cancer, Roxana became the founder of the Cancer Care Connection.
Arsht Family Legacy
Today, Adrienne Arsht steers the Arsht-Cannon Fund (ACF) at the Delaware Community Foundation, created in 2004 from the estate of her parents to “preserve, support, protect and defend the best interests of a civil society.” Indeed, part of Adrienne Arsht’s work is rooted in family legacy, and like other second-generation givers, Arsht was confronted with a question of where to deploy her funds.
Early on, she convened the Governor and Latino business and community leaders to create the Governor’s Consortium on Hispanic Affairs. This work included the first statewide assessment of the needs of Hispanic Delawareans, which showed the overwhelming need to support immigrant family educational needs.
The nation’s second-smallest state has seen an influx of Latinos in recent decades. In one Southern Delaware county, the Latino community has grown by some 1,200 percent in the last 30 years, according to the Delaware Community Foundation. The state has attracted other immigrants, too. There are about 97 languages spoken by Delaware’s English learners, per a Delaware Department of Education EL Annual Report. The study defined English learners as students with limited English proficiency who, because of foreign birth or ancestry, speak a language other than English. ELs either comprehend, speak, read or write little or no English when they enroll in public school. These students are now the fastest-growing student population in the state, and deal with under-resourced schools and other systemic needs. They’ve also been among the students most likely to fall behind during the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed a deep digital divide, with many households lacking computers and access to the internet.
The Arsht-Cannon Fund has been laser-focused on increasing educational opportunities and access to healthcare for Hispanic families in Delaware. The fund gives away about three-quarters of a million a year, and has donated more than $9 million to nonprofits through the years.
Of late, ACF has particularly focused on language learning, youth education, family well-being and community arts and cultural programs. Its La Colectiva de Delaware initiative aims to create a unified network for Spanish-speaking families to access resources in family literacy, family coaching, youth programming, and college, career and employment preparation. ACF also supports Education Equity Delaware, Reading Assist Institute, National Alliance for Mental Illness-Delaware Hispanic Services Initiative, and Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, among others.
Adrienne Arsht traveled through South America in her 20s and believes the continent and its diaspora is still too often forgotten and overlooked. “The percentage of Hispanics is growing exponentially, and if people in the U.S. don’t start recognizing the value of their contributions to our heritage, it’s going to be a rude awakening,” she says.
ACF has an accessible website. Applications for grants begin with a pre-proposal form.
Work in the Arts and Resilience, Too
“Growing up, I was lucky enough to have music around me at all times,” Arsht says.
Arsht’s love of the arts was fostered from a young age with visits to New York and her experiences with the arts scene in Delaware. She’s been involved with the Kennedy Center for around four decades, helping fund musical theater programs at the Center. And at the Met Museum, she funded the first-ever TEDx program and recently underwrote a performance called “Mother of Us All” about women’s suffrage.
Arsht’s biggest effort in the arts, though, is in Miami, where she lived for a decade. In 2008, she donated $30 million, rescuing a young performing arts center and naming it the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The multi-faceted center is one of the largest in the world and includes the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House and the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall.
In 2013, Arsht founded the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council to focus on the role of South America in the trans-Atlantic community. In 2019, she matched a $30 million Rockefeller Foundation gift, creating the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which aims to “reach 1 billion people with resilience solutions to climate change, migration and security challenges by 2030.”
Arsht explains that she connected with the Rockefeller Foundation after it began shuttering some of its work in resilience. “They talked to me about somewhat taking over the role of their think tank and moving forward on areas of resilience, and that’s what we’re doing. We will probably work in this area with these funds for a few more years.”
Away from these three focuses, Arsht has also funded work at Gaucher College, her mother’s alma mater. She’s also supported the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami; Arsht is a lifelong reader, she says, and funded a lab that tackles retinitis pigmentosa, a group of rare genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.
But overall, Arsht remains focused on her work in the Hispanic community, on the arts, and resilience. Much like her parents, she’s passionate about causes that others have shied away from. “I hope that all my philanthropy gives benefit to others. That it fosters enjoyment, understanding and wisdom,” she says.