October 20, 2015

Creating Harmony With WHYHUNGER

How late ASCAP singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s vision for ending hunger lives on through the crucial work of WhyHunger, now celebratings its 40th anniversary

By Jim Steinblatt

Pictured at the 2015 WhyHunger Chapin Awards gala are (l-r) WhyHunger Chair Brian McMorrow, WhyHunger board member and ASCAP’s Loretta Muñoz, WhyHunger Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Bill Ayres, ASCAP Harry Chapin Vanguard Award winner Grace Potter, ASCAP Harry Chapin Legacy Award winner Felix Cavaliere, WhyHunger Executive Director Noreen Springstead and WhyHunger board member and ASCAP’s Seth Saltzman

Pictured at the 2015 WhyHunger Chapin Awards gala are (l-r) WhyHunger Chair Brian McMorrow, WhyHunger board member and ASCAP’s Loretta Muñoz, WhyHunger Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Bill Ayres, ASCAP Harry Chapin Vanguard Award winner Grace Potter, ASCAP Harry Chapin Legacy Award winner Felix Cavaliere, WhyHunger Executive Director Noreen Springstead and WhyHunger board member and ASCAP’s Seth Saltzman

WHYHUNGER, ONE OF THE NATION’S PREMIER anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding (as World Hunger Year) by Bill Ayres and the beloved late ASCAP singer-songwriter Harry Chapin. Chapin and Ayres’s roots in the ‘60s civil rights and anti-war movements fueled their desire to plunge into tackling the age-old problem of hunger. Over the course of four decades, countless individuals and families have benefited from WhyHunger’s menu of ways to battle hunger and its underlying cause – poverty. Music and music people have always been at the forefront of WhyHunger’s fundraising and consciousness-raising efforts. In fact, ASCAP has been a key supporter of WhyHunger since the 1980s, with ASCAP staffers serving on the organization’s board of directors, volunteering for its annual Hungerthon campaign and, most visibly, as the presenter of the ASCAP Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award at WhyHunger’s annual gala dinner.

Playback asked five key figures at WhyHunger to reflect on the organization’s history, operation, future plans and collaboration with ASCAP: Co-founder/Ambassador Bill Ayres; ASCAP singer-songwriter and WhyHunger board member Jen Chapin (Harry’s daughter); Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and board member Tom Chapin (Harry’s brother); WhyHunger Executive Director Noreen Springstead; and Director of Artists Against Hunger & Poverty Hillary Zuckerberg.

The sense of social justice behind WhyHunger

BILL AYRES I had that sense of justice, stemming from my reading of the Gospels, basically, and the social teaching of the Church at that time. It’s what motivated me to get into the priesthood. I was in the March on Washington in 1963 and it changed my life – it gave me hope that this terrible racism in our country could change. Segregation has changed but racism is still alive and rampant.

TOM CHAPIN We come from an artsy left-wing New York family. Our aunt Eleanor Leacock was very involved in civil rights stuff; her second marriage was to Jim Haughton who was a black labor activist. She was the one who got us The Weavers at Carnegie Hall album. My brothers and I were totally informed by The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and that whole world. And once we became folk musicians -- and Harry really understood this – the great thing about being a name and having an audience was that you had a bully pulpit.

JEN CHAPIN The fact of there being this culture of commitment is the only thing I ever have known.

The founding of World Hunger Year and the passion of Harry Chapin

BILL AYRES I met Harry Chapin when I interviewed him on my radio show, On This Rock, in November of ’73. We hit it off and he invited me to his home. It was my idea to start to fight hunger but it was Harry’s to start the organization. None of this would have happened without Harry. He was our key person. And when he died, Harry’s older brother Jim (now deceased) said “There’s nobody who’s going to fill Harry Chapin’s shoes. We just need to live a little bigger - and in our own shoes.” He was right.

TOM CHAPIN Harry always thought big. He and Bill realized the only way to really change things was to form an organization that would be here 10 years from now. They both committed to this idea that they would try to start something that would really effect change. And here it is, 40 years later.

There have been just five songwriters awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in history, and the fifth was Harry. The first four were George M. Cohan, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin, and then there’s Harry. Now, Harry didn’t get it for writing “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “Taxi” and “Circle.” He got it because he had spent time down in Washington talking to all those senators, congressmen and presidents and all their staffs -- and it was all about hunger. The family loved an expression I coined: “Two’s company, Harry’s a crowd.”

What WhyHunger does

NOREEN SPRINGSTEAD Feeding people is not the answer to the hunger problem. We really need to create sustainable change. And we believe very firmly that food needs to be viewed as a human right. And when that changes then we will see fewer people who are hungry. And hunger is really a symptom of the deeper issues of poverty, so we have a big focus on living wages and jobs as a solution to hunger. But the unique piece around hunger itself is around sustainable food production, the people that are growing food and getting good food into the pantries and the soup kitchens and the food banks -- so we do a lot of work with farmers and growers, as well as the frontline organizations that are providing food to people.

BILL AYRES One of my favorite words is “partners.” I believe that leadership is not domination -- it’s partnership and service. So I’ve always tried to be of service to people that I work with and to give them a great deal of freedom and also to build community. It’s promoting self-reliance, helping people to grow food themselves, to be in a position to buy their own food if they can’t grow it and get out of poverty. We’re an anti-hunger organization. We’re also an anti-poverty organization. I’ve always said the root cause of hunger is poverty and the root cause of poverty is powerlessness and injustice.

WhyHunger, music and the ASCAP connection

HILLARY ZUCKERBERG Artists Against Hunger & Poverty is really a fundraising arm of WhyHunger. We’re about raising awareness and raising funds. Being an organization that was started by a songwriter 40 years ago just sets us apart. Artists that want to get involved have a variety of ways in which they can do so.

We run the gamut. Over the years and especially through some of the big auctions that we conduct around our dinner and, Hungerthon, you know, I’d say hundreds of artists have been involved in some way.

NOREEN SPRINGSTEAD Some of the artists ASCAP has honored with the Chapin Humanitarian Award have done so much for WhyHunger – Judy Collins, Jackson Browne and the very first recipient, Kenny Rogers. One of this year’s honorees, Felix Cavaliere, has done Hungerthons. He was incredible right after 9/11, performing in two back-to-back days of concerts in New Jersey to help people affected by the tragedy.

JEN CHAPIN Hillary Zuckerberg and the team at WhyHunger have made it so there’s a real dialogue with artist management, with tours, with what are the goals of the artists, who is their particular audience, how we can find a way to help the cause in a way that’s not burdensome and in a way that’s authentic to the artists. The tough part is making a benefit effective and making it not be a burden on the beneficiary. People think that because an organization has a development person or an events person that they can naturally organize a benefit concert. Usually people are focused on the programs of actually serving hungry people and might not have events as their focus, so WhyHunger tries to broker and make it a win-win for everybody. I’m an ASCAP member and I find the culture of ASCAP -- the warmth and the accessibility -- very much feels like a natural family fit.

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For more info, visit WhyHunger.org and to donate to #Hungerthon, visit Hungerthon.org