Geeta Pradhan sounds cheerful, relaxed and confident as we begin our conversation. She gives off an aura of comfort and has a welcoming nature, greeting a stranger as if she has met them before. The positive demeanor is helpful when it comes to her job leading the Cambridge area in a cooperative push against social inequality.
Pradhan is the president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, a charitable organization that assesses the needs of the city. Using these assessments, the foundation gives grants to nonprofits and other entities in a coordinated effort to curb poverty and boost development throughout Cambridge. In a given year, the foundation gives over $1 million in grants and donations, according to their website’s financial information page.
Pradhan has only held this position for roughly a year now. Although 12 months is a short amount of time to actively convene with and stimulate a community’s needs, she says things have been going smoothly thus far.
“It’s been very interesting, I’m loving this job! I already knew the Cambridge community well from six years as a student [at Harvard],” said Pradhan. “Lots of people have been generous with their time, sharing their support and helping me gauge the community.”
Before Pradhan took the reins of the foundation last year, it was run by Bob Hurlbut, a longtime staple in the Cambridge area. Hurlbut retired after 21 years as president, stepping away from a role he used to massively reshape the city for the better.
“Bob embedded the foundation deeply into the community,” Pradhan said. Although that made for some big shoes to fill, her determination was unwavering. “I’ve done 25 years of community development in Boston, so I was very excited [for the position] and Bob was a great partner… He helped me truly understand the community. I had to hit the ground running, with speed.”
The resolve in Pradhan’s statement comes from her time working in the field. She studied architecture at Harvard University and, from there, found a passion for community development. “As an architect, I was inherently drawn to cities… with that lens to help notice how crazy the housing market was, I saw the stress the community is under.”
“This is a city with enormous resources. There’s no reason that we should have the problems we have,” Pradhan continued. The clear problem she mentions is poverty. According to the 2010–2012 American Community Survey issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 20 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of blacks in Cambridge live in poverty, the latter statistic being higher than the state average. On top of this, 38.5 percent of female-headed families with children under 18 struggle below the poverty line.
These are the numbers that have been pushing Pradhan to continue where Hurlbut left off and even expand the Cambridge Community Foundation’s reach. “In the fall, we’ll hopefully be announcing new areas of work,” Pradhan said. Earlier in the year, an anonymous donor gave the foundation $80,000 to invest in family development. According to Pradhan, they’re going to be using this money to aid between 60 to 75 families. The aim is to help the families get online to better control their assets and take control of their financial goals; they’re also pushing to create a strong social network to help deal with the stresses of a financial crisis.
In the coming years, Pradhan hopes to interact with several partners and donors in this project, which will potentially benefit hundreds of families.
“A poor family in Cambridge is no different than a poor family elsewhere in the world. We want to be a catalyst for shared prosperity, and use our independent stature to shine a light on issues not typically discussed here,” Pradhan said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Cambridge Community Foundation received an $800,000 from an anonymous donor. The donation was actually for $80,000.