Meet the Visionaries: Ford Announces $100,000 Award For 'Courageous Leaders'

05/04/2011 04:26 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

NEW YORK -- For the last 20 years, Guatemalan architect Teddy Cruz has focused on the physical and cultural barriers that divide urban areas, especially those targeting poor and immigrant communities on the U.S.-Mexico border. A pioneer in urban design, Cruz says that one of his goals is to produce new economic models of development that are more inclusive and humane.

In 1980, Martin Eakes created Self Help, a lending institution in North Carolina that provides under-served, low-income communities with loans to finance the purchase of a home or business. He has since established the Center for Responsible Lending, which played a critical role in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequently helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, tackles bias and misconduct in the American criminal justice system. EJI focuses in particular on marginalized communities, including the poor, minority and under-aged.

These are a few of the "courageous leaders whose lives are devoted to improving systems and institutions so that all people have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives,” said Ford Foundation President Luis Ubiñas upon announcing the Visionaries Awards on Wednesday. The $100,000 prizes are the first of their kind to be given by the Foundation, a blue chip philanthropic organization that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Among the 12 winners -- a group that ranges from a Brazilian cartographer mapping indigenous communities to a syndicated editorial cartoonist in Kenya -- Cruz, Eakes and Stevenson all underscored the importance of foundational and philanthropic support for their work through the years.

Eakes illustrated in a phone interview the role organizations like the Ford Foundation have played in helping him to curb predatory lending practices.

"When I heard Angela Mozilo, the CEO of Countrywide, saying no one could have seen [the mortgage crisis] coming, I could have almost cried. There were dozens of community workers and non-profits who had said that such a situation was not only possible, but inevitable,” he told The Huffington Post. "Without philanthropic resources, there would have been no counter in the debate."

Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, said that his work on criminal justice "continues to be very challenging." In a separate phone interview with HuffPost, he noted that the national budget crisis had forced many states to reexamine their prison systems. That has promoted "a more open environment for reform" in the use of alternative methods to incarceration, he said.

But Stevenson remained concerned "the United States still has the highest rate of incarceration and wrongful convictions in the world.” In the early 1970s, approximately 200,000 people were in U.S. prisons, according to his estimation. By the early 2000s, that number had exploded to 2.3 million people -- most of whom were incarcerated for non-violent crimes.

Excessive punishment is another issue Stevenson is working to highlight. America is only country in world where children as young as 13 have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, he added.

"I'm encouraged by the recognition that this award creates," Stevenson said. "Since so much of what we do is not popular, we often feel marginalized and not encouraged to stand with others."

His hope is to use the Visionaries Award money to enhance EJI’s work around poverty in the rural South and to expand on its efforts to address at-risk children who face prosecution.

Talking with HuffPost about his award, Cruz said the national debate over immigration and border security has increased "surveillance infrastructure, and exert pressure on [border] communities.” On the one hand, Cruz said this surveillance has been detrimental and has had a negative impact, but he contended that it "has enabled another level of support.” The Ford Foundation prize is an example of the positive attention this increased focus has brought to his work.

Cruz outlined several areas where the $100,000 in award money might be directed: work in the non-commercial sector, new housing prototypes and the establishment of a micro-community as a sort of "case study," among other ideas. But, in the end, he acknowledged that the uses were probably too numerous for a limited number of dollars.

With immigration, crime, and consumer protection on the front burner of the national discourse, the recipients testified to the importance of support -- no matter the dollar amount.

"Self Help literally started with $77 from a bake sale," said Eakes. "And it’s grown to almost $2 billion in assets to help middle class families own a piece of the American Dream."