Celebrating the Life and Contributions of NCLR Amigo David Carlson

NCLR and the entire Latino community lost a friend, supporter, guardian, and mentor on the morning of September 23. David B. Carlson played a pivotal professional role as a Ford Foundation program officer in nurturing and supporting the nascent Southwest Council of La Raza and its seven original Affiliates in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two decades later, we were delighted to welcome him back into the extended NCLR family in a personal capacity as the loving husband of Spanish Speaking Unity Council Executive Director and NCLR Board member Arabella Martinez. Arabella had returned to revitalize the venerable organization she had helped found, bringing it back from the brink of bankruptcy to the enormously successful and indispensable organization it remains today for the residents of the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, CA.

David Carlson was always about being “both and,” never “either or.” He was both a student of history and a visionary of a future few others could see. He was both a careful steward of the public trust, insisting that his grantees were fully accountable for the foundation investments he oversaw, and a fierce defender of the Latino community’s right to determine its own course. He had both a gentle spirit and genial demeanor, and a steely commitment to social justice.

Five decades ago he foresaw a vision of a vibrant, dynamic community that today is the nation’s largest ethnic minority in what was then a relatively tiny Latino population with few stable institutions. He knew then that diversity is America’s greatest strength—a fundamental idea that regrettably is under assault from new, previously unforeseen quarters. He understood that it was not just possible, but essential for Latinos to be both proud of their heritage and deeply loyal and patriotic Americans. He also knew then that this community would need powerful and effective institutions to advance its interests. Thus, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he successfully fought to both protect the Southwest Council and its Affiliates from ideological attacks during their critical formative years and insist that they work tirelessly to improve their performance.

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It is not at all clear that NCLR or its flagship Affiliates, like the Unity Council, would even exist today but for the dedication of David Carlson; what is clear is that we, and the over 55 million Latinos we represent and serve, are all better off for having had the privilege of working with him. We offer our sincere condolences to his wife Arabella and their families on his passing, but we know they’re comforted by the knowledge that truly, his was a life well-lived.