WASHINGTON — You may be hearing her name for the first time but Adrienne Arsht has been working to build a more resilient society for decades one donation at a time and at 81, she is not slowing down.
“You just put one foot in front of the other," Arsht said. "That’s all my perception is of life, which becomes another way of saying resilience.”
Arsht's ability to keep going has powered her quest for answers for at least 40 years after the tragic loss of her beloved younger sister Alison.
Alison Arsht was a linguist who was arrested by the KGB during the Cold War and when she returned home to the U.S. everything had changed.
“She was deeply shaken. We might call it PTSD today, but in any event within two years, she had committed suicide. There was never anything that I could imagine that would be better, a better place to be than being alive and I so began to research, talk and find out what I could about resilience,” she said.
That capacity to withstand and overcome difficulties was already embedded in the Arsht family's DNA. Arsht's grandparents fled Kyiv for a better life in the U.S.
Her high-achieving parents Roxana and Samuel exposed their daughters to the value of hard work and service.
Arsht credits her parents for helping to lay the foundation and groundwork for her path to philanthropy. She runs their foundation, the Arsht Cannon Fund which steers resources towards and around education and healthcare that benefits immigrant families.
Her mother, the Honorable Roxana Cannon Arsht was the first woman judge in Delaware and inspired the likes of Sandra Day O’Connor.
"That was my mother’s Dickey that she got from England," she noted. "And, she gave it to Sandra.”
Arsht became the 11th woman admitted to the Delaware bar and then her career took her to the legal department of TWA in New York, then to a law firm in D.C.
She founded a title company in D.C. and then ventured South to run her family-owned Total Bank in Miami, Florida.
She invested heavily in language, the arts, resilience, buildings, and spaces that impact the Latin American community in Miami.
“I go back to the saying we’re a nation of immigrants. When I sold my bank and came back here, I felt it was very important to showcase the role and heritage of Hispanics because they were among us and growing in number.”
Arsht saw the intersection of her own family with the family she came to know and love in Miami. The people and the promise would eventually influence her own purpose around resilience.
She moved back to D.C. to further that mission. Adrienne renovated and restored a historic Chevy Chase estate during the pandemic.
The legendary home was built in 1893 for a Nevada congressman and Senator at the time and has hosted every President from Grover Cleveland to George W. Bush.
Her home offers a backdrop where she can ponder and carry out her life’s work. She plans on giving away nearly all of her fortune to figure out how we and the world around us can keep going when the going gets tough.
Many have tried to figure out how she decides on what projects to support but in the end, Arsht says it comes from the inside.
"I just say I know it when I see it," she said. "I tend to look for something that nobody else has supported.”
That support traverses the space of resilience from the arts and beyond.
“It is these times of great trauma and tragedy and the need for resilience that lessons are learned and art is created," she said.
Arsht has made multi-million dollar gifts to keep this quintessential human trait on the map.
In 2008, she donated $30M to what is now known as the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
She gave $25 million to endow a Latin America center at the Atlantic Council here in D.C. to focus on the role of South America.
She funded the Metropolitan Museum’s first paid internship program with $5 million.
The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center was funded in part by her generosity and she recently donated $10 million to launch the Adrienne Arsht Community Based Resilience Solutions Initiative at the Smithsonian Institution.
Her gift will support researching tropical resilience and education into how our role plays in shaping the world around us.
“The mission is to find ways to focus on resilience and help us build more resilient communities,” she said.
That includes dealing with a changing climate and funding heat officers around the globe through Arsht-Rock, the Adrienne-Arsht-Rockerfeller Foundation Resilience Center.
“People don’t really think about people dying in the heat. The deaths from heat are much greater than anything else,” she said.
Her house is filled with stately treasures where she also collects cloisonne and throw pillows.
One of her favorite pillows was a gift from Harry Connick, Junior. She said he was performing at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center in Miami, came out on stage and said, "usually if a building is named after someone, they’re dead. But he said, Adrienne, is a real badass."
The name stuck.
Adrienne said being a Badass means “Gutsy, courageous. Standing up for what you believe."
She added if you want to be more resilient, “Just remember don’t give up. Try again. And, I think I can, I think I can and that will help you in the right direction.”
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