Marty Krasney

Peripheral Visionary

Recorded: May 30, 2014

Marty Krasney is the Executive Director of the Dalai Lama Fellows. He is severely nearsighted and sees things differently.  Not only is Marty a successful executive, but also a literary scholar. Marty shares his insights about literature, philosophy, and environmental and political writers. He explains how many authors of classical literature were often writing about some of the earliest environmental themes.  Marty shares his personal "lessons learned" including those that have helped him "think outside the box."

Marty Krasney, an educator, and organizational executive, was named as the first Executive Director of Dalai Lama Fellows in May 2010. His prior work in the not-for-profit sector includes having served as the first director of the Aspen Institute Seminars, the founding president of American Leadership Forum, executive director of The Coalition for the Presidio Pacific Center and program director of the National Humanities Series. His corporate employment includes directing public affairs for Levi Strauss & Co. and managing executive development at ARCO.

Over the past twenty-five years, he has consulted on strategic planning, organizational design, program development and external affairs for an eclectic mix of corporate, philanthropic and citizen sector clients, working in the arts and humanities, community development, education, the environment, health, international affairs and social welfare. Much of his work has been involved with innovative adult education and communications across differences.

Marty has served on numerous not-for-profit boards in a diversity of fields, and is currently Vice President of Commonweal, Treasurer of the Compton Foundation, Inc., and Treasurer of the Chez Panisse Foundation. He is a member of the boards of the Butler Koshland Fellowships, Cutting Ball Theater and Heyday, and serves on the Executive Committee of Human Rights Watch’s California Committee North.

Marty graduated with honors from Princeton University, pursued graduate work in English Literature at the University of Michigan and in Communications at Stanford, and earned an MBA from Harvard.  He is editor of the book: The Corporation and Society.


Marty Krasney:   I started working at the Aspen Institute in the summer of 1975 and my role there was, I was the director of the Executive Seminar Program and we essentially sold participation in a very elevated political philosophy program that had grown out of the University of Chicago Great Books curriculum that Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler put together. The readings were mostly in a purely political philosophy vein.  And one of the things I was able to do in the ’70s was to begin to bring in some environmental writers–Loren Eiseley and Jacques Monod, and Lewis Thomas and Thoreau, Barry Commoner–there were a lot of writings that we inserted.  But it was an effort to try to get people to think about the relationship between culture and nature, or politics and nature, that hadn’t been present in those readings before.

Marty Krasney:  The most astonishing book I think that’s been written in the United States, is Moby-Dick, and that has a lot of nature in it.

Huey Johnson:   That’s good.

Marty Krasney:  So, I just think that, you know, when people talked, when I was a graduate student in English, about who’s going to write the great American novel, I think they forgot that it had been written a 100 years before that.  I loved the romantic poets and Wordsworth, who did a lot of nature writing.

Huey Johnson:   Yeah, he really was strong in nature.

Marty Krasney:   And The Tempest, which is about a community on an island.  I liked the idea of creating a community across differences.  I think that’s something that’s been a through line of my own work and it, you know, you can’t get a whole lot more different than Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban all living on this island together in isolation. They didn’t mention Homer.  You know, a whole lot of the Odyssey is really about man and nature.

Huey Johnson:   God, we ought to get fired up and raise some money and set some scholars to work writing about the linkage of some of those books and the origins of thought about environment.  The lessons learned in your life that could be reflected, and value to future generations?

Marty Krasney:  Trust yourself, and go with your own instincts rather than being buffeted by convention or external forces.  When I graduated from high school, I was deeply envious of classmates who knew exactly where they were headed.  I had one close friend who knew he wanted to be an architect, and I had another one who knew he wanted to be a surgeon and they made every choice based on whether they would get closer to that goal.  So their whole life was kind of binary choices, path not taken was easy to see.  And I kept saying, “Why can’t I figure this out?”  And it wasn’t until after I finished the first two jobs, the ones I talked about at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in Aspen, and was trying to figure out my next move that I realized I actually also had made binary choices, but the binary choices were keeping my options open, learning something and making a difference.  And that instead of staying in a straight line, how I would almost invariably move away from the straight line.  I think the lesson is you know better than anybody else what will work for you.

Huey Johnson:   You are visually handicapped a bit and you have – it seems to me, you use that handicap as a strength.

Marty Krasney:  Thank you.  Mary Catherine Bateson has been a friend and she wrote a book called Peripheral Visions. My visual condition is that I don’t have the full load of rods and cones at the front of my eye.  So, at some level, I see straight ahead about as well as you see out of the corner of your eye.  And Mary Catherine’s book was about how what you see out of the corner of your eye sometimes is more important than what you see straight ahead, and she has 20/20 vision, but the idea of being a peripheral visionary.  And I have a friend who teaches at the Mind and Brain Center at UC Davis, who said to me, “You know the reason that you think outside the box is because you can’t see what’s inside the god damn box.”

Huey Johnson:   But you do it well.

Marty Krasney:  So, outside of the box; and, therefore making connections.