The Honorable Ann Brown was dabbling in tzedakah long before she knew what it meant. Meaning “righteous” in Hebrew, tzedakah (pronounced “tze-DA-kuh”) is the Jewish cultural and moral tradition of enabling others through contributions of time, service, or monetary rewards. During Sunday school, when the pushke, or charity box, was passed around, the young Washington, D.C. native would faithfully contribute a hefty portion of her allowance to help disadvantaged families. This act of kindness was the beginning of a life guided by benevolence.
In 1964, after graduating from George Washington University with a degree in American Studies, Brown worked for the assistant Washington correspondent at the New York Post. Five years later, she departed the venerable daily to start a family and pursue a
vocation in consumer product safety. While she cannot pinpoint the impetus that spawned her desire to stymie products with potentially life-threatening risks, she remembers being a child and singing along as her mother would play “Sing a Song of Safety” (written by Irving Caesar in 1937) on the piano. She also recalls her mother fashioning a safety harness for her baby stroller with one of her father’s belts. “She was obviously aware of children’s safety long before I had any notion of it,” says Brown.
The subsequent 20-odd years were spent lending her time and talents to some of the capital’s leading grassroots organizations, including Americans for Democratic Action and the Consumer Federation of America, where she served as vice president for 15 years. Brown’s daughter, Cathy, vividly recalls the times her mother was televised slam-dunking dangerous, recalled toys into the trash or would take her and her younger sister, Laura, to active protests such as the infamous meat boycott of 1973.
In March 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Brown to commandeer the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (the “Honorable” title came with the job). As the government’s chief product-safety regulator, she recalled thousands of hazardous products, ranging from lead-tainted crayons to faulty coffee makers. Additionally, she implemented benchmark programs such as the CPSC’s Fast-Track Consumer Product Recall Program, a civic
initiative that streamlined recall negotiations and eliminated bureaucratic red tape, which won the prestigious Innovations in American Government Award in 1998. Her media savviness also helped boost the agency’s visibility as she brought lifesaving product recalls into the homes of millions with regular appearances on television shows like Good Morning America.
After nearly eight years, the tireless public servant relinquished her chairperson role and founded SAFE (Safer America for Everyone), a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that exposed products it deemed dangerous or potentially harmful to the public.
Apart from her busy humanitarian work, Brown, as well as her husband, Don, a successful real estate attorney and investor who passed away in 2019, was actively involved in D.C.’s dynamic charity scene. The couple gave generously to arts, cultural, and human rights groups in Washington and Martha’s Vineyard, their summer retreat. They set up personal foundations for themselves and their daughters (and, later, their grandchildren), who were raised to enjoy the simple reward of giving back. “We wanted to encourage the feelings of generosity we felt,” Brown says.
When they moved their winter home to Palm Beach Gardens in 2003, Ann and Don were on the lookout for charities and organizations whose goals they shared and where their benevolence would matter the most. Since then, the pair has bequeathed millions of dollars to nonprofits, including about $6 million to local organizations like Scripps Research in Jupiter and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. One of the couple’s most public donations came in 2011, when they endowed Palm Beach Dramaworks with $2 million to renovate the 210-seat theater in West Palm Beach. Brown later established the company’s Stagecoach Fund, which finances round-trip transportation for Palm Beach County schoolchildren to attend seasonal matinee productions.
Brown has been especially benevolent of late when it comes to helping the homeless and formerly incarcerated. Recently, she donated $250,000 to The Lord’s Place’s Home for Good Campaign, which aims to bring supplemental housing, programs, and other services to those who need it. The money will also be put toward building a new re-entry center, where former prisoners can go for mentorship and personalized transition plans. Last year, The Lord’s Place honored Brown, who also serves as a board member, with its illustrious Ending Homelessness Award.
Other charities that have benefitted from her generosity include the El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center in Jupiter, which provides education, employment, and other essentials to day laborers and their families. “Ann has been a significant contributor to the mission of El Sol,” says Executive Director Suzanne Cordero. For example, Cordero notes, “when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our area, [Brown] organized a neighborhood food drive at Frenchman’s Creek, then [personally] matched the amount received. Together, this raised about $50,000, which helped us provide food to the most vulnerable in our community.”
At 83, Brown continues to center her life on how she can help others. After physical therapy or a round of tennis, she typically scours the newspapers to “see who’s doing what and who needs help.”
When she speaks of her own daughters’ altruism, her pride is palpable. “They do it better than I do,” she says. “It’s such a compliment to me they have pursued these kinds of issues with such generosity.”
Now the youngest generation of Browns is following after Grandma. “They’re picketing,” Brown reports. “They send me pictures all the time. Imagine how thrilled I am that the work of helping others has trickled all the way to my grandchildren. I fully expect to see my great-grandchildren involved in it too.”
Comforted, no doubt, by the knowledge that her family’s spirit for tzedakah will carry on.