The Rex Foundation’s Cameron Sears on the Daze Between, Pete Seeger, and the Grateful Dead’s Righteous Initiative
“For the longest time, my aspirations were to be an environmental activist,” observes Rex Foundation executive director and former Grateful Dead manager Cameron Sears. “Right after high school, I became a river guide and I also worked specifically to save a river in central California, the Tuolumne. It was the birthplace of the Sierra Club and provides water for the city of San Francisco. They were attempting to dam it yet again, which would have eliminated a beautiful river canyon and a spectacular whitewater run. We fought long and hard to protect that.”
Sears was a fan of the Grateful Dead in 1984, when he wrote the band a letter, hoping to enlist some financial support for Friends of the River. The Dead had launched a charitable arm, the Rex Foundation, a year earlier and the nonprofit eventually supplied a much-needed grant, which assisted in what turned out to be a successful campaign. During the process, Sears brought members of the Dead’s office on a river trip and later repeated the experience on a few occasions, which ultimately led Jon McIntire, who was the head of Grateful Dead Productions at the time, to offer him a job. He came on board in 1987, just one month prior to the release of In the Dark, and quickly assumed the position of road manager. Three years later, Sears took over the managerial role and would also become president and CEO of Grateful Dead Productions.
All told, he worked with the group for two decades and then, in 2013, he came back into the fold as the executive director of Rex. It’s also worth noting that Cameron’s wife Cassidy—yes, that Cassidy—is the daughter of beloved crew member Rex Jackson, for whom the organization is named. Since its inception, Rex has distributed $10 million to more than 1,300 grantees.
“When you look back at your life, it can seem rather circuitous on the one hand.” Sears observes. “But then, if you put a microscope on everything, it can also become a straight line because it starts to make more sense than it did while you were living it.”
There are many charitable foundations out there striving to do virtuous work. What are the defining principles of Rex?
There’s a very egalitarian aspect of how Rex functions that I find really intriguing. It’s always full of possibility—in the sense that you have a board of decision-makers who go out and find grants that they feel are worth presenting and reflect their interests. We’ve got this wide net of deciders that often bring in things that I wasn’t aware of but are really interesting. I’m always pleasantly surprised. Our stock and trade are the grants that we make, so the process to bring those grants forward has to be robust. When you have board members bringing different things that are of interest to them—that they’ve personally done the homework on and have vetted—to the deciding round of grant-making, that, to me, is really a great egalitarian function of how Rex came about.
The genesis of it, which stems from the benefit shows the Grateful Dead would play, is also part of the makeup. The first show they did, as I often say, was a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe at the request of Bill Graham. They did plenty of benefits afterward, from the HaightAshbury Free Medical Clinic to Seva and all kinds of things. Most of it had a grassroots origin and that totally appealed to me.
I think that tradition is ongoing and it couples with the notion that giving back can be a joyous thing. It can be a powerful motivator for other people to follow by example. It’s just very profound.
While the band didn’t stump for individual candidates, there was always a range of cause-based initiatives. What prompted this approach?
I think that Jerry—and this reflects on the band as well— was reluctant to use the power of the mic for political purposes. I remember having conversations with him about how the microphone is a very powerful tool and how we’ve seen it used for good and for bad in various ways. In his role as an entertainer, Jerry was content to do that but, when it came to vetting the political landscape, he felt he wasn’t familiar enough to make those kinds of endorsements. He’d been disappointed early in his life when he had voted for a particular candidate, only to have them do a 180 on the position that they had espoused.
So he wasn’t really comfortable getting on that podium and, saying, “Go do this because I tell you to.” Whereas, when you’re doing a benefit that’s cause-related, everybody can kind of get behind it in concept and in deed. It’s a different conversation and that’s really where he preferred to be. That’s an individual choice, certainly. Some of the other guys—Bobby and Mickey, in particular, but also Phil and Billy—have come to believe, particularly given recent events, that some of the causes that they support necessitate a higher level of political engagement. But that has ebbed and flowed over time. The band was early in their opposition to the Vietnam War, and to war in general, along with myriad other things too.
Overall, I think the idea was to lead with your own actions and live a righteous life, and behave in a righteous manner and benefit the community. That was really the driver. And while some political causes have elements of that mantra, they can also easily go astray when one’s career aspirations come into play.
You mentioned that you’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the potential grantees presented by the board. Can you identify a few of these?
There are always grants that come through that you’re glad you found because a lot of the groups that we fund are in underserved areas. So when you talk about prison life, for example, that is a forgotten segment of society. There’s an important ongoing conversation about the prison system and jurisprudence, and how these crimes are treated from a socioeconomic point of view and from a race point of view. So we’ve funded things like the Innocence Project. But we also recently funded a program that’s focused on teaching audio technology and DJ skills inside prison. They are helping to provide some comfort in a very austere setting, and, at the same time, they are giving people a skill set that they might be able to utilize upon their release in order to help avoid continuing the cycle.
We also helped start a camp with Project Avary, which enables children of incarcerated folks to come together in a safe space where they can share their feelings and experiences as a result of having a parent or both parents or a sibling incarcerated. Danny Rifkin, who was the original manager for Grateful Dead and kind of the progenitor of the Rex Foundation, started this. They have adventure days here in the Bay Area where they take children out of the setting that they’re in so that they can go to camp for the summer. These are kids who weren’t responsible for the actions of their parents, but they paid the price in a different way. Most people don’t really think about the kids of people who are incarcerated. It took somebody like Danny to create a program in order to serve that need.
That’s something we’ve funded and, 20 years later, it’s still thriving—bigger and stronger than ever. So that’s kind of emblematic because a lot of what Rex looks for is things that fall between the cracks. A lot of the grants that we make, while they may be modest in nature, are significant for some of these organizations that are in their infancy and are really trying to make a difference. Oftentimes, they have grown into large and successful organizations who, by virtue of a Rex grant, have been able to get additional grants because we have already vetted them. They’ve been able to grow and serve a wider population, which is fantastic.
When I think about artists whose work blends music and activism, Pete Seeger is the first person who comes to mind. You first met him when you were a child. How did that come about and what was his impact on your own mindset?
It was a miraculous thing, but my grandfather worked in private schools in New England and one of the places where he worked early in his career was the Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut, which Pete Seeger attended. He was kind of Pete’s highschool advisor, if you will. It was a small school; there might have been 100 kids there at the time. My dad grew up there and though he was a little bit younger than Pete, they became friends. They stayed in touch and would exchange cards periodically through the years.
When I was a young kid, Pete would frequently come to Washington, D.C., where we were living, and he would perform at my little elementary school; we’d also go to shows and hang out with him. I don’t know how many people know this about Pete—if you went to his concerts you would—but Pete would have the whole audience singing at his shows. It could have been a room of 2,000 people at Lisner Auditorium or a little elementary-school auditorium. Everyone would be singing “If I Had a Hammer,” “Guantanamera” or one of his other great songs. I think his motive was to show people that not only can you sing, but you can also make a difference. His passion for what he did as a person and as a musician was contagious. It made you a better person to be in his presence.
Another thing he may not get enough credit for was exposing people to world music. He brought songs of struggle to the stage in America that he learned from activists from around the world. And when you start to hear a different tongue—a different tempo, a different melody—it makes you wonder what’s going on in that culture. That was certainly true for me. It heavily influenced me.
Last year had to be daunting, particularly given the transition from live concerts to livestreams. Yet your Daze Between event was a rousing success. Can you talk about responding to the challenge of the moment?
I’d already been trying to figure out how to position Rex in a digital way. I felt like I was lacking in that department. Then I went to the Relix Live Music Conference in New York, where I met Hilary Gleason and Tory Pittarelli, who had formed a company to help nonprofits with their marketing and promotion strategies. They both seemed to have a nice spark to them and shared our vision and values. They felt like a good fit for us, so I recommended them to the board.
The initial goal was just to elevate our website and our digital presence. But then, soon after they were hired, COVID hit and we really had to figure out how to do this— and quickly. So, with their guidance, we pivoted into the Daze Between livestream event, and we followed that up with another great event, Ain’t No Time to Hate, at the end of the year. Both were big successes in every way—in terms of raising awareness about Rex, raising awareness about the grantees, helping us raise much needed funds to distribute and bringing joy into people’s living rooms. In the case of the Daze Between, it was a nine-night celebration of Jerry’s life and the meaning of it all. I thought it was pretty profound and we’re going to do it again this year. We are trying to build upon those successes, trying to strengthen and broaden our community while having some fun in the process.
It’s just so striking to me that those nine days have become a cultural event, with general public awareness beyond the Deadhead community.
It was such an honor and privilege to get to know all the guys in Grateful Dead and their different viewpoints. Yet, there was always this synergy from the hub of the wheel, in terms of the common viewpoints, goals and desires. Jerry was ever the reluctant leader but, certainly, a person that people looked toward in times of difficult decisionmaking. He unknowingly caused you to want to be a better version of who you already were aspiring to be.
There was just something about Jerry where you never wanted to let him down. He had a special little something in that he could say things in one sentence that would speak volumes. He was a synthesis of a lot of what we’re talking about today—although, he wouldn’t relish in the fact that people are holding him in that high regard. He didn’t want to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because he didn’t think it was necessary. So his actions spoke for themselves. He led by example. I think, increasingly, that’s a challenging thing to do but for him, it wasn’t.
Looking ahead, what can you say about Rex’s plans for the remainder of 2021?
We’re going to be making some more grants soon from the proceeds of this past year. We’re in the process of diligent vetting. We’re also already in the beginning phases of working on Daze Between, and we’re going to put some different twists and turns into it. When we did it this past year, the whole thing came together in about a month and a half. So that was a huge undertaking with a very short window and we learned a lot.
We’re hoping that our December event is going to be able to take place in person at The Fillmore in San Francisco. We’d love to be able to do an event on the East Coast as well; we’ve placed a high priority on that.
We’re also completely knocked out by the fact that people like Billy Strings and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong—some of these friends that we’ve come to know and love in the last year and a half or so—are now a part of our extended community and great supporters of Rex.
When Rex started, we were the first philanthropic organization that was completely interconnected with a rock-and-roll band. Now, it’s almost a given that if you’ve had some success and you’re able to put something to the side to give back, you’re following that model because of the incredibly positive outcome of that initiative. In the meantime, bands like Pigeons and Billy Strings are coming to us because they appreciate the legacy, the story, the history and the impact of what it is that we do. We want to reach out to that audience and show them what we can do together. I’m very gratified that we’re going to see more of that in the years to come.