Bonus: Now is the time to invest in Black education

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Traditionally, Black-led nonprofits have only received 2 to 4 percent of total philanthropic funding nationally. That’s in part why Liz Thompson co-founded The 1954 Project, which seeks to radically redesign how philanthropy connects with Black leaders in education. Every year, her organization awards a cohort of Luminaries with one million dollars each to continue their innovative work in education. In this episode, host Aimée Eubanks Davis is in conversation with Liz Thompson about her organization’s impact on the community.


This podcast is brought to you with the generous support from The Walton Family Foundation.

Aimée Eubanks Davis is the host. This series is produced by Priscilla Alabi and Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Alabi is the producer. Kristen Lepore is the supervising producer. Story editing is by Jackie Danziger. Story consulting by Sonya Ramsey. Sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special Thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson.

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Aimée Eubanks Davis, Marva Collins, Liz Thompson

Aimée Eubanks Davis  00:00

I’m Aimée Eubanks Davis and in this bonus episode of After 1954. We’re breaking format a bit because I want to share with you a conversation between myself and Liz Thompson, the founder of the cafe group which spawned the 1954 project. The 1954 project is what inspired this podcast. It is an education philanthropy initiative. You might be asking what does that even mean? It’s a historic philanthropic initiative to provide funding for black leaders and innovators in education who wants to drive economic mobility in the Black community. Traditionally, Black led organizations only received 2% to 4% of the philanthropic dollars. The 1954 project is trying to dramatically increase that percentage. Here’s Liz Thompson, the founder and president of the cafe group, which started the 1954 project.

Liz Thompson  02:20

We want to be able to support our Black leaders and tell them, we believe in you, we want to invest with you. And we’re going to bring others along not just other Black people, we’re going to bring everyone along with us because to your point when you invest not only in a young Black person, but in Black educators, we all win.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

They actually provided funding for my organization Braven, I was in their first luminary class they gave us a million dollars to make it possible for us to partner with our first historically Black college and university, Spelman College. This funding allows for all Spelman women to develop the skills networks confidence and experiences to earn a full dollar instead of 50 cents on the dollar in comparison to their White male peers. The 1954 projects mission is deeper and wider than just the black teacher shortage. It’s a holistic approach that taps into the deep reservoir of talent in the Black community. In today’s interview, Liz and I talk about all of that, but we start the conversation by remembering one woman who helped pave the way for all of us, a woman from our native hometown of Chicago, whose teaching methods are legendary. Her name is Marva Collins. Here she is talking about her educational philosophy on CBS’ 60 minutes.

Marva Collins 

Ask the slowest children in your class, how many children know the rap songs, and they all raise their hands and I’ll say stay them for me. That’s good. If you can do that you can learn the Canterbury Tales in Old English too. I don’t know half of what those rap songs are say. But they know every line. What makes us think then that they become such learning disabilities when they get to school.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  04:15

Basically, Marva Collins, she started a school called West Side preparatory school that was really focused on students on the west side, mainly who were growing up in quote unquote, low-income communities. And she realized their genius as black children and said, we are going to educate them to the highest levels of achievement. And basically what she produced academically and honestly from an enrichment standpoint as well was just excellence. So there were educators not only here in Chicago, but even across the country that would come to study her practices at Westside Preparatory School. You would just think that how extraordinary she was with creating that school. And clearly the difference in the impact that she made that you would have seen Westside preparatory schools not only all over the city of Chicago, but all over the country, all over the world, right all over the world. And when I think about and, you know, Liz, like you, we have some great friends that have started some really awesome schools, or are leading really awesome, traditional public schools. And yet, there is not any person I think, who started one of those. I’m just gonna say, in particular, the public charter schools that came from the background of Marva Collins as a Black educator that then had something that would scale nationally, and yet, I’m always like, huh Marva Collins, and honestly, had she been White, like that might have also spread her work farther faster? And that should not have been the case, given the excellent she was producing? What do you think about where we are today? What do you think about the current state?

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

Yeah, I mean, I think about this all the time, of course, you know, through the work of our foundation, through the work of our nonprofit education is pretty much all I think about. And in many ways, we’ve come such a long way, and in many ways, not so much. I think about the excellence that’s happening in schools all over the country. Maybe it’s happening in one or two classrooms, maybe it’s happening in a lot of classrooms. But when I think about the excellence that’s happening in all black schools, I would want there to be many, many more examples of that, than I’m able to point to right now. Yep. Our schools are still consistently under resourced. There are shortages of teachers, the shortages of teachers kind of writ large, but definitely shortage of black teachers to teach our children. So there are ways that I would have wanted to answer that question by saying, oh my gosh, how far we’ve come look at all these stories of success that we have. And there are many, but not as many as we should have. And so when I think back to that historic decision in 1954, where we, you know, purportedly ended state sanctioned segregation. We haven’t come as far I think, as anyone would have hoped for. And we still have so much farther to go.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

No, that’s absolutely right. I mean, there’s a person we know in common, Jason Coleman, who started project sincere.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

one that I’m proud to say we fund?

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

exactly. And just what happens, that ripple effect, I think, is what people don’t always understand, is how when you educate a black young person, often what will happen is they do and this is when I even think about our relationship, Liz, and I feel like I’ve told you this before, but just in case, I haven’t let me reiterate it right now. How special is been that you and Don have been such great supporters of myself, of Jason in his work and other social entrepreneurs in education who are Black, because that is not necessarily what happens even for us, even if we’ve achieved at high levels, even if we want to come back and do some form of service through a nonprofit or otherwise in our communities, often, even when you reach our levels after being well educated, having parents done everything right, all the things, we still face real barriers as entrepreneurs in education and without folks like you and Don, honestly saying, You know what, these people need to be lifted up. They’re doing great work in the community. That’s producing results. It wouldn’t happen for us not only as leaders but as you know, organizational leaders as well. Liz and I were discussing the barriers Black entrepreneurs in education face, we try to set up programs to address inequity within our communities. Liz says that’s one of the reasons the 1954 project exists, to flatten those barriers.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

Let me tell this quick story, you will know our friend Carmina Samad, who’s started the Search Institute. Carmina sat me down one day, and we had been in a great friendship, great relationship. She wants to say I’m her mentor. You can mentor somebody like Carmina. That’s like saying, I’m your mentor? Are you kidding me? You can’t mentor people like y’all, I’m just a lamppost along the way. But she said to me at lunch one day, she said, Liz, you know, I appreciate all of your support. But you know, you haven’t written the check, to search. And she said, let me tell you what that means. Having your support, while I’m appreciative of all support, having your support, Liz, would make that much of a difference to me, that much more of a difference coming from you as a Black woman, as a successful Black couple, the belief that that would demonstrate for me, there’s nothing else that compares to that. When I had that conversation with her, it literally changed everything. Because having been the executive director of two nonprofits, I understood exactly what she meant. I rarely was able to go into a black corporate executives office and ask for their support, right? Because there were none. And so I knew what a difference that made. And it made me think differently about how we needed to support our black leaders. And literally the 1954 project came about as a result of that story as a result of the story that you just told on me. Because to your point, when you invest, not only in a young Black person, but in Black educators, we all win, we all win as a result of that. And I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve been able to do. And the difference it has made for leaders like you Aimee. Yeah, it just it makes me so proud.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  13:30

Well, and I know you know this from all the research that you did, and honestly, the lived experience that you had from running an exceptional nonprofit, as the executive director is that organizations that are led by Black people receive about 2% to 4% of the philanthropy in the country. And when I think about the exceptional organization that you lead in exceptional organization that I work for, for many years, I often say to myself, and I really hope that this is different. And I think you understanding the unique role that you and Don could play; I think is a huge catalyst to this. But those organizations that we were a part of, and very proud to be a part of, there’s no way in my opinion, when those organizations started in the early 90s, that a Black person could have started those organizations and they would have achieved the same level that they achieved at simply because of the lack of investment. That’s when I think about myself or Jason or Carmina and the vast other Black social entrepreneurs in the education space actually think we have a shot of breaking the sound barrier in a way that was just not even imaginable before.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  14:39

Look. I mean, when I was executive director in Chicago, here’s another quick story. So I would find myself going in and out of CEO offices sitting in the waiting room waiting for my shot, and a Black woman would come out, tall, beautiful, statuesque, black woman, and I would just say hi, you know, and then I would go weigh in and do my thing. And then maybe a week later, I would walk out of that office, and she was sitting in the waiting room waiting to go into the next CEOs office. And finally, after we had done this three or four times, we stopped each other. And I said, my name is Liz, what’s your name? And she said, Oh, my name is Michelle Obama. I said, clearly, we are the only two Black women in the city doing this work, because I see you going in and out of all the same offices I’m going in and out of, at the time, she was running Public Allies in Chicago. And we literally were the only two that I would ever see doing that. And so I mean, now fast forward 30 years from that point, and the landscape is full of exceptional Black leaders running nonprofit, for profit for that matter organizations here in the city, and nationwide. And I think you are right; this is our time. Now. It’s our time to have the kind of impact that we’ve been having. But now on a national stage where we can get the kind of resources that we need.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  16:08

So what’s so crazy about Mrs. Obama and her story, like your story, you all were really trailblazers, because you all broke down a lot of doors in terms of going in those corporate offices and meeting individual donors. But it’s so striking to me, though, is when I was reading her book becoming, she actually talks about leading that organization, and how challenging it was to be a Black education leader in the nonprofit space. And how many other executive directors as well as the founders of that organization, the founder of that organization, just really didn’t get how hard it was to do the kind of work that you did at that point in time that I’m now doing, and realize that people were not necessarily going to view you as their child. So usually people give to people, that’s one of the rules of giving people give to people. And usually there’s a resonance that comes up and she was like, I knew I did not have that now, like you, like her, like myself, very well educated, you know, had done everything right. She was a corporate attorney, you were an engineer, like you all had these stellar business careers. And to hit that was very humbling for her. And to be back, that she actually said that she gave to the leader of that nonprofit, because that was a national nonprofit, out of the Boston area, just saying, you know, it’s just really impossible for someone like me to see myself being successful in this kind of a role, even for all the outcomes all the community building she was doing that I know you did in your organization that we now do in the world of Braven. Like, for all the authenticity, credibility that we would have in the black community, we had this other liability. That seems so unfair. So it was so interesting to hear her write about that so transparently.

Liz Thompson  18:04

Yeah, I tell you, Aimee, it just goes to show you, you know, we always say that to be successful as a as a black person in America, you just got to be three times as good, you know, the notion of what she was able to do with that organization. What I was able to do, but I will tell you, I had a very strong partner at my side, I’m just going to name a Michael Alter, who helped me to establish myself in the Chicago corporate community as a fundraiser. Having him right by my side, made all the difference for me. I don’t think Michelle had that.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

Talking about Michael Alter. He’s been a huge contributor to Braven as well, in his own right. He really I think, early on, understood the importance of ally ship. That’s right. Right. He just looked at you. He looked at me, he’s like, these are talented people doing great work that happens to benefit their communities in our cases, but actually broader Chicago, as well. And so I should just back them, but he is rare, is what I realized.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

He is rare. Having said that, though, there are a few others here in Chicago that is and I’ve got to give them shoutouts because I just don’t think there’s another city in our nation that is as rich in people that understand the role that they play as white philanthropists quite honestly, and opening doors for people like us, me. We are rich in philanthropists that understand their role, as we call it, their ally role in helping black entrepreneurs, black social impact entrepreneurs, be able to do what they need to do because it’s the social capital that we don’t have It’s certainly not the intelligence, it’s certainly not the drive, the persistence, it’s none of that. It’s the social capital that we don’t have. And so as you know, of course, from Braven, social capital is what enables us to do the work that we need to do. One phone call, can make all the difference in the world. And these people understand that. And as I think about, you know, many times people say, Well, what can we do? Yeah, you can open up your networks, to those people that are closest to the work that understand what needs to be done. They just need an introduction, a simple word from you. Go all the way. We could go on and on. And we could talk about corporate citizens that understand the importance of backing black lives right in the nation. So Chicago is very unique in that way. And yet, there’s still a lot of work for us to do here at home, too.

Aimée Eubanks Davis

You heard the lady if you’re a philanthropist stand on the right side of history, make those introductions, open the door for a black led nonprofit. Together, the tide can be changed where Black social entrepreneurs receive far more than 2% to 4% of the philanthropic funding. The proximity we have to the issues and the results we are producing with far fewer resources on the whole should be rewarded. The future of black education depends on you. We want to give you a quick idea of the kind of impact that 1954 project has on the community of socially innovative educators they support. Here’s Liz making the announcement for the first year of those luminaries.

CREDITS  24:02

AFTER 1954 is a production of Lemonada Media. This podcast is brought to you with generous support from the Walton Family Foundation. I’m your host Aimée Eubanks Davis. This episode was produced by Priscilla Àlàbí And Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Àlàbí is our producer Kristen Lepore is our supervising producer. Story editing by Jackie Danziger story consulting by Sonya Ramsay sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson. help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. To learn more about the 1954 project and its mission to fund Black leaders in education visit You can also get more bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now in the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo, and then the subscribe button. To find resources about the topics in this show. Go to the show notes on this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

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