MB images/shutterstock
MB images/shutterstock

Education was the engine of Liz and Don Thompson’s own success; now they want to make sure more young people get the same opportunities.  The couple’s foundation, the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, recently announced an initiative to foster and support Black leaders across the education landscape, and “transform education for all,” according to the announcement.

The 1954 Project is named for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and the initiative’s goal is to fulfill the promise of that landmark decision. The Project was started with seed funding from the Thompson’s Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (CAFE), and the Walton Family Foundation, and is committed to raising at least $100 million in grants over the next five years.

To help raise the additional funds, Liz Thompson says the initiative will recruit and inform a new generation of Black philanthropists. “We want to create an intergenerational donor community—that is what sets The 1954 Project apart from other initiatives,” she says. “We will be focusing on Black donors. We want to invite everyone to the table but particularly Black philanthropists who’ve not been called on with intentionality when it comes to supporting K-12 education.

Cleveland Avenue

Liz and Don Thompson named their foundation for the Chicago street where they grew up just four blocks from each other. They didn’t meet until their freshman year of college, when both were enrolled in the Minority Engineering Program at Perdue. After college, both had successful careers: Liz worked at Ameritech, then was founding executive director of City Year Chicago, and, later, directed a Montessori school. Don worked at Northrup Grumman and later at McDonald’s Corporation, where he was CEO until his retirement In 2015. Liz, who serves as CAFE’s president, now devotes much of her time to philanthropy.

Many education philanthropists today are making racial equity a funding priority as the pandemic and police violence have raised awareness of the racial injustice that shapes so many of our institutions. For the Thompsons, the issue of equity in education has always been front and center, and when they created their foundation in 2014, there was no question about the focus. “Education was such a long-standing value for both our families—it’s in our DNA,” says Liz Thompson.  “And at every turn it has been the springboard for what we’ve both achieved.”

Reverence for education is deeply rooted in the African American experience, according to Thompson, who says that history inspired the name of the 1954 Project. “It’s a nod to generations of people in the  Black community who have understood that the dreams and economic hopes of our community are tied to education,” she said.

Color of change

As much as Liz Thompson values her own education, she is quick to point out that something important was missing: Black teachers in her classrooms. “I had some wonderful teachers, but only four of them were Black in Kindergarten through high school,” she recalled. “That’s true for most Black students, and it is one of the things we want to change.”

Thompson points to research that shows the positive impact Black teachers have on students of the same race. For example, Black students who have even one Black teacher are more likely to finish high school and consider college. Another study found that students with Black teachers are less likely to experience incidents of exclusionary discipline that often lead to suspension. Research also shows considerable benefits for white students when they are taught by educators of color.

But despite all this evidence, the number of Black teachers continue to lag: more than 15 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. are Black, while the number of Black teachers is less than 7 percent.

The 1954 Project aims to boost the number of Black teachers, and to support Black educators at every level. Liz Thompson calls the initiative, “… an investment in the genius and deep reservoir of Black talent and the understanding that our schools are better—and more complete—when Black educators are an integral part of the education experience. It is our focus to identify, cultivate, and elevate those leaders so that all students may thrive.”

Racial funding gap 

The 1954 Project is not only working to increase the number of Black teachers and education leaders, it will also invest in programs that promote innovation and diversity in education. Project staff are in the process of identifying such programs around the country, and will introduce the first cohort of four to five grantees (who Liz Thompson calls “luminaries”) at an inaugural event in February.

Thompson says that winnowing down the list of potential grantees has been difficult. “When I hear about some of this work, the hair stands up on the back of my neck, and choosing which projects to highlight has been both a joy and a challenge,” she said.  “These are people who are doing valuable work, but they haven’t been elevated to the national stage. We want to bring them and their work to the attention of other philanthropies, and help them get the support they need to sustain their work going forward.”

Such support is often out of reach for leaders of color, according to research that identified a pronounced funding gap for organizations headed by Black leaders, compared to those with white leadership. Liz Thompson hopes The 1954 Project can fill some of that gap by providing substantial grants to programs with promise: “Our goal is to give seven-figure sized grants to make transformative change possible,” she said.

A Partner with a big footprint 

Coming out of the gate with the Walton Family Foundation as a partner is sure to enhance The 1954 Project’s profile and its chances for success. Walton is a key player in K-12 philanthropy, as IP has previously reported, contributing about $100M a year, much of it in support of charter schools. The foundation has had a long time commitment to student success, and supports cutting-edge approaches to education through its Innovative Schools initiative.

Walton program staff were familiar with research on the impact of Black teachers on student outcomes and were exploring ways to increase the number of Black educators in the education pipeline when they heard about The 1954 Project, and agreed to sign on.

“All students benefit from diverse leadership,” said Melinda Wright, Walton Family Foundation senior program officer. “For Black students, especially, having an educator who looks like them can make all the difference.”