Black people have valued education as one of the most critical passports to success and prosperity for centuries. From enslaved people working in secret to teach each other to read, to Citizenship Schools established to help Blacks pass the required “literacy” tests in order to vote, education and strong Black educational leaders have always been a cornerstone of our community. Over time, these visionaries, along with our collective values and informal traditions, evolved into a robust ecosystem of Black-led schools and institutions of higher learning that, despite unequal resources, grew to produce top-notch graduates, inventors, tradesmen, and scholars. 

In 1954, the historic Brown vs Board of Education case finally put an end to legal segregation in public schools. It held with it the promise of an educational system where students and leaders of all backgrounds could receive equitable resources and work and learn alongside each other. However, in the rush to integrate, the Brown ruling ultimately led thousands of Black teachers and principals to lose their jobs, either through dismissal, demotion or forced resignation. Black teachers, school leaders, and mentors were pushed to the margins, decimating the wealth of knowledge and the deep reservoir of talent that had existed in our communities for years. 

This challenge remains with us today. Seven decades after Brown, Black leadership remains wildly under-represented in education. Only 9% of executive leaders in the nonprofit field are Black. Additionally, these very few Black-led efforts struggle to receive philanthropic support. In fact, the revenues of organizations led by Black people are 24% smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts, which, for many nonprofits, can often mean the difference between continuing your work or closing your doors. 

While this is an unfortunate reality in the sector, it represents a real opportunity for us all - if we choose to engage. A significant research base shows greater diversity in education yields higher expectations, lower discipline referral rates and better academic results for all students, especially students of color.

That’s why we are leading a new $100 million education initiative called The 1954 Project in support of centering Black leadership throughout the education landscape in America. Created with seed funding from The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (The CAFE) and the Walton Family Foundation, The 1954 Project is committed to creating opportunities for Black educators and education leaders to access the capital, thought partnership, and widespread exposure necessary to create impact at scale.

The 1954 Project will provide financial resources to elevate leaders that embody our values and demonstrate unique genius across the following three domains with significant opportunities for impact in education:

  • Innovation in Teaching and Learning: Create more effective, equitable, and culturally affirming teaching and learning models to better serve all students.
  • Diversity in Education: Increase the number of Black educators and leaders through innovative initiatives and programs.
  • Economic Mobility: Strengthen pathways from education to career to increase economic mobility in the Black community.

Notably, this financial support will be provided in partnership with the Black philanthropic community and our allies. There is a legacy of love that goes along with Black philanthropy in its many forms and we want to extend this rich legacy of giving to our leaders in education. And, just as important, we look to partner with our allies and those that share our values. 

There are many individuals and organizations that believe, as we do, in celebrating unique and often undervalued perspectives, in centering the talented people working deeply with communities, in believing in the power of intergenerational learning, in acknowledging the importance of the long-standing legacy of Black leaders fighting for educational equity and in grounding our work in joy and love for the Black community. 

We invite all that share these values and welcome them with open arms as advocates in this work. We need everyone at the table to make the promise of excellent education for all a reality.

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Original contribution By Liz Thompson, a philanthropist and founder of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, which recently launched The 1954 Project, a Black-led, -focused and -funded initiative committed to embracing Black leadership to fulfill the promise of an excellent education for all.