Before former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson and wife Elizabeth launched their vision of supporting food and beverage entrepreneurs through their successful venture capital firm, they’d dreamed of helping youth access the education that had propelled a couple from Cabrini-Green to the pinnacles of success.
Cleveland Avenue, LLC, launched upon Thompson’s retirement in 2015 — to focus on new food, beverage and restaurant concepts — is widely known for its incubator, Taste 222, and its backing of the uber successful, plant-based meat substitute firm, Beyond Meat.
But a year before that, the duo launched their family foundation, the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, (The CAFE), in order to give back to the Black community.
“Don and I are just two kids from Chicago. I grew up in Cabrini-Green. Don grew up four blocks from me, on the same street, Cleveland Avenue. But we would not discover that until we met at Purdue University, on our first date,” said “Liz” Thompson, president of The CAFE.
“That’s who we are at our core. We always refer back to that, and we’re successful because of — not in spite of — where we’re from. College was the launchpad for two successful careers, so we know how important education is as a springboard for young people.”
On April 28, The CAFE will unveil “The 1954 Project,” launched in 2019 to support goals of investing in innovative and culturally affirming approaches to teaching and learning, expanding educator and leadership diversity, and increasing economic mobility in the Black community.
The CAFE will dole out $1 million to each of five organizations achieving those goals nationwide at a virtual event headlined by folks like Chicago hip-hop artist Common, basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and wife Cookie, actor/philanthropist Jay Ellis, and others: “The 1954 Project Presents: The 2021 Luminary Awards.”
The CAFE aims to provide financial and capacity-building support to Black nonprofit leaders in education, to accelerate their impact — leaders like Aimee Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven, Inc., of Chicago, who is among the recipients.
Founded in 2013 to help underrepresented college students develop the skills, experience and networks to secure strong first jobs after graduation, Braven, Inc. has helped more than 3,300 students gain the confidence and connections needed to find good-paying jobs.
Braven provides training and employment mentorship through partnerships with four universities — Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., Lehman College in The Bronx, N.Y., and National Louis University in Chicago — as well as through partnerships with several nonprofits in the college and career-readiness arena.
“Over the course of eight years at Teach For America, I saw first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds applying from great colleges, with great GPAs, but completely unprepared to sit at the interview table and compete — not only head-to-head, but enough to pull ahead of the pack of those from higher-income backgrounds,” Davis said.
“These students, often identifying as Black or Brown, and underrepresented in general in the workforce, were coming out of college earning 66 cents on the dollar, compared to their counterparts, the same dynamic with women and the gender pay gap,” she said.
“And unless these students are able to access the same skills and networks their counterparts sort of get naturally, I’m not sure we can ever bridge the racial wealth gap.”
The 1954 project gets its name from the Brown v Board of Education 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case outlawing racial segregation of children in public schools.
“The promise of Brown vs. Board was that state-sanctioned segregation would no longer be the law of the land and that all children would have access to a quality education,” Liz Thompson noted.
“However, upon implementation, integration basically went in one direction. Young Black children were integrated into white schools, but there was no appetite to have white children be integrated into Black schools or taught by Black teachers,” she said.
“Over 44,000 Black educators lost their jobs, and that’s had decades-long impact. We want people to understand that consequence of the 1954 decision.”
Also receiving $1 million grants are:
- Sharif El-Mekki, Center for Black Educator Development, Philadelphia, Pa.
- Nicole Lynn Lewis, Generation Hope, Washington, D.C.
- Adrian Mims, The Calculus Project, Boston, Mass.
- Hiewet Senghor, Black Teacher Collaborative, Atlanta, Ga.
“We are inspired by the ubiquitous talent and genius of Black leaders within the education field and aspire to fully nurture the ideas generated from this extraordinary collective of thought leaders and practitioners,” Liz Thompson said of herself and her husband, married 32 years.
“The one thing we really wanted to do was to be able to ask others to join us on the journey to do this work. The 1954 Project was born at a breakfast diner with Melinda Wright of the Walton Family Foundation, an African-American woman also seeking to work in this arena.”
Davis danced, upon receiving the notification in a Zoom call with Wright and Thompson.
“It was like Oprah had given me a car,” Davis said. “What was deeply special was receiving such support from women that looked like me, that this money originated from this amazing couple and their deep commitment to the Black community.”