July 11, 2024

Dreaming in Color: Liz Thompson


Episode Notes

In this episode, Nithin Iyengar, Bridgespan partner and head of the San Francisco office, sits down with his longtime friend Liz Thompson, president, co-founder, and CEO of The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education Group (The CAFE Group), which supports leaders of color through financial and programmatic aid. The CAFE Group aims to create a pathway from college intern to established leader, leveraging community genius to drive systemic change.

Liz began her nonprofit career in 1993 as the founding executive director of City Year Chicago, influencing the AmeriCorps Program's development. She later expanded the Early Head Start program at Family Star Montessori School in Denver as its Executive Director. Before her nonprofit work, Liz had a successful decade-long career with Ameritech Corporation.

In this conversation, Liz Thompson discusses her journey from growing up in Cabrini Green to becoming a transformative figure in philanthropy. She also explores themes of radical love, leadership, and service.


 

Episode Transcript

Darren Isom:

Welcome to Dreaming in Color, where we sit down with social change leaders of color to learn how their unique life experiences have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom, and this season I'm lucky to have a few of my Bridgespan colleagues dropping in to join me as guest hosts. Together we'll be celebrating the genius of leaders who live into the work every day. This is Dreaming in Color.

Joining us today is Nithin Iyengar, a fellow Bridgespan partner who heads up our San Francisco office. Since joining Bridgespan in 2010, Nithin has been instrumental in developing our work and education sector. His expertise spans early childhood, K through 12 education, and place-based initiatives, working with nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies. Recently, Nithin has focused on foundational strategy, program innovation, leadership development, and so much more. With his extensive background and dedication to educational equity and innovation, it's a joy to have Nithin host this episode with his longtime friend and good trouble accomplice Liz Thompson. Welcome to Dreaming in Color, Nithin.

Nithin Iyengar:

Thanks, Darren. This is Nithin Iyengar. I'm grateful for Darren for asking, well, pushing me to guest host. He's that friend who pushes you outside of your comfort zone and makes you better and stronger as a result.

Today, I'm sitting down with the incredible Liz Thompson. Liz is the president and CEO of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, or CAFE Group, an organization she started with her husband, Don Thompson, to foster equity in education and philanthropy. Over the past few years, the CAFE Group has reinvigorated the educational landscape, providing unwavering support to brilliant Black innovators through mentorship, networking opportunities, and funding.

Before founding the CAFE Group, Liz held a number of leadership roles at nonprofits across the country, which further fueled her interest in philanthropy and education. In addition to her commitment to serving students, professionals, and communities through the CAFE Group, Liz, along with her husband Don, are co-founders of the investment firm Cleveland Avenue, which provides financial resources, expertise, and support to entrepreneurs. As one of the most prominent Black philanthropists of our time and a fierce champion of education, Liz serves as a model for what true support, trust, and partnership can look like in philanthropy. And I'm so excited to be speaking with her today.

Liz, it is always a joy to be with you, and thank you so much for making time. To kick us off, the mic is yours. Would love for you to lead with an invocation for our conversation.

Liz Thompson:

I will be happy to do that. First of all, let me say, Nithin, you're one of my favorite people in the world. And I am honored to be here with you.

Nithin Iyengar:

Thank you, Liz.

Liz Thompson:

The invocation today is one of my favorite quotes from Marianne Williamson. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone."

Nithin Iyengar:

Thank you, Liz. I for so many reasons love that quote. And as we'll talk about a bit, it speaks to so many of the values that I've just come to deeply appreciate about who you are and what makes you incredible. We will get to a lot of that, but let's actually start at the beginning, and by the beginning, I mean your home and where you grew up. In so many of our conversations, you talk about where you grew up and how the Cabrini–Green neighborhood has shaped who you are and is ever present in what you do. Share with us, how has your upbringing in this community shaped your perspective on philanthropy? And what lessons of leadership and service do you still draw on today from this neighborhood where you grew up?

Liz Thompson:

Anybody that knows me knows that Cabrini–Green means everything to who I am right now. And in fact, the quote that I will probably be most known for is that I am successful because of where I come from, not in spite of it. I don't refer to Cabrini as a housing project, as so many people do, because I never want to feel like I was part of a project growing up. Who wants to feel like they're part of some project? I was part of this amazing community, it just happened to be a community that housed low-income people. But it was full of love, it was full of community in the greatest sense. It was full of people that supported each other. And so the lessons that I have taken with me forward in life all started there. But they started most importantly in my home.

I'm the youngest of six. We were the Brady Bunch, three boys, three girls, long before the Brady Bunch. There's a 16 year difference between me and my oldest brother, so there was quite an age diversity in our household. But Nithin, the overwhelming feeling that I remember from growing up is unconditional love that I received from my mom, support that I received in my community, the idea that if one of us is successful, all of us are successful. And I've taken those lessons forward, Nithin, so when you ask, "What about growing up in Cabrini–Green has brought you to this point," it is my use of radical love to inform everything that I do. The idea that if one of us is successful, all of us can be successful. And the idea that supporting each other is absolutely the most important thing we can do. These are three of the most important principles that I take and apply to my leadership today. And they all started on Cleveland Avenue in Cabrini–Green.

Nithin Iyengar:

I love that, Liz, and the notion of if one of us is successful, all of us are successful. That is just so core to how you live your life as a philanthropist. And that is the ultimate form of giving and the ultimate form of giving back is the success that your family has achieved. What does it look like for you to give and empower others? So much of the work that you do, Liz, centers on supporting Black educational visionaries. This is always a different question to ask people of color as they grew up, but while you grew up in Chicago, did you have Black educators as a young student? How did that shape and impact your educational experience, whether or not you did? Because for many people it's either the presence of or absence of a Black educator that really helps shape who they are.

Liz Thompson:

Looking back, we always have the benefit of perspective, but growing up, I didn't have any Black educators. The first Black teacher that I had was, my gosh, my sophomore year in high school. Ms. Slaughter was her name, and she was my honors English teacher. But in elementary school, I didn't have any Black teachers. Looking back, I can only wonder how it would've been different if I had. But I will tell you this, Nithin, I had the most incredible educators in my K-12 experience and especially in my earlier years.

I think about teachers like Priscilla Britton, I think about teachers like John Checker, like Eleanor St. John. These were all white teachers, but when I tell you they were driven by love of students and love of learning, I mean that. And so for me, having them as teachers drove my desire to somehow be affiliated with education. I wanted to be a teacher all of my young years. I didn't change that until I got to high school. But I wanted to be a teacher because they were so incredible and so full of love. So, I didn't have the gift of Black teachers in elementary school. I had one in high school, but I do wonder sometimes how things might've been different.

Nithin Iyengar:

Liz, I will just say from knowing you as well as I do, there is a difference between someone who is a teacher in title and teacher in name. And there is no question that you are a teacher in name, and we all have so much to learn and learn with you. As you've entered into philanthropy, one of the things that I just value so much is, you talk about your desire to reshape perceptions of who can be a philanthropist and how philanthropy is done.

You and your husband Don have founded the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education. And core to what you do is this mission, this passion, this desire to reshape philanthropy. What inspired you and Don to enter into this audacious challenge? Where did you start, and where are you now? And what have you learned? What are the things you'd look back and say, "I wish I would've done this differently?"

Liz Thompson:

Love that question, Nithin. As you know, Don is the retired CEO of McDonald's Corporation, and so we've had the incredible blessing and the fortune of being able to shepherd resources that we could not have dreamed of in our younger years. And so the idea of starting our family foundation, Nithin, came as a recommendation from someone who said, "You do your philanthropy right now in such an incredible way. It would be great if you did it in a much more public way." And we thought, "We're not against that, for sure." And so, we started our family foundation, the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, Cleveland Avenue being the street that Don and I both grew up on, and I'm sure we'll talk about that a little later.

The idea at the time that we started it was to support organizations of the kind that had supported us when Don and I were young people, college access and success organizations, organizations that provided scholarships to people going through college, and things like that. What I found, Nithin, through the process, was that there were no organizations at the time, providing transformational-sized awards to Black leaders of nonprofits. And I had been that person when I started City Year in Chicago and when I ran the Montessori school in Denver, how difficult it was for me to raise money in order to run those organizations. And I didn't see the leaders of organizations today getting the size grants as some of their counterparts were getting.

And so Don and I decided that in order to be true to our own foundations, and mine particularly in nonprofit, that we needed to really pay attention to the Black leaders across education and the efforts that they were making to really have an impact in our community. Awarding these leaders each a million dollars so that they could have the kind of impact that they wanted to have, the reason that they started their organizations. That became the focus of our philanthropy.

When I think about, what are the challenges that we've encountered, the challenges are in bringing people along with us in articulating our vision because it's been our lived experience. It's not just something that we're passionate about, this is our life that we are talking about here. And just bringing people along and helping them understand the value in it. And I say “challenge” only because there are only so many hours in the day. But we've had so much success in helping people understand what we're trying to do and bring them along with us. I just wish there was more time for us to be able to do it.

Nithin Iyengar:

So much of what you've just shared is, I wonder, I would just ask, does this ring true for you is, when you just described that it is this radical idea of saying, "How do I give these transformational gifts to leaders who..." And we know some of the leaders we're talking about are some of the most amazing leaders in the social sector doing work. How do you give them these transformational gifts so that they can then accelerate their work? And would just ask if this is how you approach your work, which is taking a radical idea and normalizing it so that others can carry it forward? Is that how you see your work?

Liz Thompson:

It is, actually. Because I've been working in philanthropy... Look, I didn't know what philanthropy was when I was a college student and not long after that. So for me, it is in normalizing this work across many different areas. One, it's in saying to other Black philanthropists, "Education is a worthy cause." We're all here in one way or another because of the education journeys that we've had. Black people are the most philanthropic group of people in America, when you look at income per capita. And so to say to them, "Please join us in this educational philanthropic journey." So we want to normalize that, first and foremost.

Secondly, we want to say to philanthropists of all kinds, "Look, there's a strategy behind our giving. And whether you are just writing a check or whether you're engaged in this kind of active immersive philanthropy that we are engaged in, it's so important for you to understand the strategy involved. And to really lean into what that looks like, particularly as we're talking about people who have not traditionally been the recipients of that philanthropy."

And then finally, I will say to demonstrate to people the power of collective giving, the power of bringing people along with you, which is what we've tried to demonstrate. So yeah, Nithin, I'm trying to normalize this work. But I'm also trying to let people know the joy in this work, the joy of supporting these amazing young people as well as established leaders. There is nothing like the joy I get from doing this work.

Nithin Iyengar:

And one thing you just raised, Liz, which I want to correct that I misspoke earlier is, it's not that you and Don started your philanthropy when you launched the CAFE Group, it's that you took the next evolution of your philanthropy. Because you and Don have been lifelong philanthropists. How do you take the next step and next formalization of your philanthropy?

Liz Thompson:

That's right. How do you go, Nithin, from writing a check to creating an entire strategy around changing the landscape of philanthropy? That's right.

Nithin Iyengar:

Your values, Liz, just ring true in everything that you do. You lead with love and joy. You believe unequivocally in Black excellence. You're anchored in authentic relationships. You're transparent and you're just a voracious learner. You talked a bit earlier about some of the strategies that you've done at the CAFE Group and 1954 Project, and they're clearly born from these values. But let's get a bit specific and I just would love to hear some of the things. As a philanthropist, talk more about some of these strategies you've found that really work well in your efforts to support these amazing excellent Black leaders.

Liz Thompson:

One of the first ones I'll touch on is the idea of being in relationship with the people that we call our luminaries and our beacons, the people that are the recipients of these awards that we give at the CAFE Group. One of our luminaries, Will Jackson from the Village of Wisdom says, "It's akin to having someone come to your house, tasting a really great dish, and then wanting the recipe." And as Will describes it, he's like, "You can't get this recipe just by standing here in my kitchen. You got to be in relationship with me. You got to earn your way into this recipe."

And so for us, we understand what it means to not just have transactional relationships with our luminaries and our beacons. We want to get into the work with them. We want to build authentic and long-lasting relationships with them. And that's one of the things that we try and role model for other philanthropists, is that you have to get to know who it is that you are granting the money to, because they are the ones that understand the work. And we need to be in relationship with them in order to understand our strategy more deeply. So, that's number one, the relational aspects of what we do.

I'd say also, Nithin, the idea that you can't do this alone and you don't have the answers. I don't care what it is, how you've gathered the resources that you have come to want to share, you can't do this work alone. And you need to understand what's going on from the people that are most proximate to it. And so for us, part of the strategy is getting as close to the work as we possibly can and then learning from the people that really know what they're doing.

And then I would say the third strategy that we've employed is this idea of building different communities. So we not only have the community of 1954 Network members and the power of what they can do together collectively. But we also have the 1954 donor community and the power of them learning together, granting together, how incredibly impactful that can be. So for us every step of the way, one of our strategies is building community in order to understand the power of collective action. Those are three of the strategies that we try to deploy at every turn.

Nithin Iyengar:

The quote from Will and knowing Will's phenomenal leader, and…

Liz Thompson:

That's my dude. Come on, Nithin, that's just my dude right there.

Nithin Iyengar:

Yeah. But we also know that there are funders, there are others who will go to a leader like Will without having built the relationship and ask for the recipe. And that puts someone in a really difficult situation. It's challenging. And when you were in the Montessori work in Denver and as you've led City Year in Chicago, I'm sure you were in those situations where you've been in some of these difficult philanthropic relationships. Those types of experiences don't hold you back, they power you forward. And how have some of those…

Liz Thompson:

That's right.

Nithin Iyengar:

... prior experiences shaped the way in which you really want to see authentic relationships be built. Not only between you and your grantees, but between other funders and grantees more broadly.

Liz Thompson:

Nithin, as you say, I think I am a teacher at heart. And everything that I do, I want to bring people along with me so that they can learn the lessons that I've learned, so they don't have to go through the mud the way that I went through the mud. So when I think about starting City Year in Chicago, I did that in direct partnership with Michael Alter, who had been the roommate of the two guys at Harvard. The three of them were roommates, and Michael had to come back to Chicago after graduation. But he said to them, "If you ever get the funding to expand City Year outside of Boston, A, I want Chicago to be your first location. And B, I'll be the one to bring it."

So Michael and I started City Year together and going to the different potential funders to the corporate CEOs to try and raise money for that organization, one of the most difficult experiences in my life, actually. And so when I think about how nervous I was on the approach, how much I had to have that story down, how inspirational I had to be, all of the things, Nithin, I think about the luminaries and the beacons now and how they have to approach funders day in and day out. I did not want to be one of those funders that they had to worry about approaching, that they had to feel like they had every I dotted, every T crossed. No, I want to learn together with you about what you're doing. You don't have to be nervous coming to see me. I am you.

So it was from those experiences I had starting City Year that I knew I had to be a different type of funder. And if I have to be a different type of funder, Nithin, I want to bring other funders along with me and say, "You can be a different type of funder as well." So, you're absolutely right. Those difficult experiences that I had, and that's just one of them. There's so many more. But they set the stage in order for me to do the work in the way that I do it now, having learned as much from what I didn't want to be as much as from who I did want to be.

Nithin Iyengar:

You say when you were approaching other funders, you were nervous entering those conversations. Now when you're with the beacons and luminaries, you're probably more nervous than they are. The weight on your shoulders is, how do I deliver for these amazing groups of people?

Liz Thompson:

That's right. Nithin, God bless you for bringing that up because not many people would know that. You know that because we’re so tight like that. So you know because you've been there every single time we've gotten these luminaries together for our network summit, which is our annual gathering of our 1954 Network. We bring them together so that they can learn from each other, be in community with each other, but so we can learn from them as to how to do our work better.

And Nithin, you know, every year before they come to town, I am so nervous about making sure that we've got the programming down, that we've got all the right guests there. Because these are busy people, they're trying to have an impact on the world around us. I don't want to waste their time. I want them to feel like it's value added. I mean, all the things that I've learned along the way that I want to try and deliver for them, I'm just nervous that I can do it in the right ways. So, you're absolutely right. And I don't even think they know that, that I'm more nervous than they are when we enter into those rooms, just to be sure that I've gotten it right.

Nithin Iyengar:

And it's so amazing, but it also speaks to, Liz, who you are. And this is something I know you've told me and we've talked about, but the most powerful demonstration of love is to be in service to someone else, and to truly be in service for that other person.

Liz Thompson:

That's right. And Nithin, many times, people get love wrong so many times. They think of love as being soft, and it is. They think of love as not being something that can hold you to task. And as Stacey Abrams says, "Love holds you up, love holds you close, but love also holds you accountable." And so when I think about the act of radical love, it is not just me holding our luminaries accountable for the impact that they want to have. It's also them holding me accountable for being the type of funder that they know I need to be and that they know I want to be. So yeah, it's all about love, and how can we use that in order to hold each other accountable?

Nithin Iyengar:

Liz, what is the future you imagine for education in America?

Liz Thompson:

For me, education is really about unlocking the potential in all of, I would say, our young people, but it's in all people. Education teaches you how to think about the world around you. And I envision a world where our youngest people have the ability, are taught how to think about things differently, how to embrace the superpowers that they all have, because we're all born with them. It's that process of discovery that I think of as education. I don't think of the curriculum the way that we have curriculum right now. I want a curriculum that helps people understand how to operate in the world around us.

It's funny you asked me this, Nithin, because this morning I was brushing my teeth. This is an honest to goodness true story. I was brushing my teeth and I was thinking about why we don't understand from an education perspective how our bodies work. Why are we not taught that earlier in school? And so Nithin, the world that I want to imagine around education is where we learn about the whole person, the whole body, the whole world, all of nature, all of what makes us tick as human beings and in the natural world.

And then we learn how to question that, we learn how to interrogate that. And then with all of those answers weget, we learn how to convert that into wisdom that then helps us make this world a better place. I realize that's an answer at a 50,000-foot level. But if we don't have that aspirationally, we can never get down to the curriculum. We've got to start somewhere. And it's just got to reflect making sure that we can be the best people we can be. And then we can apply that to having the best world that we can have. When we have more time to talk, I'll get into more details of what that looks like.

Nithin Iyengar:

Would love to. So this season of Dreaming in Color, we're highlighting mentors who have paved the way for us as leaders and have truly impacted our lives for the better. Call out a mentor or mentee you've had who has been really impactful in your life and career.

Liz Thompson:

There is one lady in particular, her name is Francine Chalunas. I met Francine when I was 25 years old working at Ameritech. I'll quickly tell you the story of how we met. I was standing in the elevator lobby, and the elevator doors opened up and this woman walks off. She describes herself as being round, brown, and low to the ground. And so she walks off the elevator, and behind her are these two guys. And they are literally hanging on every word she's saying. It's like out of some movie. She's walking forward, she's not turning around looking at them, she's just talking. They're following close behind her, literally just eating every word she says.

And I said to myself, "I don't know who she is, but I want to be just like this woman." And I made it a point to get to know who she was. And from that point on, I'm going to say that, well, I was 25, so from that point till now, and I'm 60, Francine Chalunas has been my mentor. She has guided me through every stage in my professional career, and many times in my personal life. Not to be confused with my mom, who was the most incredible woman on the face of the planet and who taught me everything I know in life. Francine has been like a guide to me, pointing out potential landmines, professionally, and just clearing a path because she had walked that same path and she cleared the way. So, she is the person that I want to call out today as my mentor extraordinaire.

And then if I might, Nithin, because mentoring is such a two-way street, I want to call out, I can't even tell you how many people that they would call me their mentor. But I am in fact the person that learns the most in that relationship, whether it's the Myetie Hamiltons, the Carmita Semaans, the Melissa Connellys, the Kathleen Calientos, you name it. And I don't want to offend all of the other folks who I didn't call out. But I learn from these people every day of my life. I learn from the questions that they ask me, I learn from how they have chosen to lead in their lives. And I am profoundly grateful for them being my teacher along the way.

Nithin Iyengar:

No, I love that. And I've always long thought being a mentor is the best form of learning and is the most powerful form of learning. So even in that example with people, I also just hold so dearly in love, Melissa, Carmita, et cetera, you're pouring into that group. But as you and I talked at breakfast a couple of days ago, that dedication, that commitment to others comes at a cost to self. And thankfully, both your husband and my wife are fiercely protective of our self-care and will tell us all the things we need to do that we're not doing right. And force us to take a break.

Liz Thompson:

That's right.

Nithin Iyengar:

But as someone who dedicates so much of their time to pouring into others, how do you set aside time to take care of yourself? How do you hold space for that? What are some of your favorite ways to really pour into yourself?

Liz Thompson:

Nithin, I was hoping you would not ask me this question, and the reason is because I don't do nearly enough of it. People ask me this question all the time, and I give them the same answer, and that is, I'm not the one. They want to know, "How do you balance life and work and family and all of that?" And I do a horrible job of it.

I don't have boundaries. This generation talks about boundaries. I don't have boundaries. I'm doing email at midnight and I'm up at five, still doing the email and taking calls on weekends and all the things. And I will say that I want to do better, I want to be better at that. At this point in my life, and I got a whole lot of living left to do, it's a learning journey for me, Nithin. As we talked about at breakfast the other day, first of all, I don't know how to say no, which is problematic, but there's a reason for that, Nithin. And in my mind and in my heart, I feel like if not me, then who? I don't look around to my left and to my right and see enough people doing the kind of work that I think is necessary right now.

This is not a shame or blame. There's so much work to be done, and there are unfortunately so few people that are in the incredibly blessed position that I'm in to be able to dedicate my life to this, that I feel like I need to just keep going. So, I don't do a good job of it.

I read on occasion when I can because that's one of my favorite things to do. My husband and I travel when we can. I have the two most incredible children on the planet, adult children, and now add a third because my daughter's getting married. So, I will now have the three most incredible adult children on the planet. And when I get to spend time with them, it's amazing. But I am really bad at taking care of myself.

Nithin Iyengar:

A few questions before we close out. What does freedom look like to you?

Liz Thompson:

I think a lot about my ancestors. One of the questions that I'm asked a lot is the notion of, what drives you, what propels you forward? And it is my thinking about people that were enslaved. I think about them a lot when I'm having a tough day or what I consider to be a tough day. And then I think about them and what a tough day must have looked like for them. I think about the people that sat at the lunch counters and the people that were part of the Civil Rights Movement, the people that walked six, 10 miles to work every day because they wanted to participate in the bus boycott in order to see the outcomes that they wanted to see.

When I think about this question of freedom, I think about the ability to live my life in a way that I am free to do whatever I want to do. That I'm free to fail, I'm free to be successful, I'm free to learn. I'm free to love whoever I want to love. Freedom to me means a life without boundaries. And I don't know that I fully know what that looks like because people look at me and Don and they think, "My gosh, you have such financial freedom." And yet that is bounded, Nithin, by the fact that if my husband puts on a hoodie and walks down the street, I'm afraid that he may be shot, I'm afraid that he may be arrested. I'm afraid that he may be stopped. And so, financial freedom means nothing when you are in the body that my husband is in.

So freedom to me means the freedom to look, think, act, love, pursue, fail, or do whatever the hell I want to do without boundaries. And so it means just the ability to be my authentic self no matter where I am, and also the ability to worship whoever I want to worship. And so freedom to me, looks like that.

Nithin Iyengar:

If you had to choose any song to walk out on stage to, what would it be?

Liz Thompson:

My husband has a theme song by T.I. called “You Don't Know Me.” I love that for him. For me, my theme song, probably Minnie Riperton, “Loving You.” “Loving you is easy because you're beautiful.” And I think she was singing about it in a romantic way. But for me, in the unconditional love that I like to practice, in the radical love that I like to preach, and in the love with reckless abandon that I like to give, “Loving You” is the theme song that I think I would choose. Because it summarizes who I am and what's most important to me. And that is the power of love.

Nithin Iyengar:

Thank you, Liz. It is always a highlight spending time with you. I love your candor, I love your compassion. And you are and will always be my dear friend. Thank you, Liz.

Liz Thompson:

Oh, thank you, Nithin. Thank you. And Nithin, let me just say this before we close. You know I love you, and people need to know that I first fell in love with you when we were in the conference room together. And you were on a consulting engagement, and you were coming to the close of this engagement. And you gave a final speech to the people in that room where you talked about principles of equity, principles of inclusion, and what it meant to really be committed to the work. And you held that group accountable to those principles. And I knew that you were telling them you weren't really sure if they were committed to those principles. But through your words and your actions, I knew you were.

And if you remember, I ran out after you after that and said, "We got to get to know each other better, my friend." And I don't know, that was some six or seven years ago. And I am so glad that I ran after you, and I'm so glad that we've been friends all of these years, my friend. I thank you so much.

Nithin Iyengar:

Thank you, Liz. I appreciate that. And if anything, just following your model of the most radical, truest form of love is holding others accountable for things they should care about. So thank you, Liz.

Liz Thompson:

You got that right. Thanks, Nithin. Appreciate you.

Nithin Iyengar:

For those who know me, I'm not exactly the most emotive person, but when I spend time with Liz, I'm beaming because she leads with joy and love. And that joy and love is infectious. Thank you for the joy and love you spread, Liz.

She is living a career that is so deeply shaped by her values and experiences, the positive experiences that she wants to carry forward for others, and the negative experiences that still haunt her that she wants to eradicate from this world. From spending time with Liz, I find it inspiring how nervous she is before she talks with her grantees, and how much she prepares. For those who have been on the grantee side of the donor table, how many times have you met with a donor who's unprepared for the conversation, may not know the specifics of your work, and asks baseline questions that reflect a lack of care for your lifelong passion?

The experiences that Liz has on one end of the table shape her worldview as she now finds herself on the other end. The practices she shares, deep relationships with luminaries and beacons, being terrified that you're not going to be of value to your grantees, transparency, belief in the excellence of leaders. What Liz has done in her philanthropy is seek to normalize a set of practices that when reflected against how philanthropy is operated to date, seem radical.

One of the goals of Liz and Don's philanthropy in for-profit investments has been to overcome the funding barriers that Black leaders face. The transformational investments she makes in leaders have resulted in other donors paying attention in providing multiples of funding in support of these leaders. As some donors are rolling back efforts on equity and questioning whether such barriers can be overcome, Liz is proving true what James Baldwin writes in Notes of a Native Son: "Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it."

Darren Isom:

This season, we're putting some music with the magic and have collected the theme songs from all of our guests and collaborators to create a Spotify playlist for our listeners to enjoy. Find It on Spotify under “Dreaming in Color: The Playlist.”

Thanks for listening to Dreaming in Color, a special shout out to all the folks who make this magic happen. From StudioPod Media, our wonderful producer, Denise Savas, audio engineer, Theresa Buchanan, and graphic designer, Diana Jimenez. And from ReelWorks, our video production team, Jenny Loo and Stephen Czaja. A huge shout-out to ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team, Cora Daniels, Christian Celeste, Christina Pistorius, Ryan Wenzel, and this season's guest hosts, Jasmine Reliford, Nithin Iyengar, and Angela Maldonado. And of course, our fabulous creative director, Ami Diané. What a squad, y'all. Be sure to rate, subscribe, and review wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch you next time.


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