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A Message from our CEO

July 28, 2020

One of my early memories of my mom is watching her being arrested on the evening news. She and several friends were “sitting in” at the Trailways bus station lunch counter in Dallas, Texas. My mother, who designed and sewed her own clothes, always dressed up for marches and sit-ins. Even as a young child, I appreciated the performative aspect of her appearance—wearing a Chanel-inspired suit with matching handbag, shoes, and leather gloves, eating lunch at a counter where she might never have eaten voluntarily in a desegregated world.

Cecilia Conrad

While my mother’s actions were bold for her time, society didn’t heed her generation’s call for change. As a result, today, we still face similar issues, from a lack of economic and political opportunity for all to under-representation of women and minorities in our systems of power. I truly believe that we will only be able to overcome these inequities if we work together to accelerate social change.

My mother and her friends were part of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, a transformative decade in U.S. history when we saw glimmers of a future where racial inequity in economic and social well-being would no longer exist. Our parents and grandparents made great strides, but, for every three steps forward, we seem to slide two steps back.

"Change is possible, but only if we are willing to make big investments to accelerate the pace of progress and remove the impediments that systematically erode the gains we achieve."

As an economist, I know that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Black-White earnings gap narrowed, but by the mid-1970s, the pace of change had slowed. After 1975, the gap among women widened, as White women moved up the occupational ladder. Black median household income grew from 1988 to 2000, but then declined from 2000 to 2012—both in absolute terms and relative to White households. The Black-White wealth gap has more than quadrupled since 1984.

In sum, a generation—my son’s generation—has grown up without seeing any significant progress in eliminating racial economic disparity. However, there now appears to be new momentum toward taking action. Change is possible, but only if we are willing to make big investments to accelerate the pace of progress and remove the impediments that systematically erode the gains we achieve.

At Lever for Change, we are thrilled to have donors willing to make these kinds of big investments to advance social change:

  • The Pritzker Traubert Foundation will award the Chicago Prize to a community-led, investment-ready initiative that will create a better economic future for residents on Chicago’s South and/or West side. The Pritzker Traubert Foundation has not yet announced its grantee, but on June 29, the City of Chicago announced major investments in two Chicago Prize finalists.
  • On June 24, the Economic Opportunity Challenge announced five finalists for an award of $10 million to scale a game-changing solution to improve the economic health of low-income families in the United States. Selected from a pool of 160 applicants, the finalists represent projects focused on workforce development, asset building, and policy change.
  • The newly-launched Equality Can’t Wait Challenge will award $40 million (increase to be announced on Aug. 4) to help expand women’s power and influence in the U.S. This Challenge seeks to advance systemic change for women of all backgrounds, especially women of color, LGBTQ women, and women living in poverty.

Today, my mother is 96 and would still join a protest march if she were able to leave her house. My Uncle Charles, a 100-year old Tuskegee Airman, recently received his promotion to Brigadier General, an honor that he was unfairly denied more than 70 years ago. They both belong to a generation of African Americans who have displayed incredible persistence and patience, but times have changed. Our children and grandchildren are demanding more urgent progress toward equity. They shouldn’t have to wait another generation to see real, measurable social change. If we seize this momentum and work together to accelerate the pace of progress, we can meet the challenge and finally achieve the long-held aspirations of our families and communities. We hope you will join us.

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