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A Conversation with a Community Partner: United Black Fund

We partner annually with the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland. Greater Cleveland Aquarium GM had a virtual conversation with UBF’s Cecil Lipscomb and Lizzie Thompson to talk about how their organization and the agencies it empowers are making a positive difference for children and families in Northeast Ohio.

I am Stephanie White, General Manager of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, and I am joined virtually by Cecil and Lizzie from the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland. Please tell us all a little bit about the work your organization does here in Northeast Ohio.

CECIL LIPSCOMB, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Sure, I’ll be happy to. I’ll start with our mission, which is basically to acquire, accumulate and allocate funds to non-profits to alleviate suffering in poverty and illiteracy. We also want to strengthen the tradition and ethic of giving in the African-American community and empower the African-American community through education.

We’re really proud of our agencies and the work that they have been engaged in over the years. I’ll call out a few. Curtis Freed is the Executive Director of Strong Hands United. He actually engages and reconnects families from formerly incarcerated parents. We want to make certain that the family structure is able to maintain a whole position in the city. We work with another program called Beat the Streets, which is led by Demetrius Williams. He started a youth wrestling program out of the back of his house in the garage and now he has wrestlers that go all around the country and have won national titles. Leading Ladies is an afterschool program that teaches civic responsibility and engagement through giving back in terms of philanthropic endeavors. Then there’s Duffy Liturgical Dance with Miss Edna Duffy. She has a summer camp for young ladies. It’s almost like a finishing school that teaches them etiquette and performance in the arts and poetry and so forth. One more I’m excited about is Gem-N-Me. It’s a literary club over in Garden Valley and introduce the concept of words and books and storytelling to children in that community. Education, as you can see, is a theme that runs throughout.

STEPHANIE: How can someone help to support your mission and the work of those agencies?

CECIL: Well, there are several ways. Our website is We are basically a fund that acquires funds that we then redistribute to agencies like these on an annual basis. So you can give, but we also welcome volunteerism. In 2020 and 2019 we had probably over 200 volunteers throughout the year to help with various programs and we just welcome people to come out and support. We need help and expertise. Some of the agencies that we support are smaller. If you, for example, are a web designer, we need technical support for agencies who want to communicate now in this virtual environment. Those are just a few examples on how people can support and give back.

STEPHANIE: Typically we connect with you every year for a celebration on MLK Day. Lizzie, typically you are on-site here and some of our guests may recognize you. What has your experience been and what does the broad sense of the community support mean?

LIZZIE THOMPSON, DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR: I really enjoy participating in MLK Day every year. It’s very rewarding to me to connect with the guests. They have a sense of what philanthropy is about.  It’s always wonderful to see the parents allowing the kids to give their money and find out more about what the United Black Fund is doing. We are able to reach more communities, so I really enjoy being there. The staff is always wonderful and the guests really want to find out more about what we’re doing and how they can impact the community. They understand that we are not just funding programs, but we are also providing training that will help the programs that are assisting the community,

STEPHANIE: Thank you. We missed you this year.

CECIL: We missed you all.

STEPHANIE: This year has been interesting and I understand that the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland’s reach has broadened and you’re sharing your model with other communities. Can you give us some details?

CECIL: I’ll be happy to. We have done virtual training for as far away as Puerto Rico. There were people who were reeling still from Hurricane Maria from a couple years ago and then COVID hit when there was no infrastructure, so they reached out to Leadership Cleveland. Leadership Cleveland partnered with us. We converted training materials into Spanish we worked with FEMA and other agencies and, from a virtual setting, trained non-profit leaders on how to engage the government and other facilities to receive resources during this time. We’re really proud of that work. Additionally we’re working with a group out of Akron that just saw so many needs. It was just a band of community people that felt like they needed to do something more and there was no organization, so they took what they call “community circles” and they’re engaging people throughout the community to come up with the response to problems. We’re training them on how to identify best practices from those strategies and distribute funds equitably throughout the community in response to those needs. We’re really excited. We could have never done that before, which is a beautiful thing. Consistently now I meet with them for I think two to three hours every week in two different online sessions. We’re just trying to make lemonade out of lemons in this virtual environment and it is working.

STEPHANIE: We’ve all had to adapt this year. I know this partnership really has allowed us to then spotlight you as an important organization in the community. We look forward to more opportunities with helping you with education for youth and families in our community. We hope our guests will engage with the work that you’re doing and our friends will consider giving to or volunteering for your organization.

CECIL: I just want to reiterate what Lizzie shared. We’re so grateful to the Aquarium and to your leadership. Your staff is amazing…the Captain, well, we love the Captain, but like she said, the actual audience is what makes it special for us and then passing along the notion of philanthropy to the next generation. We’re really proud of our work and partnership and we hope that it can continue well into the future.

STEPHANIE: Thank you Cecil and Lizzie. We look forward to future collaborations!

If you’re interested in donating to the United Black Fund, click here or text UBF to 50155.

No popsicles needed . . . a blue-tongued skink sticks out its naturally blue tongue to scare away predators. Learn more about reptiles and lizards at our daily animal encounters.

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