2020 Change Maker: Liz Thompson, Founder and President of The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education

Liz Thompson knows the power of a good educator.

“I have always admired teachers because of the amazing people that taught and motivated me throughout my education,” said Thompson.

So, this year, when children across Chicago were unexpectedly distanced from those impactful figures, Thompson wanted to make sure tomorrow’s young leaders could hold their heads high. Thus, The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (The CAFE), of which Thompson is the founder and president, launched Operation Megaphone, a campaign seeking to amplify messages of positivity.

“We activated all of our communications channels (social media, billboards, WBEZ sponsorship) to reach students, families and the broader community with messages around the central theme of, ‘Classes might be canceled, but your dreams are not,’” Thompson explained. “We further amplified students’ voices and the importance of internships by featuring them in a billboard campaign across the city to motivate employers to take on more virtual work experience opportunities, and to inspire students to think about their futures.” 

Just as The CAFE urged students to look to the future, the organization also has big plans ahead. Among them, Thompson said, are plans to increase internship opportunities for students of color, particularly in philanthropy. 

The CAFE also continues to use its website to promote its community partners. Those partners include: CK-12, a free digital learning platform for K-12; Project SYNCERE, which encourages underrepresented/disadvantaged students to pursue STEM careers; and the Purdue Minority Engineering Program, a program Thompson and her husband, Don, each participated in decades before launching The CAFE.

After earning her electrical engineering degree from Purdue University, Thompson spent a decade with Ameritech Corporation. Then, her path took a turn toward her passions for education and youth development.

In 1993, Thompson served as the founding executive director of City Year Chicago, a nonprofit that now serves 350 schools across 21 states. Two years later, she led a multimillion-dollar expansion of an Early Head Start Montessori school in Denver.

Since 2014, The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education has invested in organizations that aid students from underserved communities with college access and career attainment. The foundation’s name is an ode to Thompson’s past, as she was raised on Cleveland Avenue in the Cabrini Green housing development. She credits much of her success to her upbringing, as her family and community shaped her core values and vision.

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