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Voices of Leadership: A Conversation with Felton Thomas Jr. and Tari Rivera

The legacy and important work of the Sisters of Charity Foundation are what drew both Felton Thomas Jr. and Tari Rivera to get involved in its mission.

For Thomas, executive director and CEO of the Cleveland Public Library, it was the work he saw firsthand that the sisters were doing to serve the residents of Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, where the local public library branch plays a critical community role.

Meanwhile, Rivera, founder and president of Regency Construction Services Inc., first connected with the Sisters of Charity during the process to merge and relocate three Lakewood Catholic grade schools into a building owned by the Sisters of Charity.

In March, Thomas completed his term as chair of the board of SOCF, and handed over the chairmanship to Rivera. As they transitioned between eras of leadership, Rivera and Thomas reflected on the accomplishments of SOCF’s last 20 years and the opportunities that lie ahead.


Cleveland is a community rich in philanthropic spirit, supported by many local foundations. What is the unique role that SOCF fills?

Thomas: What’s unique is the foundation’s focus on homelessness and poverty, and that comes from the tradition of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. When you are working in a neighborhood that has as many needs as the Central neighborhood does, many organizations are coming to you for funding.

Rivera: One of the impressive things about this foundation is that there is a strategic plan around each area of mission and everything we do is focused on those priorities. When the foundation tackles issues, it’s from a systemic perspective, as opposed to addressing individual issues.


How does the legacy of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine influence the work the foundation does?

Thomas: When we work on the board and give our time, it’s nothing compared to the effort that was made by the sisters, whose shoulders we stand on when we’re able to do this work. I think it makes everybody give just a little bit more, work a little bit harder.

Rivera: As laypeople, it’s so important for us to hear that religious perspective that comes across directly or indirectly, and I have always appreciated the perspective that the sisters bring on different issues.

Thomas: The values of the sisters have to be passed down. We cannot let the traditions of the sisters pass us by.


Is there a particular area of the foundation’s work that has been the most meaningful to you?

Thomas: To me, it’s the effort to end homelessness. The 100-Day Challenge to find housing for 100 young people in 100 days really personally affected me. At the library, we see these teens all the time. Our staff knew these kids, but didn’t know they were homeless. It was an eye-opener for us, knowing that the kids are coming to the library daily because they have no other place to go.

Rivera: Another area of work from my perspective that has been very impressive is the effort around the Central Promise Neighborhood, engaging and empowering the community members to become engaged in the process. Even when we didn’t get a federal grant to assist with the effort, the foundation has continued its work.

Thomas: Yes, the idea of helping to change communities by allowing the communities to change themselves, and having resident leaders and ambassadors is so important. Central is transitioning to a community that is safer and healthier for children, and SOCF has been at the heart of that change.


Does the involvement of the Sisters of Charity influence the kind of impact the foundation has been able to make?

Thomas: There can be a cynicism, especially in African-American communities, about organizations that come in and say, ‘We’re going to come to your neighborhood, and we’re going to help you.’ They would hold big community meetings and then nothing happens. The Central neighborhood has been let down over and over and over again, so it’s hard for them to trust. The sisters came in and said, ‘We’re going to support you so you can learn how to lead. We’ll help you learn how to create the neighborhood you want on your own.’ People in Central trust SOCF now.

Rivera: The foundation also put their money where their mouth was. Certainly, there was a financial investment but they also invested time with members of the community.


What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for SOCF?

Thomas: The foundation has a long history of doing this work, and the challenge will be to balance this great tradition and past, while being able to lead us into the future.

Rivera: The world’s changing around us and all philanthropic organizations have to figure out how to change with the world but still stay true to their mission. One of the ways that I see the foundation doing that is by leveraging partnerships that the foundation has been able to build.


Why are those kinds of partnerships so important?

Rivera: If you have a partner that can assist in funding grants, greater dollars are leveraged so that needs are addressed in a bigger, more extensive way.

Thomas: Where the sisters have found their niche is in leveraging local and national funders to help on different issues. SOCF has a sterling reputation, so organizations are willing to partner. At the heart of what the organization is about is making a difference, and that mindset comes from the sisters. The organizations we work with understand that.


The above conversation was included in SOCF’s 20th anniversary publication, Theory of Change

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