Celebrating the Faces of African American Philanthropy: Inspired Giving

Portrait of Barbara Harris
Dr. Barbara Harris, Philanthropist & Retired Educator

Dr. Barbara Harris, philanthropist and retired educator, believes that anyone can be philanthropic, whether through charitable giving, volunteering or a combination of both. As a featured philanthropist at the 2018 African American Philanthropy Summit, we asked Dr. Harris to share the origins of her philanthropy and what inspires her to give back to her hometown in this six-part Black Philanthropy Month series “Celebrating the Faces of African American Philanthropy.”

How did you come to be philanthropic?

Dr. Barbara Harris: I didn’t set out to be philanthropic. I always saw names on buildings, plaques and programs listing the people that made donations. I would say to myself, ‘Those names are the really, really rich people.’ Then later, I started to see listings of donors from the highest to the lowest contributors. Some of them would have a contribution of $200 or $500 dollars. I said, ‘Well that’s something that I certainly could do.’ Then, later on, my financial adviser introduced me to Terri Eason, who in turn introduced me to the Cleveland Foundation and guided me through the process of gifting and establishing my own charitable foundation which is held at the Cleveland Foundation. I guess all of this was in the back of my mind and set me on a path to making charitable contributions to impact the lives of others.

Why do you feel compelled to give back to Cleveland?

Dr. Harris: I feel compelled to give back to Cleveland because Cleveland is my home. I’m proud to be from Cleveland. I think that all people need to give back to our community to make Cleveland a better city. Having come from very humble beginnings, I have always been very frugal. I saved and invested and now I have enough to give. In addition, my mother always encouraged me to give and do for others who were less fortunate

Is service also important? How do you serve?

Dr. Harris: Service is very important to me. I am involved with two national sororities that focus on service. I am a Golden Life Member of the public service sorority Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, and we are all about public service internationally. I’m also a member of Eta Phi Beta Sorority whose motto is ‘Not for ourselves, but for others.’ I am part of the Prince Hall Masonic family in which community service permeates. I have also volunteered throughout the Greater Cleveland community. I don’t know how I spread myself so thin, but I have volunteered for the Food Bank, the Red Cross, food pantries, the Special Olympics, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Walk each year, etc. I have also volunteered at The African American Philanthropy Summit which was recommended by Dorothy Highsmith. I do volunteer a lot and give lots of service. It feels wonderful.

What do you want Cleveland to look like in the future?

Dr. Harris: In the future, I want Cleveland to be a model city, to be a thriving, progressive metropolis, to be a city that has a reputation for having an excellent school system. A city that has jobs. A city that has recreation, things to do, arts and culture, and a city that people from around the world will want to visit.

How can you be a part of that change?

Dr. Harris: Well there’s this old African proverb that says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We should expand that to say, ‘It takes a village to maintain the village,’ meaning that we need more people to give back to Cleveland, especially those people that have been very, very successful. We all need to support new positive initiatives and give now for the future.

The African American Philanthropy Committee was created in 1993 to promote awareness and education about the benefits of wealth and community preservation through philanthropy. The committee convenes a Philanthropy Summit once every two years to raise the visibility of African American philanthropy in the region and to honor local African American philanthropists. Save the date for the next Cleveland Foundation African American Philanthropy Summit, “2020 Vision: Disrupting the Cultural Landscape through Philanthropy,” in April 2020, and give online to the African American Philanthropy Committee Legacy Fund.

To learn more about becoming a donor and making your greatest charitable impact, visit www.ClevelandFoundation.org/Give.

The Cleveland Foundation is proud to have provided early funding that made it possible for two upcoming exhibits to travel to Cleveland. Check out:

  • The Soul of Philanthropy: Reframed and Exhibited, a multimedia re-imagining of the book Giving Back by author Valaida Fullwood and photographer Charles W. Thomas. The exhibit, which conveys and celebrates traditions of giving time, talent and treasure in the African American community, will be on display from Sept. 6 – Dec. 6, 2019, at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
  • seenUNseen, a collection of the works of some of the top African American artists dating back more than a century. On loan from the collection of longtime postal worker Kerry Davis, these objects are on public display for the first time outside of Atlanta. The show, which also includes more than 60 works from local and regional artists, will run from Sept. 20 – Nov. 16, 2019, at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and The Sculpture Center.


  1. Yvonne Polk-Wynn

    Awme! It is a Blessing to know such a remarkable and compassionate lady. God Bless

  2. Barbara Harris

    Thanks, Worthy Matron!

  3. Brittney Smith

    Beautiful article, Soror!

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