Disrupting the Cultural Landscape Through Philanthropy: The Conversation Continues with Eddie and Sylvia Brown

Screen shot of Eddie and Sylvia Brown with Margaret Bernstein

By Briana Oldham, Cleveland Foundation Equity Communications and Engagement Fellow

Representation matters. Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown understand this keenly and have made it a focus of their work in classrooms, boardrooms and philanthropy. On Nov. 10, in the second installment of “2020 Vision: Disrupting the Cultural Landscape Through Philanthropy,” the Browns joined Margaret Bernstein, director of advocacy and community initiatives at WKYC, to continue the conversation that began at the first, all-virtual Cleveland Foundation African American Philanthropy Summit on May 30. In front of a virtual audience of 250, the couple discussed how they have blazed new trails in their approach to charitable giving.

Hosted by the Cleveland Foundation African American Philanthropy Committee (AAPC), the Browns highlighted their passion for helping nonprofits that serve African American communities as well as organizations that celebrate the contributions of African Americans. Eddie and Sylvia have decades of experience in investing, education and business between them, and they offered valuable takeaways on how to continue forward movement within African American philanthropy.

The Brown Family Foundation was established at the Baltimore Community Foundation in 1994 and offers support to organizations that address needs in the areas of health care, the arts and K-12 education.

“There is a lot we can learn from each other today,” Bernstein began. One of the first questions she asked was about Sylvia’s philosophy on education, and how her family and upbringing shaped the focus of their philanthropic work.

“I came from a family of teachers, so it was engrained,” Sylvia recalled. “You practiced teaching whether you wanted to do it or not. When we were kids, we played school. We did everything around the classroom.” Sylvia witnessed from an early age that her parents were committed to working with and giving back to the youth, and it always extended beyond the classroom.

“You are considered disrupters in the philanthropy world. You are shaking things up,” Bernstein said with a grin. She wanted to know from Eddie exactly what that means and how they do it. As an example, Eddie mentioned that he and Sylvia served on the boards of the two major art museums in Baltimore and noticed that one had very few works of art by African American artists while the other had none.

“As collectors of African American art for over 20 years, we wanted to see more. We gave them a challenge grant and encouraged the museums to add to their collections,” Eddie said.

As the conversation progressed, it became more and more clear how the Browns live out their mission and just how imperative they feel it is to reshape the narrative around African American philanthropy.

Another focus of their foundation is addressing racial disparities and representation in health care. The Browns have used their own dollars to ensure that there will no longer be the excuse that a position couldn’t be filled by a person of color because there was no one qualified available.

Nearly 15 years ago, they started the Brown Scholars program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The idea was to seek people of color to close the gap between the stark life expectancy rates seen from one affluent zip code to the next impoverished one. With the grant from the Browns, students would have their master’s or doctorate program over five years paid in full. Of the requirements for the program, the biggest was that upon graduation, graduates work in underserved and disadvantaged areas. Eddie notes that as a result of the program, “20 graduates of public health in the world are out in urban areas seeking to improve health outcomes.”

From museum galleries to doctor’s offices, the Browns are leveraging their philanthropy to help more people – especially those who have historically been underrepresented – make an impact. The Browns have lived and are living a life full of purpose. They are a true example of being motivated by what moves you, and leading people to learn what drives them and use it to make a difference.

Watch the full conversation with Eddie and Sylvia Brown below, and learn more about the Cleveland Foundation African American Philanthropy Committee here