Education and conversations about racism resonated years later in a new place, a new role

As part of our special report on Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Racial Equity Matters program, we are presenting stories of people who experienced the trainings and their responses to it. This is the third in that series.

About 3,000 Greater Cincinnatians have participated in Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Racial Equity Matters program, a series of training and discussions led by the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute. They take a deep dive into data on income and economic mobility, and examine how societal institutions -- education, health care, and criminal justice among them – have historically been weighted against Blacks and other people of color.

In Cincinnati, where the population in the city is roughly half Black and half White, that education speaks to the racial injustices proliferated against Blacks – the history of slavery, and the subsequent inequities carried on by people and institutions in power.

Years after he participated in the training here, Eric Avner discovered its lessons had stayed with him as he began a new role in a new community with a much different population.

In September, Avner, who had spent 14 years in a leadership role at Cincinnati’s Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Foundation, was named CEO of the Waterloo Region Community Foundation in Ontario, Canada. Similarly to Cincinnati, the region was settled in the 19th century, largely by immigrants from Germany. But a significant indigenous population was displaced, the result of centuries of injustices and violence.

Taking the reins of a newly merged community foundation, it was essential to understand this history, Avner says. The training he experienced in Cincinnati helped.

“This is a very diverse community that I wouldn’t have been prepared for,” he says. “The trainings helped with a sensitivity around the indigenous community here,” he says. “They’ve gone through generations of trauma and are in the middle of big conversations about that. It allowed me to approach this complexity in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

READ MORE: 'The change starts with me': After racial justice justice training, some keep the conversation going

While a VP at Haile Foundation, Avner also founded and led People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab that invested directly in people who proposed cutting-edge, creative projects. Avner and the small People’s Liberty staff participated in both the introductory program, called Groundwater, and its follow-up, Phase 1, a two-day session in a smaller group that involves more dialogue and interaction among the participants.

“We wanted to see the world differently,” he says. “We wanted to think about things differently. It was an opportunity to be part of a different way of making a difference in the community.”

The experience had an impact on the People’s Liberty team and the work they did. “It fundamentally changed the way we saw the work and our role in the community, the language we were using, the imagery we were using,” Avner says. “We looked at it with a different set of eyes.”

The People’s Liberty project ended in 2019 after making grants to 120 people with new ideas. But the impact of the conversations about racial equity that Avner and his team participated in have lasted and taken root in new ways.

To learn more about Racial Equity Matters, please visit 

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.