The quest for social justice in its many forms has been the driving force in the personal and professional life of Lana Cavalier Cowell who graduated from Marygrove in 1964 with the degree in Biology. She later completed a Master’s degree and the course requirements for a Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.
During the late 1960s, Lana started working with several other mothers with young children on fair housing and redlining issues in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. It was a justice issue for Lana. As a logical next step, she joined the staff of the Heights Community Congress, a nonprofit dedicated to changing unfair housing practices, and was named executive director of HCC in 1977, a job she held for 12 years. A milestone was a nine-year long litigation to end the practice of racial steering and to hold real estate brokers accountable for the civil rights violations of their agents. It was a landmark, precedent-setting case that continues to be taught in law schools throughout the nation as an example of community involvement in fair housing law. The Heights Community Congress and the City of Cleveland joined to bring the suit.
Among her accomplishments, Lana says she is most proud of working with a national coalition to pass federal legislation such as the Community Reinvestment Act and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. The effect was to make it possible for low-income persons to apply for mortgages with reasonable interest rates regardless of their race. The legislation also prohibited redlining and required financial institutions to invest much more widely in their communities than previously. HCC developed the 9-Point Comprehensive Housing Program, which became a model for inner-ring suburbs throughout the country.
Charles Bromley, a colleague of Lana, reports that the leaders of several small nonprofit agencies involved in social justice causes got together during the 1980s to explore new sources of funding for their organizations. “As a result of endless volunteer hours and collaboration, Greater Cleveland Community Shares became a reality in 1985 and we both served on the board,” says Mr. Bromley. Four years later, Lana became executive director. The organizations supported by Community Shares are not those in the United Way, so it was a challenge to convince employers to allow another workplace drive. Furthermore, Community Shares’ innovative approach allowed donors to choose the recipient organization and the amount to be given to each. “Lana Cowell is recognized as a national expert in the alternative fund and social justice funding movements,” according to David C. Hammack, president of the Community Shares Board.
There are now some 40 member organizations participating in Community Shares, which raised nearly one million dollars in its most recent campaign and seven million dollars overall. Members include Habitat for Humanity, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the ACLU of Ohio Foundation and Environmental Health Watch, among others. Lana has made traditional philanthropy accessible to everyone, encouraging people of all kinds and incomes to learn about their community’s problems and invest in the solutions to them. In workplace drives, employee donors are able to make choices among member organizations.
Greater Cleveland Community Shares is now the second largest social action fund in the nation, thanks in great measure to Lana’s persistent leadership, vision and passion to help create a more just and equitable world.
Lana retired as executive director in 2006 but she continues to serve on the board of the National Alliance for Choice in Giving and as a volunteer for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. In addition, she serves as a volunteer consultant with Community Shares USA. Currently, she is working with a group of organizations in the Ukraine to develop a philanthropy program similar to GCCS.
These days, Lana has a bit more time to enjoy her family, particularly her three grandchildren. She sings in a chorale group and relaxes at the family cottage on Lake Erie. She even makes time for golf though she is just as passionate about social justice as she was during her working life.