A Conversation with Brian Payne

“I’m convinced that the only way that we’re going to dismantle systemic racism in this country, and in our region…is that people of color and white people—people of the white race and people of other races—that they get into deep, authentic relationship with each other and they learn from each other.” – Brian Payne

In this episode of For Good, Brian Payne, CICF president and CEO, closes out 2019 in reflection and with gratitude. Listen to his top three projects, ideas and partnerships from the year, the value of relationships, and giving people grace.

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Transcription of episode available below.


  • Sarah Cowart, director of marketing and communications at CICF
  • Brian Payne, president and CEO of CICF and president of The Indianapolis Foundation


You’re listening to For Good, Central Indiana Community Foundation’s podcast highlighting stories about passion, purpose, and progress in Central Indiana. At CICF, we believe in creating a community where everyone can reach their full potential, no matter their place, race or identity. This is our community and these are your stories.

SARAH: Welcome to For Good. I’m Sarah Cowart, director of marketing and communications at CICF. We have a special episode for you today, featuring CICF president and CEO, Brian Payne. We’ll take a look back at 2019 and look forward to 2020. And there is a lot to talk about, so we are going to dive right in.

Brian, thank you for the conversation today. Can you talk about, all the things that have happened in this last year, what stands out to you the most as your top three projects, ideas, partnerships, anything that’s going on in the last year.

BRIAN: There has been a tremendous amount going on that we’re very proud of. It’s been one of the most memorable years of my career. And so getting it down to three, which I think is a reasonable question, is a bit of a challenge, but let me think. On April 11th, we all, on staff and our board and a lot of people in the community, gratefully, refer to our April 11th announcement. Which is now known as our Inclusive City Initiative. And you and I know, you being the marketing director, we thought Inclusive City was a great name for the announcement, but people have kind of dubbed our initiatives Inclusive City. And I think that’s tremendous. So we had this incredible announcement on April 11th at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. We think somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people showed up as we announced a whole new mission statement, our new strategic plan, a generational or multi-generational commitment to dismantling systemic racism in central Indiana with a focus on how do we create a community.

We’re all individuals, have an equitable opportunity to reach their full potential no matter their place, race or identity. So that was a big, new announcement. One of the thrills was to be on one end of the court and to look at the corner of Bankers Life and see a full house from that perspective. To use the big $10 million video scoreboard as our PowerPoint screen. I mean, just being in that room, I had no idea when I walked in that I would have that kind of feeling of importance and impact that the space gave us. And then we put on a heck of a show with partners, and lifted up people’s voices, brilliant people’s voices, brilliant people of color who don’t usually get a stage like that. None of us get a stage like that, usually. And it was an incredible memorable 90 minutes of an evening.

And we have gotten such incredible positive feedback from that. So that’s a very memorable moment in my career at CICF in 19 years. Another one is our board. Our board of directors, we did a great job of engaging them in our strategic planning and then they did a great job of pushing us a lot to be, actually, bigger and bolder.

And so many times, both locally and nationally, because we’re getting national attention with our new mission and our new initiatives, especially on how we’ve declared that we’re going to, with partners, dismantle systemic racism over the next generation or two. People say, “How did you drag your board along?” Or, “Does your board know you’re doing this?” And which always cracks us up. But yeah, our board, actually, at times, had to push us to be bolder. So we did a good job of engaging our board in the discussions, getting them the same training and awareness of the systemic racism from the beginning of this country, before the beginning of this country on this continent, and how that still creates racist outcomes today. But we did not have to drag them. They were willing partners, and at times, they encouraged us to be bigger and bolder.

And I’m really grateful to our really fantastic board of directors. So that was a highlight.

SARAH: Do you think that any of this work would be possible if our board hadn’t been on board?

BRIAN: Yeah. Two of our colleagues, Tamara Winfrey Harris, who is our vice president of community leadership, grant making and donor engagement, and Pamela Ross, who’s our vice president of opportunity, equity and inclusion, they both speak nationally a lot. And they get that question, “Well if your board or your CEO don’t really want to do this, how do you get this done?” And they look at each other say, “You don’t, you don’t.” I mean, we’re accountable to our board. And if our board didn’t back this up, there’s no doing this underground.

And so if the board isn’t engaged and isn’t for it, you can’t do it. So if our board wasn’t supportive, this wouldn’t be happening. And so we really do owe them a great amount of gratitude for being bold in their own right. They’re volunteers, they don’t need to do this, this isn’t how they make their living. And to put their neck out for the good of the community in a way that could get some blow back to them, that’s a courageous thing. You know, it’s one thing for us to be courageous.

I think we are, but we also get compensated and it’s our job to be courageous. This is volunteer work for them. And it’d be easy to say, “I just don’t know if I want to take this on in my life,” but they have, they fully embraced it and you can’t trick a board on this one. And then the third is really the new level of connectivity we have to neighborhood leaders. Just neighborhood residents sometimes, who every day, deal with challenges. If they’re people of color, they deal with those challenges. Their neighborhoods have some special challenges, because a lot of times they’re not fully invested in. And the friendships and the mentorships. And when I say mentorships, I’m being mentored by our leaders in our neighborhoods, as we’ve learned to say, our under-appreciated neighborhoods, often people of color. Mostly at this point, African American neighbors, who have become mentors of mine, friends of mine, and really important parts of CICF’s work in this last year, especially. And I’m really proud of that and I’m really grateful for that. And I think of that as a major win for CICF.

SARAH: Yeah, those are great. I would agree with all three of those. And then I know there’s… and then some…

BRIAN We have lots of projects we could be talking about, so these are the kind of the big frames. But I think, at this point, we need to celebrate the big frames and then we’ll get into the projects. I mean, we’ll be working on the projects for the next five, seven, ten years, there’s plenty of time to talk about that. But the gratitude to our board, to our neighborhood leaders, partners, mentors. And then just a great moment we had that has been celebrated for us on April 11th.

SARAH: And I think at the core of everything that you just listed as your top three is really relationship based. And so I wonder, what or who has had the greatest impact on you during this year or leading into this year?

BRIAN: So I think I would probably give a shout out to two of our colleagues, Pamela Ross and Tamara Winfrey Harris, both brilliant women and both happen to be African American women. And I mentioned their titles just a moment ago, but we couldn’t do this work without their leadership. I’m learning so much from them and they are so generous and approach us with grace, white people. I’m a white guy, 60 years old. I think I’ve always been well intentioned but didn’t know until three or four years ago just how ignorant I was when it came to race in America and its history. And as I’ve learned, they’ve both taught me, they’ve been a great sounding board, they’ve been very encouraging. And when I say something that sounds tone deaf or just ignorant, they’re very generous in how they coach me with a sense of grace and I really appreciate them and all the work that they’re doing.

And all the chance I have to learn with them and from them. The other is back to our ambassadors. I mean, I take some credit that the ambassador program was, at the most basic level, was my idea, but it really, it was an idea that was completely inspired by DeAmon Harges and my friendship with him over the last ten years. And DeAmon now plays a special role as like a senior advisor to our ambassador program. DeAmon is a national expert on asset based community development. He has this long history of impact in Indianapolis. A lot of people don’t know he is because he … at least a lot of people that I know in the past, didn’t know who he was because he works at that incredible grassroots level locally.

Nationally, he works at this huge level of major consultant. But the ambassador program definitely is how I interpreted all my learnings from DeAmon. DeAmon has had a huge impact on me, but all the ambassadors have, all of them. And so that would be Annie Smith and Valerie Davis and Beatrice Beverley and Wild Style.

But I, there was a moment this year in September, it’s a long story, I’ll make it a short story. It ended up that DeAmon and Wildstyle and I did a road trip to Cincinnati for the sole purpose of being in a car with each other for two hours there, two hours back. We really had no destination. DeAmon decided we should go to Cincinnati because there was a guy that he wanted us to meet, Peter Block, a guru on organizational development that he thought we’d be an added interest to the trip for breakfast one morning.

And that was incredible. But just being in a car and a talking nonstop with DeAmon and Wildstyle, two African American guys who have had a completely different life experience than I have had. And I learned a ton from them about our work, they learned a little bit from me, I hope. We had great dinner, we just hung out, walked Cincinnati downtown on a Friday night for three hours. And the riverfront, and then got in the car next day and continued the conversation. And that was an experience that I want to replicate and with them and with others, and do these learning journeys. But the time in a car is an incredibly freeing and a great way to connect.

SARAH: It sounds like that is maybe something you hadn’t done before, has this year, the relationships that we’ve built, not just this year, beyond, changed how you operate as a CEO and as a leader of our foundation?

BRIAN: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. There’s a couple things about that. One is I’m convinced that the only way that we’re going to dismantle systemic racism in this country, and in our region, and in our state and in what we’re focused on, is in our metropolitan area, is that people of color and white people, people of the white race and people of other races, that they get into deep, authentic relationship with each other and they learn from each other. In the case of America, white people have a much greater power, there’s reasons for that, historic reasons. White people, it’s not because white people have super powers and people of color do not. We all have super powers. But over the years and the generations and the centuries, the game has been rigged for white people to accumulate wealth and power in a way that black people and Hispanic people have not been able to accumulate wealth and power.

So we have wealth and power as white people. Mine’s conferred on to me, mostly, by the fact that I have this privilege of being, not only white, but the president of this community foundation. But what we need to do, is we need to come into a really deep relationship with each other. And our job, I believe, as a white person that has been given the privilege of accumulating power in society, is to show up and shut up, listen and learn. And then after we’ve learned enough and we actually have trust in relationship, then we can try to figure out how, by working together, that we can access resources in a way that the people of color in neighborhoods know that the resources need to be used. They know way better about how the resources should be used than I do.

And yet, I have more access to resources than they do. How do we partner using their knowledge expertise and my access to resources, as an example, and do something in a bigger, bolder way than we’ve ever done in the past? If you look since 1960, the war on poverty, I bet that America has spent, I don’t know, I don’t know, half a trillion dollars? A third of $1 trillion trying to fix poverty, and we have very little to show for it. Just because we haven’t been doing the right way. It’s like people think that they know the answers. Unless you live in those neighborhoods and live that every day and see the barriers that are thrown in front of you, see the ways that hope is being crushed on a daily basis, you don’t know how to fix it. People know how to fix it in the neighborhoods. They don’t have the access to resources. We need to work together. That’s what I’ve learned more than anything this year.

SARAH: So you just described connecting people to resources and listening. What are some things that if someone was just hearing about CICF and our mission and our strategic plan this year, what are some tangible things that we have changed or are putting into play so that change is actually starting to happen? What are some ways that we are living out our mission?

BRIAN: Right. Our mission, again is to more fully mobilize people, ideas and investments toward creating a community where all individuals have the equitable opportunity to reach their full potential, no matter place, race or identity. We’re not saying that the world guarantees you anything, life isn’t fair. I’ve been blessed, I’ve had very few family tragedies in my life. Some people have an incredible amount of tragedy to deal with in their life. So life isn’t fair but our public policy should be fair. From the way we run our government and our country and our economics, we should have a level playing field. And then whoever gets lucky, has grit, works hard, has some talent that has great timing, these things will determine who acquires more opportunity or seizes opportunity.

We’re not trying to control that. We’re trying to, though, create a level playing field so that everyone has at least a level chance. And then there’s going to be luck and there’s going to be harder workers than other people. Those things will play out. But right now, one of the metaphors that we’ve learned is, if I’m white and I play Monopoly with a black person, the way America has been rigged is that if we play Monopoly, I get to go around the board twice. I get to roll as many times as I need to, starting the game and when I get around the Monopoly board twice and accumulate half or two thirds of the poverty. And it’s like, “Oh, you’re black? Now you get to roll.” I’ve been around twice, I’ve rolled 14 times already.

I’m going to win that monopoly game every time. And so that’s one of the metaphors that we’ve learned actually through Undoing Racism, a two day workshop we all have gone through. So we need to level the playing field.

We are doing that a lot of ways. But the big framework, the way I look at it is, we’re trying to deal, really fight this on two fronts. One is we’re trying to get, and the number is 6,000 people the next five years. And that number comes from 1,200 a year that we have the capacity now for this undoing racism workshop.

But there’s other ways to get people to engage in understanding the history of racism in this country. How it happened, why it happened, how it still plays forth even when laws are changed. And even if we don’t have racist laws as much as we used to, or maybe we don’t have any racist laws, but we have systems that came out of those racist laws that are still racist systems, that still create racist outcomes, that still are interpreted and operationalize in racist and biased ways. That is absolutely not debatable, and we can go toe to toe on that with anyone. So we have these systems, but what we’re trying to do is get 6,000 people to understand this in a deep way and commit to continuing to learn about how we could create a more equitable country. And in our case, really, a more equitable region in Metro area from a public policy perspective. How systems work, how do we make that equitable?

And we want people to know that. If they know it, they’ll act on it. Most people will act on it. The other thing is we have these systems that do have racist outcomes. And how do we either disrupt them, dismantle them or innovate new things with an equity focus where the new innovation takes place of the old racist system. And we have some real great progress on stuff like on transportation, affordable housing. We’re working on infant mortality, which black moms have three times more chance of losing their baby in the first year. To know behavior on their own, it’s not about their behavior, it’s not their fault. There’s a system that does not work for black moms in a way it works for other moms, white moms, even Latina moms. So there’s a system that works against black moms. We’re working on that with a lot of partners, the hospital systems, donors, others.

So we’re looking at the systems, innovating and disrupting, dismantling the racist part of the systems. But also, trying to build an army of people who are well aware of how this racism really hurts us all and really keeps our community from reaching its full potential.

SARAH: What I’m hearing you say is one of the biggest ways to join us on this work is to educate yourself. Look at yourself internally, whether that’s an organization or an individual, that’s one of the greatest ways that our community can be an ally to our work.

BRIAN: The first step, right, exactly. The first step is become knowledgeable. I mean, five years ago, I was ignorant of all this stuff. I mean, I knew a little bit, I thought I was well-read. I’m well educated in theory. I was saying I wanted a partial refund from UCLA cause I took American history at UCLA, didn’t learn any of this. So we get need to get people to learn it.

Fortunately, there’s a ton of new books and podcasts and movies and documentaries about this, that it’s not that hard to get access. It’s not hard at all to get access to becoming knowledgeable and educated on it, but we want to encourage people to do that. We find that most people who—a great majority of people who learn about it are appalled and want to do something about it. So that’s the first step. Then it’s going to be, “Okay, how do these people actually turn this into action?” But first you have to learn about it. And the learning doesn’t end with a two-day workshop on Undoing Racism, it begins. That’s a catalyst for learning, for deeper learning. But eventually, we want you to turn it into action. Now there’s things you can do today.

If you’re white and you live in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of upper income people, and your next-door neighbor says, “Hey, my 17-year-old kid could use a paid internship. You know a lot of people, can you help connect my kid to someone?” It’s like, go ahead and do that, that’s fine. But then reach out to someone from another neighborhood, someone of color. If you’re white and help their 17 year old kid get a paid internship. That’s an act of equity. If we all did that, if 6,000 people did that once a week, that’s 300,000 acts of equity in a year. That right there would completely change our community. It wouldn’t end racism by itself, but it would change our community and give us a huge jumpstart on being the best community in the country on being inclusive.

And if we are the best community in the country on being inclusive and really giving everyone an equitable opportunity, we’re going to be the best community on everything. On education, on innovation and creativity and the arts in startups and entrepreneurial-ism. If you’re the best at inclusion and really helping everyone have a chance, we’re going to be the best at everything.

SARAH: So knowing all the things that we’ve done this year, and we’ve really built a foundation and, really, a high mark for what we want to achieve over the next five years with our strategic plan, but you’ve also talked about it being a multi-generational commitment, what can we look forward to in 2020?

BRIAN: I think in 2020 we’ll have the opportunity to continue everything that I’ve just talked about but add some things. We have a number of initiatives around creating more equitable systems. And we have some great momentum around transportation with our personal mobility network. We’re trying to help make a major difference in getting homeless housed with supportive services, wraparound services. So that they can actually make progress when they’re housed, to either getting off addiction or getting access to workforce, mental health needs addressed. And so this next year, we’re going to have to raise a lot of money.

We’re going to have to raise a lot of money to operationalize these projects that we have in partnerships with many others. I mean, gosh, we have about 12 major partnerships on the personal mobility network. We started it, but we can only do it with partnerships. Partnerships like Cummins, Engine and the city of Indianapolis and IndyGo and more, The Chamber and on and on. Same with the homeless initiative. So we have to raise $4 million in four years for what we call, The Homeless To Recovery. We have to raise at least a half a million dollars in the next year for the Personal Mobility Network. We have to raise, actually, $2 million to match a $5 million state grant that we got with partners to build out the BNO trail, a new pedestrian and bicycle greenway trail that will serve people of unappreciated neighborhoods, connect into Downtown and connect into IUPUI.

So we have to really go out and raise money to take these ideas into actual achievements at a real action level. And we’re going to need a lot of help and we’re going to need a lot of generous people. And it takes a lot of time to raise that kind of money. But that’s the next step, is to operationalize these new systems that will dismantle the old racist systems.

SARAH: And so that’s another way that people can get involved next year, is partnering with us on some of those initiatives…

BRIAN: Right. Either like saying, “Hey, how can I help you raise money? I mean, I don’t have money myself, but I have connections or I’m willing to put some sweat equity. How can I help you do that? I’m great grant writer,” that would be awesome. Or, “You know what? I’m willing to step up, I believe in this and I’m willing to put some money into it.”

SARAH: So as we are closing out 2019, what are of your final thoughts? You’ve talked a lot about initiatives and projects and relationships that we’ve built. This has been a monumental year for CICF, I think. What are your kind of final takeaways and what’s something that you want to say to the community of Indianapolis?

BRIAN: We’re getting a lot of credit, and we’re really proud of this, that we’re creating an environment where a conversation about race that can, for the first time maybe ever in Indianapolis, and we’re not alone in Indianapolis, maybe the first time ever in America, whereas a community, we are talking about race and racism. And that’s an incredibly important thing. We’re creating forums where people can be brave and talk about it and that we encourage people that if anyone who’s willing to talk about race, that’s an amazing thing. That’s a courageous act in America. And if you are willing to talk about race and you make a statement that comes off wrong or, in a little way, annoying or even offensive, the fact that you’re willing to talk about it with good intentions, everyone else around you should give you grace because we’re all going to make mistakes.

Believe me, I’ve made mistakes in talking about it. I’m very self-aware about how I sound, and I still make mistakes. But I’ve been fortunate that people know that my heart’s in the right place and are willing to give me the grace. And then nicely and constructively, help me rephrase that or use different words because they find that word offensive. I didn’t know they found that word offensive. But treat people with grace because if they’re willing to get into the arena and talk about race, that’s an amazing act of courage. And we should thank them even when they make mistakes, but then help them overcome their mistakes.

And I think we’re creating that environment and we have created a conversation where more people are taking part in that and we’re really proud of that. But with that, as you do that, here’s the greatest gift of my life, is that because I’m in those conversations, I am making deep, new friendships with people of color, with African Americans.

I could always say, “Oh, I’ve had African American friends, I’ve had Latino friends. I grew up in Southern part of San Diego County. I grew up with Mexican Americans.” I could tell a story about all of that, but with the exception of one of my high school friends who was Mexican American, I didn’t have deep, real … I’ve never had like the kind of in depth deep relationships with black people as I had with white people. Now I do. And that is an incredible gift to my life. If everything is the same in your life, it’s not really all that interesting and adventurous in the long run. I mean, if you ate the same food every day, if you had the same food, if you have the same conversations. So it’s like the joy of engaging and learning from people and the culture and a set of life experiences that are unlike your own.

And then what I have found is that people are so generous. I mean, black people have been so generous with me. And the incredible amount of depth of friendship that I’ve acquired and been able to build in this last year is a great gift. And I would recommend it to everybody. I think there’s a lot for black people and Latino people and Asian people to learn by getting in deep relationship with white people and vice versa, certainly vice versa. And it can make life so much more rewarding and richer. So this last year, I’ve personally had a much more enriched life. And I would really strongly recommend that people reach out and get into that kind of relationship.

SARAH: Yeah. I think from a foundation and personal level, both you and I working for the foundation, the relationships have been invaluable to our work and learning and growing as we move through this. And you mentioned being humble and in our learning, but also, when we make a mistake, we transition. And I think bringing our donors have been really influential in partnering with us in this work as well as the community.

BRIAN: People ask me all the time, “Well, what do your donors think of this?” None of our donors have spoken out against it. And a great majority have embraced it and expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, have given additional gifts of contributions because of the work. And if there’s people that are upset with us in our own sphere, they’re quiet about it because they’re not telling us. It’s been well more received than I even I had dreamed about it, and I thought it would be well received. I thought we were ready for this in this community. We are a community of Hoosiers who we want people to be happy, we’re kind people at heart. And though we have a history of racism as every other community in America has, we are a community that wants to get better all the time, work together with each other to get better all the time.

We are a community that’s ready to reach across neighborhoods and into neighborhoods. And if you’re white, I think there’s a lot of white people who are ready to make a better difference and be more generous with their networks and their power, and are willing to share their power in a way that makes us all better and makes life fairer and more just. And we want a community where everyone has a fair shot. I mean, we’re about fairness. I think, ultimately, Indianapolis is a place that could really celebrate fairness and justice. And I think we’ve made a great first step. We have a long way to go, but I’m really encouraged. And I actually think we’re going to get a tremendous amount done in the next five years. It might take 25 to 50 years to completely dismantle systemic racism, but five years, this community is going to look a lot better and a lot more just than it was today.

SARAH: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great place to start. I think it’s been an incredible 2019, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve really laid the groundwork for where we’re going next. And there’s a lot to look forward in 2020. So thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflecting on the year with us. I echo just the great partnership that we’ve had with everyone in the community and everyone through the community foundation. So thank you for the conversation.

As Brian mentioned, we have a lot going on in Marion and Hamilton counties and we want to be transparent in our work. That’s why we are planning to take a bit of a hiatus from our regular monthly podcast episodes to bring you more content about more topics using a variety of formats to ensure you never miss an update. I encourage you to subscribe to our monthly newsletter at CICF.org. Thanks, as always, for listening to For Good.


One Comment

CICF you inspire me to be and do better! i am grateful for the monopoly analogy to help explain the racial inequity that exists in our country. great podcast brian and cicf team!


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