Celebrating the Servant Leadership of Steven Minter

My friend Steven Minter, who passed away in September, was one of the groundbreaking Black public servants who broke many barriers and opened doors for others and one of the too unheralded but extraordinarily effective leaders people need to know about. Steve was a founding undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education and longtime leader of the Cleveland Foundation, where he made an enormous difference for Ohio’s children and families. The Children’s Defense Fund was especially grateful for his strong support of CDF-Ohio’s work creating a level playing field for all of Ohio’s children and supporting local high school students beating the odds. Many people do not realize what a strong role foundations play in supporting and strengthening their communities. As a foundation head, university instructor and administrator, and member of dozens of panels, commissions, and corporate and nonprofit boards over his long professional life, Steve was a quiet, effective force for good.

Steve grew up in Ohio, the oldest of eight children in a family that emphasized service and education. He worked three jobs to put himself through Baldwin Wallace College. One of them was washing dishes in the dining hall, where he met his beloved wife Dolly, who was working as a waitress. As his family remembers: “Theirs was a true love story. Although interracial marriage was still illegal in 22 states, they were married in 1961, the spring of Dolly’s senior year. Over the 56 years of their marriage, Steve and Dolly formed what they described as a ‘partner mentality,’ sharing values of family, community, and the belief that ‘unto whom much is given, much is required.’”

Steve’s first job after college was as a case worker for the Cuyahoga County Welfare Department. His family said he took that position after he had a hard time finding a teaching job, but what may have initially felt like a detour “proved to be a fateful and fortuitous decision:” it was the foundation of all he went on to do and “his empathy for those living in poverty, confidence in their ability to improve their condition, commitment to structural change, and capacity to mentor and convene others were all called upon in his work.”

He earned a master’s degree in social work from Case Western University and within a few years became the department’s first Black and youngest-ever director. That new position began giving him national opportunities, including serving on the commission that created Head Start. He was then recruited to become the Commissioner of Public Welfare of Massachusetts, where he served for four years before returning home and taking a position at the Cleveland Foundation.

Just two years later he took a leave of absence from the Foundation when President Jimmy Carter asked him to serve as undersecretary in the newly created U.S. Department of Education. A beautiful photo shows him after his swearing-in ceremony at the White House with President Carter and Steve’s handsome large family, including his parents and several of his brothers who served in Vietnam in uniform. As Steve helped organize the newly founded department he put key frameworks into place for our nation’s children, including Title I, intended to provide special funding to low income schools.

At the end of the Carter administration Steve returned to the Cleveland Foundation. He served first as a program officer, then as associate director, and in 1984 became the Foundation’s executive director and president. As the first Black leader of a community foundation his family says Steve “quietly but firmly insisted on minority access to and participation in the city’s institutional life” as the Foundation focused on key needs in public education, housing, health care, and jobs. Under his leadership the Foundation supported neighborhood revitalization, public school improvement, and the redevelopment of Cleveland’s famous Playhouse Square and were early funders of AIDS public health initiatives. After retiring from the Foundation Steve spent 15 years as executive-in-residence and fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Policy and Practice at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University and continued serving on many commissions and boards, receiving honors, awards, and recognitions all along the way.

I am especially grateful for my family’s longtime friendship with Steve, Dolly, and their daughters Michele Minter, Caroline Minter Hoxby, and Robyn Minter Smyers. Steve stayed at our home in Washington when he worked for the Department of Education. My husband Peter and I shared an especially memorable vacation hiking in the Swiss Alps with Steve and Dolly and I am so glad our children are now carrying on the connections to the next generation. Today Michele serves as Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and Diversity at Princeton University, Caroline is a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Robyn is a Partner and Executive Committee member at Thompson Hine LLP as all three carry on their wonderful parents’ rich legacy of excellence and service. They are a final reflection of Steven Minter’s well-lived life.