A Friend to Many…. Remembering Janine Lee

A Friend to Many…. Remembering Janine Lee

This blog post was written by Mary L. Thomas, President and CEO of CFLeads.

Janine was a door opener, a problem solver, an encourager, a dear friend… Profound sadness, disbelief, shock, and heartbreak turned to joy, gratitude, and thankfulness for the contributions and the legacy Janine left for the philanthropic field.

As the word began to circulate about the passing of not just a philanthropic leader but a friend, I sat in silence for hours thinking about the changing demographics of philanthropy. What I am sharing in this blog is from my perspective as a black, female leader in philanthropy and does in no way intend to exclude anyone but sheds light and insight on the way Janine’s influence shaped philanthropy as we see it today.

When I entered the field in 1998, there were only a handful of black professionals leading in philanthropy in the American South. I recall attending my first Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Council of Foundations (SECF), now known as Philanthropy Southeast, and I said to myself, “this is a different scene.” There were about a dozen black people at the entire conference and maybe one or two CEOs of color.

Fast forward 13 years, and things were about to change. Welcome Janine Lee, poised, capable and able– she understood the assignment. I was a board member at SECF when we hired her. On day one, she showed up ready. She showed up prepared. She stepped into a role as the first African American President of the largest philanthropy-serving organization in the South, Philanthropy Southeast. She made her presence known simply by her “presence.” She wasn’t loud, she was prepared. She wasn’t afraid, she was competent. She moved about with grace and class. Outwardly, it was seen as effortless, but we (those of us who know the struggle and the weight of being a leader of color in a field that still struggles with racial equity) know that it wasn’t always easy.

We watched her transformative work. From overseeing an organizational name change to tackling tough issues such as racial equity and justice, diversifying board rooms, to opening doors for others and empowering them to lead, Janine changed the trajectory of philanthropy in the South as we know it. By advocating for more people of color on boards, and in C-suite positions, by tackling thorny issues in non-threatening ways, she consistently spoke the truth and handled each situation with silk gloves and grace. Janine met people where they were on their journey. She created space and provided encouragement for professionals who looked like her and others, urging all of us to hold on and remain steady in our pursuits.

As I think about Janine’s legacy, thoughts flood my mind about many of us who looked to her as a mentor, an advocate, and an encourager. She did this quietly and we learned from her. We sat in seats that were not always comfortable. We were overlooked, we carried heavy burdens, and we had huge responsibilities. We were expected to have all the answers to problems of blackness, and we approached it with grace, class, and style. Was it easy? No. Was it necessary? Absolutely! Why? Because, like Janine, we knew the assignment.

As we watched Janine work, we found inspiration to go just a little further. Her smile always said, “You can make it, you got this.” She offered lessons and shared her wisdom of what it takes to do this heavy work and whether she was on her scooter or standing tall, in her own quiet, classy way, she spoke truth to power without flinching. As Stephanie Cooper Lewter said, “Janine was a light in every room she was in.”

My last encounter with Janine was just this past January in Atlanta at Philanthropy Southeast Black Women in Philanthropy Retreat. There she was: smiling, beautiful, holding on and encouraging black women in philanthropy to stay the course, prepare for battle, reclaim their right to rest and shine! So much joy she shared with all who came in her presence. Many of us waited in line to snap just one more picture. Somehow, as if we knew, this last encounter was very special. And I am so grateful for those moments.

Janine, thank you for paving the way. Thank you for being one of my strongest supporters in the role I have the privilege to hold as President and CEO of CFLeads. You believed I had what it took to lead, and I have basked in your unwavering support and encouragement every step of the way. Janine, I’m going to make you proud.

We, your fellow sisters in philanthropy will carry on and continue your legacy. I’m sure there will be countless tributes, but at this moment in time, I offer mine to a lady who cared enough to accept the assignment and the results of her labor are everywhere. We are forever changed because you bravely took upon yourself the mantle to open the door wide for others to walk in. As one of my board members said just this morning, Felecia Lucky, President of the Black Belt Community Foundation, “Janine was a mountain of a woman.” Take your rest, dear friend.

With love and gratitude,

Mary L. Thomas
President & CEO, CFLeads