Elsie McCabe Thompson: NYC Mission Society President

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Bio: A visionary who tackles seemingly daunting challenges head-on, Elsie McCabe Thompson joined the Mission Society, one of the nation’s oldest social service organizations, in April 2014. Elsie has guided the nonprofit, now in its third century of fighting the war on poverty, into a new era, starting with the relocation of its administrative offices to the Mission Society’s Minisink community center in Harlem. In her first year of leadership, she tripled the organization’s endowment, strengthened the Mission Society’s educational and cultural enrichment programs, and forged a long-term programmatic partnership with the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance (led by multiple Grammy-winner Arturo O’Farrill).

Throughout her life, Elsie’s inherent drive, coupled with her unwavering commitment to help the underserved, has been at the heart of her success. In 2011, she was one of the first people, selected from an international pool of candidates, to be awarded the Ford Foundation Visionary Award for her “singular determination” to “enrich the lives of all through a deeper engagement with African culture and art.” Elsie is the former President of the Museum for African Art. During her tenure, she transformed the tiny, financially struggling institution without assets or a collection into a premier arts institution recognized around the world. Previously, she served as New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ Chief-of-Staff, overseeing the City’s nine Constituency Affairs offices; its City, State, and Federal Legislative Affairs offices; the Human Rights Commission; the U.N. Commission; and the Community Development Agency, among other areas. During her tenure there, she organized the first mayoral delegation to South Africa.

Previously, in the private sector, Elsie was a senior litigator with Shearman & Sterling, where she specialized in commercial and banking litigation, and led litigation teams in a wide variety of matters in the Federal and State courts. While practicing law, she co-founded and ran a training and mentoring program for minority students, providing educational programs for more than 10,000 young people. In June 2016, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Elsie to serve on the New York State Council on the Arts. Additionally, Elsie has served on a number of nonprofit and for-profit corporation Boards, including the National Executive Service Corps; Union Theological Seminary; New York Cares; the Harlem Day Charter School; All Souls School; the Trinity School; International House, and the Learning Care Group [Nasdaq: LCGI]. Currently, she serves on the boards of the National Recreation Foundation, National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy and the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities, and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). Elsie McCabe Thompson is a graduate of Barnard College and Harvard Law School. She resides in Harlem with her husband, William Thompson, Jr., former New York City Comptroller, and their three children.

My Goal of the Day:

- When I wake up in the morning, I set an intention to do one more thing that helps one more person. I make it a personal mission to encourage staff, volunteers, and donors to join me in building that momentum. I believe that together, we can move each other and our community members one more step forward, one day at a time.

My Thought of the Day:

- I just finished Michelle Obama’s recent memoir. In her book, she writes about finding ‘parallels’ between her own upbringing and the lives of everyday Americans she encountered during her travels. I can only imagine how important it was for her to have personal champions growing up—and for her to later be able to inspire others as a role model. I remember the family, friends, and teachers who believed in me growing up in the city too. Self-esteem is so important to learning. I still meet so many children, young adults, and families from all walks of life in New York who remind me of myself at a young age. I work every day to be a believer for others.

My Action of the Day:

- I take extra care to get in my steps (using my Fitbit), and to eat healthily. Walking is often how I do my best creative thinking. At Mission, we know children don’t necessarily learn by listening to you, but they’ll more often copy your example. So, I always take care to practice what I preach.

My Deed of the Day:

- Offer help to others, not because it feels good for you, but because it simply is good.

My Tip of the Day:

- Practice gratitude. You can be grateful for anything or anyone—big or small—acknowledge it daily.

A Day in My Life:

What do you love most about Your City?

The subways, full stop. There is simply no other city in the world that brings together so many different types of people into the same space, at the same time. This is where we witness humanity and the beauty of diversity in its fullest form.

Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?

I truly prefer lunch and dinner foods to traditional breakfasts. If I had to choose, I would say Il Café Latte on Lenox between 119th and 120th streets.

What are you doing at:

6:00 AM – Working out at home with my exercise ball, free weights, and yoga mat.

10:00 AM – Meeting with my program staff at Mission to discuss the best way to serve our students and to ensure we’re delivering the best educational programs to our community.

12:00 PM – Our office is located on Lenox and 142nd street in Harlem. When we take time out for a lunch meal, we like to support local businesses with healthful food options, such as Settepani.

7:00 PM - I might be meeting with prospective donors or board of directors’ members to discuss the importance of Mission programs and services, probably at Belle Harlem.

11:00 PM – When given the opportunity, I am fast asleep by 11:00 PM. If I’m still awake, I’m probably arguing with my husband to keep the noise down, so I can sleep.

What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?

I rely on Zevia, a no-calorie energy drink that’s free of artificial flavors and sweeteners. I was introduced to it by good friends at Harlem Grown. I’ve been hooked ever since. I drink it about twice a day.

Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?

The digital app I rely on most heavily is my Fitbit. I use my Fitbit to track my steps, my sleep time and sleep quality, and my overall wellness.

What should everyone try at least once?

I think everyone should try one thing that makes you just a little bit scared every year—to push our comfort zones. We have to dare to do things we never thought we could. At Mission, we use this philosophy to help innovate all of our programs and services.

Where do you enjoy getting lost?

When I was a little kid, I used to take the 2 train to the end of the line, and walk back to my home in Brooklyn. I encourage others to explore neighborhoods and communities you may have simply passed through, and allow yourself to become lost within them. Our city is full of so much joy.

My Pic of the Day:

- Here I am with my twins (aged 10 in this photo) with my hero, Nelson Mandela. During my tenure at the Museum for African Art, I traveled to South Africa to work with Mr. Mandela and used frequent flyer miles to bring my children along for part of the journey. I felt that if I wanted my children to appreciate the gravity of Mr. Mandela’s work—and why I believed so deeply in the cause—my children had to experience part of my work first-hand. On the trip, I had the incredible opportunity to introduce my children to Mr. Mandela. I continue to use experiential learning to serve the students at Mission.

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