COLUMBUS, Ind. — Education and opportunities in life go hand in hand. That’s a lesson Lori Thompson learned before and during her 40-year career with Cummins.
Within 14 years after accepting a job with the Columbus-based Fortune 150 company, Thompson became the first African American and the fourth woman to manage a Cummins plant. The Columbus resident retired in April 2019, serving as an officer for her final decade there.
“What’s unique about my ascension is very few Blacks started at the entry level and became officers in Cummins,” she said. “I was not the only one, but among a relative few.”
Her start in life was a humble one. Thompson grew up in Minnesota, where her eight-member family shared a two-bedroom St. Paul home. “We didn’t have much,” she said. But with support from others, her intelligence and diligence opened doors for opportunity.
After college Thompson had four offers for graduate school — the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, Columbia University and the one she chose, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Two years later with her MBA in sight, she had job offers from five companies in California, Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana — including three banks, IBM and Cummins.
“I always wanted to do well and better,” said Thompson, who as an adult has committed to help other African Americans achieve success. “I want other people to believe they have a right to a better life.”
She didn’t have to look far for role models. Her mother, Joan Thompson, now 89, was one of them. Joan Thompson’s commitment to her children reflects lifelong devotion, including attending two college graduations on the same day. She attended one daughter’s morning ceremony at Marquette University in Milwaukee and then headed to Philadelphia to attend daughter Lori’s afternoon graduation from Wharton.
“That’s commitment,” Thompson said. “I know education is the key because it was for me. It’s important for students to get the education they need and the support they need.”
Unfortunately, many Black students too often fade into the wallpaper, a conclusion she reached from personal experience as a Columbus mother. “They’re just waiting to graduate and leave. They’re just sitting on the sidelines instead of being a full participant in school,” she said.
To support and encourage local Black and biracial young people, Thompson and a handful of others spearheaded the Paths to Success initiative. She and three other core team members — Rosslyn King, Frank Griffin and Olisa Humes — work with additional volunteers to engage local youths for opportunities after high school.
“That’s what drives me, gets me up in the morning,” Thompson said of the year-old community action group, which is committed to the support and enrichment of Black and biracial students and their families in Bartholomew County.
Paths to Success debuted during the 2020 Martin Luther King Day activities in Columbus with a science, technology, engineering and math workshop for 30 high school students.
Its plans for this year include working with Purdue Polytechnic Institute in Columbus on a LEGO robotics program in June targeting Black and biracial students. In October, Paths to Success will partner with the Council for Youth Development and Columbus Human Rights Commission for a second youth empowerment workshop for Black, biracial and multiracial youths. With 21 participants during last fall’s debut event held virtually, the workshop’s purpose is to embrace belonging and to ignite students’ spark.
Additional Paths to Success sessions under consideration include a freshman orientation, financial literacy, a career fair highlighting people who look like them and a scholarship-writing session.
Thompson and Mary Harmon were among an eight-member planning team for the first youth development event, representing the African American Fund of Bartholomew County.
Six local couples — Thompson and husband Ben Downing, Tom and Mary Harmon, Gil and Dawn Palmer, Dennis and Paulette Roberts, Charles and Lorraine Smith, and Donald and Shirley Trapp — launched the African American Fund in 2013 to help educate and inspire African Americans in Bartholomew County by focusing on education, leadership development, economic/career development, health awareness, and arts and cultural events.
The African American Fund’s founding couples, combined, pledged $10,000 for five years, committing $50,000. With subsequent donations from others, the fund has placed $100,000 from scholarships to grants into the community while maintaining a balance of $225,000.
The African American Fund has collaborated with like-minded organizations, helping sponsor a film and lecture series, and providing a grant to purchase racial justice and anti-racism resources for youth and adult learning through local school systems and colleges. The fund offers nine scholarships, typically for $1,000. It also provides $10,000 to the IUPUC Minority Education Endowment, which awards $1,000 scholarships to Black or Latino juniors or seniors interested in a teaching career.
Thompson said she is encouraged by recent developments at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., which expanded its director of multicultural diversity position to full time, has made curriculum changes and is working to increase diversity among teachers. The district serves about 11,475 students in prekindergarten through Grade 12, with nearly one-third being minorities — 17.2% Hispanic, 7.5% Asian, 2.4% Black and 4.1% multiracial.
This year, Thompson joins the board of directors of the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition, a partnership of education, business and community leaders focused on aligning and integrating the region’s community learning system with economic growth and an improved quality of life.
Since 2011, the Community Education Coalition has had a program focused on Latino outcomes and outreach to middle school, high school and college students. It doesn’t have a program like that for Black students but is having conversations with Thompson and others about potential collaboration, said Kathy Oren, the coalition’s executive director.
Thompson is helping to build a strong network of people and organizations in the Columbus area to improve outcomes for Black youths, Oren said.
“She will help us as a community have a better understanding of what the needs are,” Oren said. “The question is how can we support our youth with a lens of equity, meaning how can we ensure that all of our youth get what they need to be successful in school and in life?”
Thompson has long been a champion for diversity, especially during her final promotion in 2017 to vice president of the company’s U.S. Diversity Initiative, when she became a member of the Cummins Operating Team. She worked with Cummins leadership team to recruit, develop, retain and advance top-level talent, ensuring that the company would leverage differences to obtain superior results.
Her efforts have been recognized with three significant local honors:
• The Beloved Community Award, presented in January 2018 by the African American Pastors Alliance.
• The Benjamin “Mickey” King Award, presented in May 2018 for outstanding leadership and commitment to diversity by the Columbus Area Multi-Ethnic Organization.
• An Outstanding Citizen Award, presented Jan. 23 of this year by IUPUC and the Columbus/Bartholomew County NAACP.
“She is among a select few that go beyond a call of duty and leave a legacy behind — not for personal gain, but for community gain,” said Johnnie Edwards, president of the local NAACP chapter, who has worked with Thompson on diversity projects this past year. It’s been a year of heightened awareness regarding racial matters.
Thompson said she was pleased to see significant differences by race and age among people involved in peaceful protests against systemic racism, compared to the makeup of protesters involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s when she was growing up.
“The fervor, the indignation that people have been showing — this is a reckoning that has been coming for many years, and we need to carry it through,” she said. “That said, I believe Columbus/Bartholomew County is a microcosm of our society. People say it (systemic racism) doesn’t happen here. Believe me, it does.”
But a number of local businesses and organizations have committed to having difficult conversations about racism and what people can do to improve their community. “We’re moving in the right direction, and I’m glad to be part of it,” she said.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold that position, are making a difference in forming a more diverse group of American leaders, Thompson said. In particular, she said she is proud of Harris’ achievement.
“In honor of our MVP, Madam Vice President, I wore pearls — her signature jewelry — that day and every day thereafter for a week,” Thompson said.
But similarly, there was progress on this front after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, only to see diversity efforts nationally lose ground afterward.
“We have a short attention span as a society, and my greatest fear is that this will die down,” Thompson said. “We have to make it sustainable. It means getting involved, getting engaged.”