The Iconoclast Dinner Experience, Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell’s annual series of highly curated culinary events, is becoming well-known for championing the talents and visibility of some of our most exciting chefs of color. But after the last drinks are poured and the dishes are cleared, IDE’s multi-course, celebrity-studded fêtes benefit even more promising talents; one hundred percent of IDE’s net proceeds are funneled into a scholarship fund for Harvell’s alma mater, Spelman College.
“My experience at Spelman College had a tremendous impact on affirming me as a black woman,” Harvell tells IDE media sponsor, The Root. “Being able to spend my formative adult years at an institution that was established with me in mind was a gift. It is a gift that is difficult to articulate, that one has to experience to understand.
“It is also an expensive gift,” she notes.
Dr. Harvell, a pediatric dentist and 2018 Root 100 honoree, is intimately aware of the challenges often facing students otherwise eligible for an elite education like the one Spelman offers, particularly those who hail from outside of the United States.
“As a first-generation Jamaican-American, I had firsthand knowledge through my relatives of the shortage of funding resources available for international students seeking higher education at a U.S.-based institution,” she tells The Root. “Spelman College was only founded in 1881 [initially as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary], so although relative to many other HBCUs our endowment is more substantial, with respect to other single-sex institutions, our endowment is smaller.
“As a result, Spelman does not have the resources to be as generous with grants and scholarships for potential Spelman women students from the continent and the Caribbean,” she explains. “I wanted to make an impact on making Spelman a viable option for these young women.”
Working with Spelman’s Department of Institutional Advancement, Harvell established a scholarship fund through which her events directly benefit prospective students—in particular, those from Jamaica and sub-Saharan African countries. With the Iconoclast Dinner Experience now in its fifth year, to date, her events have raised over $100,000 to help make a Spelman education possible for students in need.
And Harvell isn’t just a generous alum; mother to five daughters, she now also remains connected to Spelman as a proud parent.
“[I’m] a Spelman mom times two!” she exclaims. “In addition to our rising junior, we have a daughter matriculating this fall. My husband and I take comfort in the fact that our daughters are being educated in a loving environment that affirms them as black women, and are being taught by professors that have a vested interest in their success. Spelman is also an intimate environment where students can have a meaningful interactions with their professors.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the aspect of legacy,” she adds. “The idea that an institution that poured so much of itself into me and vice versa is now a shared experience with my daughters makes the Spelman legacy special.”
And while billionaire Robert F. Smith’s recent gift to the 2019 graduating class of nearby Morehouse rightfully made headlines, Harvell wants us average earners to know that no matter how small, philanthropy starts at home—and is particularly vital for the survival and success of HBCUs.
“Robert F. Smith’s gift was transformative in a myriad of ways. However, one does not have to be a billionaire to make an impact on an HBCU,” she says. “As fundraising co-chair of my 5-, 10- and 15-year reunions, I know that the most critical aspect of alumna giving is not only about the absolute number, but the percentage of alumna giving. Speaking globally about HBCUs, not Spelman per se, we—as in HBCU alumni—can’t expect for philanthropists to give to our institutions if the alumni giving rate isn’t respectable.
“Additionally, when you are participating in alumni giving, determine if your employer has a matching program; this helps,” Harvell advises. “Give consistently, even if it is $10 per month.
“Also, to our non-billionaire [private white institution] alumni folks, regarding philanthropy, you can be an ally to HBCUs like Robert F. Smith without being a billionaire,” she adds. “Pick an HBCU that speaks to you and support it. Smith graduated from Cornell, but there was something about Morehouse that spoke to him. Perhaps your family has roots in Mississippi; there are roughly six HBCUs in Mississippi that you can learn about and hopefully select one to support.”
Finally, whether through sending a check or attending one of her deliciously thriving events, Harvell wants us to encourage to put our money where our legacies lie.
“‘Wakanda Forever’ isn’t just a rallying cry in one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most famous movies,” she reminds us. “It is a lived experience by thousands of HBCU alum. You can support that experience through giving.”
The 2019 Iconoclast Dinner Experience events take place on Saturday, June 8, at New York City’s culinary mecca the James Beard House, with Pulitzer Prize-winning actress Condola Rashad as this year’s honorary event chair. Tickets start at $100 for the afternoon’s Taste of The Iconoclast Dinner, and range from $500 to $1250 for The Iconoclast Dinner’s seven-course seating (course-curated wine and spirits included). All net proceeds benefit Spelman College. Tickets are available now; to ensure entry, purchases are advised by May 31.