United Way of Greater Cincinnati announces Black Empowerment Works grantees

The seed planted by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati three years ago that sprouted into a program known as Black Empowerment Works (BEW) has grown and is beginning to bear fruit. Grantees have been announced, and the leaders of 29 Black-led initiatives in greater Cincinnati are fervently preparing and planning ways to make the best use of their portion of the $600,544 in funds being distributed.

Since its impetus in 2017, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati has carefully nurtured the BEW program. Volunteer Black community leaders have carefully crafted it into an intricate system of support and relationships meant to encourage, lift up, and sustain great work being done by African Americans in the community.

The initiatives chosen by reviewers in this first year of the program range greatly in their focus — providing support for education, improving health, facilitating employment, connecting communities — the list goes on.

While initial implementation plans have had to be altered for some due to limitations put in place by the pandemic, grantees are not discouraged and are making the best of things.

Larry Hodge, CEO and founder of Hodge-EDU LLC, received a $25,000 grant for his ALPHA-Male program, aimed at closing the academic achievement gap for Black male students at Silverton Paideia. Focused on mathematics enrichment at the outset, the scope of ALPHA-Male has now expanded to include English Language Arts tutoring, as well as high school and college tours meant to entice younger students toward aiming high when it comes to their futures.

“I really believe in my motto, ‘education empowers dreams,’” says Hodge, a former science and math teacher. “In the last few years I’ve been really doing a push to coach students for the ACT test, because that was one of the things that would keep our students from getting into a college or getting scholarship money. I put together a curriculum for younger students so that they wouldn’t have the same struggles (as the high school students).

“If our students never pass an algebra class in middle school, they’ll never get the opportunity to take a pre cal class in high school, and they’ll be behind starting off their college. A lot of our students, they want to be engineers. They want to do this stuff,” continues Hodge.

He believes the newly hired reading specialist will help round things out, ultimately preparing Silverton Paideia’s youth to achieve on the ACT and be qualified and ready for the colleges they choose.

Alexis Grimes Trotter works as an epidemiologist for NIOSH. She felt compelled to apply to become one of United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Champions of Change (the volunteer group that developed the BEW program) when she read about it on Facebook. She didn’t think she would be accepted, but she was elated when she received an invitation to interview with United Way’s manager of community impact, Jena’ Bradley, and received one of 13 spots. However, Trotter says she had no idea what she was in for.

“I did not know what was actually required of a Champion. The first day they kind of went through the breakdown of, ‘Ok, you’re going to build this program that is going to help Black-led ideas, organizations, leaders in the community. But it’s from scratch … you have no template.’ The amount of work exceeded what I thought was going to be needed, but at the end it was well worth it,” says Trotter.

She volunteered to get the word out in the Black community and found herself co-hosting outreach events with fellow Champion Cris Macklin. They held informative gatherings at local libraries and coffee shops, in addition to attending council meetings to create awareness and encourage diverse applications.

“For the Champions, it was the first year of the cohort, so our cohort is now complete. We will be helping structure the second year of what Champions of Change looks like for the second cohort,” says Trotter.

“While the systemic trend of underinvestment in Black-led ideas is national in its scope, we knew there was work we could do to address it here at United Way,” says Bradley. “This program is three years in the making, and now we’re here!”

The BEW program has been a great success so far, and the feeling while readying for the next cohort is one of encouragement and confidence. However, there is still much work to be done.

According to Moira Weir, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati, “This is a step in the right direction, but not the last step. We have a multi-pronged equity strategy, and addressing the lack of Black-led ideas receiving philanthropic support is one of the major components. You will see more efforts from our organization as we strive to be a community collaborator on issues of equity and inclusion.”

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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.