Reflecting on my Community Engagement Fellowship

By Assata Imani Cheers

Before my 2020 Community Engagement Fellowship, I always thought of philanthropy as giving money to the Community, funding the lives of children across the nation, and providing resources for people in foreign countries who are in need. My experience at the Community Foundation of Lorain County provided me with an invaluable lesson: Philanthropy is much more than giving money away and leaving.

I have created and sustained relationships with elected officials, community members, stakeholders, staff members, CEOs of non-profit organizations, and Community Foundations across Lorain County within over 14 projects.

I now have a better understanding of what Lorain County citizens need to fulfill their version of communal and personal progression. I could not have done such a thing without consistent, frontline, fully engaged communication with the individual and collective groups of residents.

Ironically enough, my first fellowship turned out to be the most challenging year for the entire world. COVID-19, Racial Injustice, Black lives lost, but the adversity I endured throughout 2020 cultivated an immense amount of personal, professional growth and development.

Maybe it was not the adversity, but the influence my CEO, CFO, and fellow staff members’ response to the trouble had on me.

I am always an optimistic person, but when COVID-19 hit, my first thought was, “How in the world am I going to engage with the community amid a Global Pandemic?”

Cindy Andrews immediately answered that question with an array of virtual philanthropic learning opportunities aligned with the Community Foundation’s strategic plan.

#1 being our COVID-19 Response Fund. When I became a part of the Community Advisory Committee, I discovered the value of communication on a scale much more significant than ever before. People’s lively hood, next meal, and well-being were at stake. Jobs were lost, rent left unpaid, and children left hungry. When Cindy presented the opportunity to be a part of the grant proposal reviewing process, I had to speak up; in fact, I was honored to do so.

We distributed over $252K in funds to support Lorain County citizens’ well-being in such a shocking period.

As a young African-American woman, I did not think my voice mattered amongst the Executive Directors of such amazing local non-profit organizations.

Following this experience, I discovered my value as a human being and my worth as a professional who loves working in the philanthropic sector.

#2 Racial Equity Fund: In 2020, civil unrest, police brutality, riots, youth murders, and complete craziness rose to the surface. I was pleased to create the Racial Equity Fund application and review proposals via zoom with our President and CEO, Cindy Andrews, Program Officer, Linda Styer, Board Chair, Sue Bowers, Board Vice-Chair, Kevin Donovan, Community Engagement Committee Chair, A.G Miller, our committee members, and Executive Director of the Nordson Corporation Foundation, Cecilia Render. We distributed $50K to four Lorain County non-profit organizations. I am confident that each organization will continue to do an outstanding job working on Racial Equity’s frontlines.

 Working for an organization that acknowledges and actively invests in Racial Equity makes my heart smile.

#3 Neighbor Up Virtual Community Building: I coordinated a group of 15 Lorain County residents who met virtually nine Saturdays, from August 29th until mid-December 2020, to build our Community. Jerry Peña and Lisa-Jean Sylvia are two staff members from Neighbor Up in Cleveland, Ohio, who host our Community Building Sessions. It has been excellent, learning their Community Building strategies and implementing them into our Community. Mayor Jack Bradley and Councilman Rey Carrion even incorporated a concept we learned, called Asset-Based Community Building, into their open forum for Youth in our Community. They tackled youth violence and discovered some youth needs. I love our Community Building group because it includes residents from all sides of Lorain County! It is very diverse and inclusive. In each session, I hear and understand new viewpoints based on everyone’s individual experiences.

Lorain Neighbor, Up Neighbor Nights, will continue this Spring and are open to the public.

#4 Community Policing Breakfast: We gathered Police Chiefs, Lieutenants, and Officers across Lorain County, along with members of our board, staff, committee, and community members who lead local organizations, to discuss the dynamics of Community Policing on October 28th, 2020. It was great that we formed an in-person union to discuss such an important topic. Before this event, I was not aware of Intelligent Led vs. Community Policing and how the lack of knowledge amongst police officers has led to so many police brutality-based murders in our country. Many police officers genuinely care about everyone in the Community. I now understand the importance of seeing police officers as I see myself because they, too, are community members, everyday people with families and friends who care about them. I am pleased that we are moving forward with Rey Carrions’ proposal to create an esports program to reduce youth murders and keep our youth out of the streets. I believe that the program will be beneficial, and I am excited to see it!

These experiences, amongst many more, taught me the essentiality of collaboration for one common goal. In our case, Community Engagement on behalf of the African-American community, those affected by COVID-19, those who sincerely desire to cultivate positive change in Lorain County; etc

I worked closely with our President and CEO, Cindy Andrews, throughout my fellowship. Cindy is a phenomenal woman and leader who taught me a lot through communication and demonstration. Cindy’s optimism and personable nature made my fellowship such a holistically fulfilling experience!

I also worked with Linda Styer; her introduction to the Community Foundation was filled with kindness. Her heart is one of a kind.

Cindy, Jim, Linda, Angie, Jamie, Rachel, Theresa, Britt, Alison, Michelle, Missy, Laura, and all of the Community Foundation of Lorain County Board. Thank you for contributing to my journey as a positive leader in our community and beyond. You are all change agents.