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Daily Inspiration: Meet Acacia Asbell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Acacia Asbell.

Hi Acacia, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
As a born and raised Baltimorean, I’ve always had a passion for working in spaces that allowed me to give back to my community and improve the environment around me. Even as a 7-year-old, I enjoyed gardening and making mud pies to connect to the world around me as an inner-city youth and was inspired to improve my surroundings. In high school, I helped develop a nonprofit called YOURS (Youth Organizing Urban Revitalization Systems); we transformed vacant lots and underutilized public spaces around Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore into community gardens. We grew enough tomatoes and other vegetables to distribute to three blocks of neighbors! This was when I understood that access to these types of programs could address the challenges and lack of resources in my community, and those experiences molded my career path.

Before my current role as the Community Grants Director for the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership (SBGP), I had the opportunity to direct STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) programming for underserved students of color at Lakeland Elementary-Middle School to introduce them to STEAM careers. Lakeland is one of the neighborhoods served by SBGP, and through my STEAM Director role, I served on the SBGP board. Three years later, I became SBGP’s Community Grants Director.

Some background on SBGP: In 2015, Baltimore adopted the South Baltimore Gateway Master Plan to improve neighborhoods near the Horseshoe Casino. The City began to implement this plan with the advice of the Local Development Council (LDC) and funding provided by the Local Impact Grants generated by video lottery terminals.

It soon became clear that we also needed another organization to help spend these funds – something that could be flexible, nimble, and entrepreneurial. So in 2016, SBGP was established for this purpose, and now the City and SBGP split Baltimore’s share of the Local Impact Grants. SBGP revenues are distributed equitably throughout the District through Community Grants, Enhanced Services, and Transformational Projects. These programs are guided by SBGP’s strategic plan and priorities from the South Baltimore Gateway Master Plan: health and wellness, environmental sustainability, and community development and revitalization.

We all face challenges, but looking back, would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
When I started as an SBGP Board member, it was vital for SBGP to develop a relationship of trust with the communities, especially as a new organization. Community members had previously been disappointed with a lack of reliable support and resources. It took time and follow-through to establish confidence in SBGP and for the community to understand that SBGP was there to support and amplify the great work they were already doing in their neighborhoods.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Through the Community Grants program, we have two grant cycles each year funding projects and programs of mission-based organizations and nonprofits that make a meaningful difference within the SBGP neighborhoods and strategic priorities. Each year, SBGP awards approximately $1 million in Community Grants, which go through a detailed review process for equitable distribution. Since 2017, SBGP has distributed over $4.5 million in grant funding serving 207 projects. Our current grant cycle opened on June 24, 2022 and closes at 5:00pm on August 26, 2022:

 Something that sets SBGP’s programs apart is our commitment to providing grant funding and our passion to amplify, strengthen, and grow the capacity of the groups we serve through supportive relationships and programming.

My “secret sauce” is providing technical assistance and working to build the capacity of grantees to support their work in the community. I enjoy countless hours working with grantees to help them identify their organizational and neighborhood strengths and structures within their organizations that will enable them to have a greater impact and acknowledging the major positive effects they are having on the neighborhoods they serve.

In addition to individualized support, we offer free professional development and networking opportunities for grantees to help them learn from one another and navigate potential resources and partnerships. After six years with SBGP, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing nonprofits that were originally managing small grant projects (under $5,000) with volunteers grow to the point where they can hire paid staff and manage large grants (up to $100,000), serving larger populations and having a broader impact.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
Within our neighborhoods, many of our community groups had to very quickly become more creative in continuing their work and tailor it to specific needs during the pandemic. Examples included pivoting to virtual options for programs like tutoring, job training, and nutrition classes and addressing new needs, such as providing PPE and food services. The communities have repeatedly shown their resiliency, flexibility, and commitment in support of their neighbors, and it has been an honor to work with them through this unusual time.

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