Champions of Change: Innovator of the Year

Black-led changemakers come together to go far

By Madeline Anderson

United Way’s Champions of Change will be honored Nov. 18 with the first 2021 Innovators of Change award for National Philanthropy Day. 

Jena Bradley, director of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati, said, “If you want to go fast, you go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together. (Champions of Change) was an example of folks coming together to go far.”

In 2017, UWGC realized that its traditional funding process under its Black-led social change initiative wasn’t reaching many small grassroots organizations. After connecting with Black changemakers through interviews, conversations, research and ideation sessions, United Way created Champions of Change.

The 2019-2020 Champions of Change
The 2019-2020 Champions of Change – Back row, left to right: Julius Jenkins, Kendra Davis, Chris Macklin, Rashida Manuel, Jeremy Smith, Nicole Scott (former member). Middle row: Reggie Harris, Quavi Ogbar, Retina Carter, India Hicks (former member), Alexis Grimes Trotter, Ron Jackson. Front row: Jalisa Harris, Terri Hurdle, Edita Dolan-Mayo.

These 13 volunteers – chosen through a name-blind application process from community leaders with diverse backgrounds and interests – collectively contributed more than 1,000 volunteer hours from May 2019 to June 2020. They fully designed and launched Black Empowerment Works, a program that resources and funds grassroots-generated, Black-led ideas addressing poverty. Their work led to 28 ideas being infused with more than $600,000 in philanthropic funds to improve their communities.

“Winning the Innovator of the Year award demonstrates the importance of community-based leadership, even within traditional structures,” Bradley said. “From a United Way perspective, one of several things that we’re doing as an organization is to better incorporate community voice, community leadership and sharing power. It’s not just about bringing in voices. It’s about, how do we transfer power?”

It was vital to the Champions that grantmaking is a community decision – they questioned how past support has helped or hurt communities, how to best spread the word about funding opportunities and how to make sure the decision process brought the most people in with the most transparency possible.

The group funded not just nonprofit organizations, but also individuals, community coalitions or for-profit organizations doing change work in their neighborhoods. Projects include photography and videography projects for teenagers; financial education for Black families; an entrepreneurship program for Cincinnati Public Schools; and much more.

“Being a Champion allowed me to reclaim the power that systemic oppression took,” Jeremy K. Smith said. “The power to advance the cause of my community regardless of race or economic status. It has allowed me to right some of the wrongs from the past and create the legacy my ancestors obsessed over.”

Going forward with the next class of Champions, Bradley and United Way are excited about bringing together again something “really electric” about owning, designing and creating a project with community leaders to tackle an opportunity or challenge together using human-centered design as well as their individual and collective knowledge.

“Being a Champion brought me into relationship with an incredible group of people that shared similar core concerns towards Cincinnati’s Black population,” Quavi Ogbar added. “I was a part of a team that boasted multitudes of talents, skills and lived experiences. Our main focus was to provide greater opportunities for Cincinnati’s Black population. But it was our collective skills and resources that made that possible. The benefits of our partnership together is ultimately what it means for me to have been a Champion.”


The NPD 2021 Honorees

Philanthropists of the Year: Rosemary & Mark Schlachter

Volunteer of the Year: Debbie Brant

Lifetime Achievement in Fundraising: Suzy Dorward

Organization of the Year: Legacy Foundations of Louis & Louise Nippert

Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy: Mitch Stone (in memoriam)

Innovator of the Year: United Way’s Champions of Change


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