“Take the time to self-reflect.”
Take the time to self-reflect. There are always thorns on the road ahead. Sometimes, we need to step back and examine ourselves, because those thorns can often be distractions that may choke out the vision or opportunity that we have to actually transform lives. It’s often important to sit back and ask yourself, “Is this something I can get better at? Is this something I need to let go of? Are my motives still continuously in the right place?” When we examine ourselves, we are able to prune those places that need renewal.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Avrell Stokes.
Avrell Stokes, Co-founder of Assemble and President of BeGreatTogether, sees an unprecedented opportunity to inspire movements and guide transformation by uplifting current community leaders within our neighborhoods and build future leaders by investing in our public K-12 schools. With a background in the healthcare arena, Stokes received his Master of Public Health degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2012. His passion for innovation and people eventually led to a transition to the nonprofit sector to best impact the lives of youth and disinvested communities, where he has established a nonprofit that assigns resources and builds awareness to economic, social, and environmental factors impacting disinvested communities. Stokes also serves as a cross-state, nonprofit director for those facing mental health or behavioral health challenges.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I am originally from Clinton, Mississippi, which is near the state capital of Jackson, Mississippi. I went to the University of Southern Mississippi, where I received my Master’s Degree in Public Health. I worked at a large hospital system where I supported the implementation of various policies at hospital clinics. During that time, I also traveled through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana with a small camera crew documenting issues of poverty. We would post YouTube videos of the footage and advocate for various resources needed throughout the community.
Afterwards, I really wanted to get a broader experience outside of my home state so I ended up coming to Kansas City, Missouri to do healthcare IT consulting. I would fly to different hospitals around the nation implementing various healthcare systems for them.
From there, I went into the nonprofit sector to be more deeply connected to the community. I developed programs for youth in grades 9–12, ran those programs throughout the public school system, and did volunteer work throughout the community, as well. That’s what brought me to where I am today! I love my background and how I became more involved in non-profit community-type of work.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?
Assemble is the name of our for-profit umbrella, and BeGreat Together is our non-profit opportunity to make even deeper connections within the community. A couple of years ago, our CEO at Assemble, Cortney Woodruff, reached out to me with the idea around Assemble. He knew I had been doing a lot of community work for a number of years, and invited me to come on board to help brainstorm how we could create an even deeper community impact with this new company.
From there, it was me, Cortney Woodruff, Cortez Bryant, and Jesse Williams working on this project. Cortez and Jesse are the other co-founders of Assemble and are both deeply involved in community and education advocacy. All four of us are like-minded individuals who are passionate about racial equity in Black and Latino communities and really, BIPOC communities as a whole. Through that passion, we were able to come up with the idea around BeGreat Together, which allows us to follow through on our desire to make a lasting impact in the community, with the support of the Assemble network. There is a deficit in funding to K-12 public schools with predominantly minority student enrollment. There is a deficit to funding that goes to Black and Latino-led efforts or organizations. Even when those efforts are in their own communities, Black and Latino-led organizational investments trail their white counterparts by at least 76%.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
BeGreat Together is focused on two things: education and the community as a whole.
We will be giving monetary awards to innovative K-12 public school programs, services, or initiatives, with our focus primarily being predominantly Black and Latino schools. Though we will be kicking off with the schools in Kansas City, Missouri, we have also spoken with various school districts around the nation. As we grow nationally and expand into these districts, we have already started preparing by meeting with different school partners that we will be adding as time permits.
These public school programs could be anything from childcare centers for single-parent high school teenagers wanting to finish their high school diploma, to robotics and coding programs, to stipends for in-school academic initiatives. We are really encouraging schools & school partners to imagine what it is to enhance the educational experience of our K-12 public school students. They’ll be able to nominate their own programs, or other people’s programs, initiatives, or services that they see enhancing the educational environment for students.
BeGreat Together also wants to highlight the fact that influence and impact are happening all around us. We will be giving monetary awards to individuals who are making a change in their community. It could be a community doula, individuals who are working with survivors of any form of violence, or a person who saw issues around the homeless population and decided to do something about it. We want to highlight the “change-makers”: those people in the community who are working to create a better environment and community for our neighbors. Individuals will be able to nominate themselves or other people in the community.
Another piece that we will be adding in the near future is to stimulate national movements by uplifting those community stories on our online BeGreat Together platform and inspire people to make change in their own communities. When we look at Black and Latino communities, the issues are the same across the country. The issues that I saw growing up in Mississippi are the same here in Kansas City, Missouri, which are the same issues in Houston, Los Angeles, etc. We can inspire change and inspire movements throughout all of our communities, by sharing approaches and solutions.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
When I was in Mississippi, I toured around the community with an organization called Gathering of Hearts and my incredible mentor Antoinette Harrell. I met a child who was in a dire situation and lived in a predominantly Black, disinvested community. She was a straight-A 3rd or 4th-grade student but living in an environment that likely wouldn’t be conducive to her success. I sat on her front porch talking to her and asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. She responded, “I want to be a professor.”
I thought this was incredibly inspiring because when I was in the 4th grade, I would have never said something like that. As a college student, hearing her say this impacted me greatly, and so I reached out to various professors at my university. I asked them to stay back for a day and explained that I knew a young person in the community who I thought would be inspired by touring the campus and meeting some professors so she could see herself in her future. Years later, I ran into this young lady again. She almost tackled me when she saw me and thanked me, saying that her life was changed by that opportunity.
We need to find and support people who can create ways for students to see themselves in their future, whatever that may be. Whether it be skill development, mentoring, mental health, or experiential opportunities, those are the types of opportunities that we should be funding for our students. In the K-12 public school system, predominantly in Black and Latino communities, students are underfunded by 5000 dollars per pupil. Overall, that is about 150 billion dollars that our K-12 public schools are missing. There are no opportunities to even put resources toward students to dream. Those are the initiatives that BeGreat Together would like to fund in schools.
I also volunteer with a group that walks the streets at night in what we would consider being the most violent zip codes in the area. We have been able to work with people who have had unfortunate life circumstances happen to them and help them see a different path than the negligent decisions that they have been forced to make. We do not impose anything on them or tell them that it is what they have to do, but try to show them what’s possible. I met someone who had been recently incarcerated and was trying to make ends meet, doing things that he felt like he had to do. We connected him with different job opportunities, helped him get a car, legal resources, and reunited him with his family. That was five years ago, and he is now on a different path, reconnecting with his family.
When I think about how we can fund change-makers, I think about those people that are within the community who are investing their time into uplifting others. I think about the people that I know of who are making that impact in the community helping to improve livelihoods. We want to fund those community change-makers to have the opportunity to expand and reach others.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Funding, funding, funding. We know funding is an issue, but oftentimes that is the thing that people try to veer away from or try to find a workaround. Instead of funding, many people may get put into an accelerator program or are given a mentorship opportunity. While both of these are helpful and definitely needed just as much as funding, they are often provided in the place of funding.
Brandon Calloway, a good friend of mine from an organization called GIFT, always says, “If you teach a person to fish but don’t give them a fishing pole, what’s the point?” I really like that saying and think that it is one of those things that we really need to think about. How are we providing the resources for people to actually make the next step? It is important for people to gain foundational knowledge, but if they don’t have the tools to move forward, it may end up moving people backward instead of forward. There is this sense of hopelessness that continues to build in the community when no matter how hard people try, they can’t get what they need to make it to the next step.
This is why we start with funding. When you look at community-led initiatives, whether it’s non-profit or simply someone trying to make a difference, white-led organizations have 76% more unrestricted net assets than Black and Latino-led initiatives and organizations. That is even when the efforts being funded are focused on Black and Latino issues. Those are the things that we really want to work to reverse and instead uplift leaders of color- BIPOC leaders who have the answers to their own issues in their own communities.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define “Leadership” as Altruism: unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
First, it is important to know who you are and know where your values lie. It is easy to be deterred by different people, opportunities, thoughts, etc. but it is important to stay true to who you are and where you stand and to not waver on that.
Next, know who you can depend on. Even with BeGreat Together, the biggest help has been having other people like Cortney Woodruff, Cortez Bryant, Jesse Williams, and our team, who are also passionate about the community and education, and local leadership. It is very important to have like-minded individuals by your side who can see your vision.
With that, it’s also important to have a vision and work towards it.
From there, always continue to uplift others. You can only grow to the extent that you uplift other people. How are you uplifting those around you?
Finally, take the time to self-reflect. There are always thorns on the road ahead. Sometimes, we need to step back and examine ourselves, because those thorns can often be distractions that may choke out the vision or opportunity that we have to actually transform lives. It’s often important to sit back and ask yourself, “Is this something I can get better at? Is this something I need to let go of? Are my motives still continuously in the right place?” When we examine ourselves, we are able to prune those places that need renewal.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to work with Beyoncé and her Beygood organization. Beygood has done a lot with investing in black-led businesses but also on the community side, particularly in response to COVID by providing everyday needs throughout the community. That makes me think about how on the community side of BeGreat Together, we will be providing this funding to people who are making a difference in their community so that they can maintain and expand their initiatives and support others.
Queen Latifah would also be phenomenal to work with. She has an organization called Queen Collective, which works to get women in the filming industry. That makes me think of what we do with our company Assemble, particularly looking at BIPOC communities and allowing them to have opportunities in the filming industry. It would be amazing to have her mentees take part in our productions. Also, on the BeGreat Together side, we will be doing some community-level filming and narrative change and uplifting different stories and solutions to BIPOC issues. I would love to be able to work with the Queen Collective and some of those individuals who go through her program, and have those filmmakers or producers involved.
I see some pretty clear connections particularly with BeyGood and the Queen Collective where there is a lot of synergy and opportunity there.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
“Teach a person as if they already were what they potentially could be and you make them what they should be.” I think that this quote is just relevant to my everyday life. I always seek to look at a person with their full potential no matter the circumstance or situation.
How can our readers follow you online?
Please reach out to us if you’re interested in working with us or in our nomination process! We are kicking off in Kansas City this fall, but will be going national starting next year and so could be in your city at any point!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.