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Black Equity and Excellence project is funding initiatives with long-lasting potential

Payne Horning
Curtis Chaplin, right, created the Option Zero gym to provide holistic training and build superior athletes in Syracuse. The facility was awarded grant funding from the Black Equity and Excellence Fund, which aims to support the black community in CNY.

Following national protests and calls to action last year after the death of George Floyd, the Central New York Community Foundation created a fund to combat systemic racism and lift up the Black community in the region and beyond.

Over the next few years, the Foundation plans to invest more than $1 million from its Black Equity and Excellence Fund into local professionals, businesses, and organizations. Some of the recipients say these projects have the potential to make a meaningful difference in the Black community for many years to come.

At the Option Zero gym in Syracuse, a group of adolescents are learning how to jab, hook, and uppercut even though most of them aren't half as tall as the punching bags they're hitting. Instructor and owner of the gym, Curtis Chaplin, works with each one of them to perfect their form. Chaplin said it's that individual attention and the emphasis he places on holistic training developing as an athlete and a person that has made this gym such a success. His ranks have swelled from 15 kids when Option Zero opened last October to 80 today.

"The parents trust and they now want to come here because all these other gyms in all these other places, yes they have monumental facilities, they have all of these machines, but they’re not taking the time to talk to that student who walks in," Chaplin said. "They’re not calling to say, 'hey, why didn’t you come to gym' or 'hey, what’s going on,' I’m part of this community."

Option Zero was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Black Equity and Excellence Fund to help renovate and outfit the facility, but the facility is much more than that for some kids. Many are now coming after school or when their parents are busy to hang out and work on homework. Fourteen-year-old Gianalese Quionones said they look up to Coach Chaplin.

"He's definitely there for you when you need him," Quionones said. 

Chaplin, a Syracuse native whose parents were in and out of the prison system during most of his childhood, said some kids in Syracuse could use a coach.

"I'm really about saving one of these kids, I was one of these kids," Chaplin said. "My goal is to be for these kids who I needed growing up. I was a troubled youth, I was battling a lot of trauma, a lot of stress, a lot of anger, but it wasn’t until I played semi-pro football and boxing that I had coaches who said enough is enough. I expect more out of you. This is what you're going to do and until you wake up, we're just going to be hard on you. It finally broke and finally found my path, and here I am."

Credit Central New York Community Foundation

Option Zero is one of 27 recipients of the Black Equity and Excellence Fund. The grants have gone to a variety of projects, everything from an initiative to help raise awareness about Black-owned businesses to a podcast to elevate Black voices. Community Foundation Program Officer Dashiell Elliott said the idea is to encourage creativity and innovation.

"So, instead of coming in for grants that help solve food insecurity issues or basic human needs, we decided to flip it on its head and have categories such as Black creatives and Black maternal health and Black legacy and Black generational wealth, those kinds of things to really let the Black community get their ideas flowing," Elliott said. 

Lekia Hill received a grant to help finance her Powerful Voices app which can help voters learn who their representatives are, how to connect with them, how to register to vote, and provides citizens a way to connect and organize people on issues of public concern. Hill said backing initiatives like hers can have a more long-lasting impact in the Black community.

Credit Lekia Hill
Lekia Hill created the Powerful Voices app to help people, and specifically black citizens, engage with issues of public concern and connect with their representatives. It is one of 27 projects that has been partially funded with a grant from the Central New York Community Foundation's Black Equity and Excellence Fund.

"Most people in disenfranchised communities, they want to do something about it, they want to make the change, and sometimes some of these initiatives are just band-aids," Hill said. "You can give as many clothes and have as many drives and dinners and all of those things are great, but they’re only temporary. The real change is at the root of policy. If we were empowered to be involved and engaged in the system like other communities, that will definitely shift the paradigm."

Elliott said the Community Foundation plans to continue awarding grants with applications for the next round opening up this summer, but long term the community foundation will incorporate what it's learned and what has worked best from these projects to improve its broader equity mission.

"This is really a pilot for our larger racial equity work," Elliott said. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.