Steven Easley did not have it easy growing up.
“I’m from the projects," he said. "I’m an adopted kid. My parents didn’t have great educations. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t do something great."
He credits his time in the military, serving in Iraq, with exposing him to a new world and helping him decide what he wanted to do with his life. He followed his passion to become a photographer.
Now, he wants to expose young people from around the Tri-State to the world of photography, video, graphic design and other media arts through his brand new foundation, Easley Blessed Foundation.
That foundation is one of 29 small businesses and non-profits that were awarded thousands of dollars in grants from the United Way of Greater Cincinnati through its new Black Empowerment Works program.
Nearly 100 African American entrepreneurs applied for the grants. The United Way distributed over $600,000 through the program, which had a maximum award amount of $25,000.
“We felt like there was a role that we could play in investing in community-based, black-led ideas addressing poverty," said Jena Bradley, manager of community impact with the United Way.
The list of winners includes companies focused on diverse ideas such as farming, enhanced education, art and a dance studio.
“We’re able to demonstrate that there are phenomenal people in our community doing phenomenal work," said Bradley.
“It’s a continuation of the commitment we have to always make sure we have a lens of equity in our work and that it’s inclusive and we want lot of different thought leaders and perspectives at the table," said Moira Weir, CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
Weir said the program will also include mentors for each winner. She said United Way is already committed to continuing it in 2021.
Easley is working with six students in a nine-week program that teaches them a variety of media skills . At the end of the program, the students will have produced a documentary about voting, which Easley hopes will be shown on a big screen in a local theater.
He said the idea is to let the students know they can tell their own stories.
“I want to give you the tools, I want to give you a place that you can tell it. I want to give you access to equipment that you can tell it, because it’s important for us to hear it,” he said.
Meanwhile, despite his success in professional photography and videography, Easley says access to resources is an ongoing issue for him and other African American business owners.
“A lot of African American small businesses do not have equal access to resources or capital. Period,” he said. “They can look at my receipts, my deposits, you know, good deposits every month. No defaults on my accounts, but I can’t get a loan.”
Easley said he has had his professional photography business for 14 years.
Giving some African American businesses the ability to grow was one goal of the program, according to Bradley.
“We have organizations that have been doing work for several years and just wanted to infuse some additional dollars into the work that they’ve been able to do to take it to the next level,” she said.
Easley plans to do that with the foundation. Because of social distancing, the class sizes are limited for now. However, purchasing additional equipment and PPE will allow him to add additional students and expand the program. He said watching his students discover what they can do and the value of the stories they can tell is the success he wants to see.
“You all of a sudden start to see that they see significance in their story. That to me is a very important thing,” Easley said. “Some of them just haven’t scratched the surface yet. They don’t realize the talent that’s in there.”
Here is a complete list of the 2020 United Way Black Empowerment Works grant winners:
Agricademy, Cincinnati Music Accelerator, Cozy Home Childcare and Learning Center, Culture Curator, DevonshireSmith Diversity and Education Solutions, Easley Blessed Foundation, Empire Consulting, Envision Children, Extreme Clean Auto Detailing LLC, Filling the Gap, Gourd-geous Sacred Vessels, High Achievers Aim High, Hodge-EDU LLc, iCan Health LLC, Isaiah 55, Inc , Ladies of Leadership LLC,Laundry Love Cincinnati, Madisonville Mission Ministries, Mentoring Young Men,New Prospect Baptist Church, Parents for Public Schools of Greater Cincinnati, Q-KIDZ Dance Team, Queen City Foundation, SuperSeeds, Sweet Sistah Splash, The Green Store, Triiibe Foundation, West End Art Gallery, Youth at the Center