Better Together: Akron BMe Community Celebrates Black Men

Eight Akron Men Awarded $10,000 Each for their Positive Impact

words by Grace Ebner; photos by Svetla Morrison

“Be who?” Ace Epps called out to the audience.

“Be me!” the crowd confidently shouted back.

3. IMG_8815 ThreeThe energy in the Akron Urban League hall was contagious. People were calling out “Amen,” taking photos together, clapping and hugging. Despite not knowing anyone in the room, I found myself joining along. I snapped a few selfies with the folks sitting next to me, and I applauded as loudly as I could. I felt part of a community.

Ace Epps is the Akron Community Manager for BMe Community, a non-profit organization sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its goal is to change the narrative about black men. Instead of regurgitating the negative stereotypes and news stories, BMe focuses on positive images of black men, showing that they truly are assets to our communities. At the Better Together Celebration on June 23, eight Akron men were recognized.

2. IMG_8639 TwoAs I watched each man get called up to the stage, I couldn’t help but smile and feel proud of them as I joined their family and friends by cheering in support. DaMareo Cooper, Willie McGee, Jason Miller and Denny Wilson were celebrated as the 2016 winners of the BMe Leader Award. The 2015 winners, Shante Robinson, Minister Michael Starks, John Thompson and Austin Clopton, were also honored. These eight men were awarded for their outstanding leadership and service, and each received $10,000 to help them to continue serving the Akron community.

“To be able to show the kids, be able to show our community that you can do other things besides get in trouble – you can do positive things to help your community out – that’s a real big thing to me. I’m a hometown guy. I love Akron,” Austin Clopton, owner of Developing Student Athletes Academy, shared. The tagline for this event was “Better Together,” and that phrase proved to be true. With the support of family, friends, and the BMe Community, these eight men have in turn been able to support those most in need in Akron.

“I’m from here, I was born here, I was raised here. I love the people here. I want my community to be the best place and provide the best quality of life for as many people in our city as we can,” DaMareo Cooper, organizing director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, stated. Shante Robinson, founder of Unified Mindz, shared a similar sentiment: “I love where I live. I love my people. . . . So to be an impact to them, to be an inspiration to them . . . it means a lot.” This love for our city and its people was immediately apparent in every conversation I had with the winners.

Jason Miller, Summit County Site Coordinator for College Now, found his niche helping students attend college. He shared this wisdom: “In my twenties I strived to make a million dollars. Today I strive to make a significant impact on a million lives. In my youth it was all about being important and wealth. Today I am striving not to be important but to be significant.” Minister Michael Starks, founder of Start Living and Acting Positive Initiative, focuses on helping offenders, showing them that there is another way, a better way, to live. He shared that, “It [being a leader] means that I have been blessed.”

These men also had the opportunity to visit the White House, where they were honored for their dedication and service as BMe Leaders. Willie McGee, athletic director of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, provided this insight on his experience: “Going to the BMe conference they had in Washington D.C. and meeting like-minded people and people doing great things in other communities, it motivated me to do more, gain more balance in my life, stop making excuses [and] maximize opportunities given to me.”

These eight men have clearly all put forth tremendous effort into bettering themselves and our community. I am so honored to have had the opportunity to speak with them. We will be profiling them about their respective work and organizations for upcoming issues. In the meantime, if you see any of these eight men, thank them. They’ve helped make our city a better place.

For more information about BMe Community, visit


If Grace Ebner were a plant, she’d be a lilac bush.