Nonprofits

Black Nonprofit Spotlight: Clever Communities In Action

Starr Armstrong, founder and executive director

As a part of our commitment to racial equity, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation highlights nonprofits led by Black people in order to show and support their work. According to national studies, Black-led nonprofits don't always get the same level of support as their counterparts due to racially inequitable practices. We're working to change that in Hampton Roads. The community foundation also funds Black-led nonprofits through its Black Community Partnership Fund.

Starr Armstrong, founder and executive director of Clever Communities in Action, shared an overview of her nonprofit's work with the community foundation.

Describe your nonprofit and its mission.

Clever Communities in Action focuses on the promotion and placement of culturally affirming literature, to improve literacy rates, build community, and heal traumas inflicted by systemic racism within the African American community. We understand that literacy is the foundation of learning and that it is important for children to have books that affirm their culture and existence in this world. They need to see protagonists, heroes and heroines that remind them of themselves, their family, and friends. They need books that pique their interests at an early age and make them eager to turn the pages. Not too long ago, it was extremely difficult to find such books. That’s what sparked our mission and movement.

What programs does your nonprofit offer?

We have Read to L.E.A.D., in which we have donated thousands of brand new African American Children’s books to libraries in Title 1 schools - which serve a majority of children living at or near high poverty levels - in Hampton Roads and Flint, MI.

The Virtual Village Show, which began the first day of school shutdowns in 2020 started as an online platform, in which families, educators, and various community members came together to read African American children’s books. Friendships and collaborations were formed around literature. It grew into a produced show that included elementary school teachers who taught live, foundational literacy lessons and segments performed by students (The Literacy Gang) highlighting Black history facts, and quotes from Black authors. With five seasons under its belt, the show is now hosted by the Literacy Gang. We partner with local elementary schools to include their students as guest readers on the show and we also developed an online learning portal with supplemental literacy lessons that students complete after viewing the show.

Our teen program is called L.A.A.W. Scholars, which stands for Literacy As A Weapon.

Clever Communities in Action
Clever Communities in Action

What's an average day or week like for you?

Emails, emails galore. Calls about collaborations, calls with prospective donors, calls with board members, researching funding prospects, and reading to stay abreast of what’s going on in our field. My favorite is the time spent on program development and working directly with our youth.

When did you launch this nonprofit and why?

I have been doing youth program development since I graduated high school, which was eons ago, but CCA was launched in 2016. As the granddaughter of Freedom Fighters in Gadsden, AL, I heard and understood a lot at a young age. I was also taught to read at three years old by my Granny. I was a voracious reader. I enjoyed reading biographies written for children. Frederick Douglass was one of my first and favorites. As I began to desire fiction books, I noticed there weren’t any chapter books with girls who looked like me. As an adult, I was easily able to recognize the advantages of being a strong reader and I also set out to ensure that boys and girls would be able to read books with characters that looked like themselves.

The other motive was to create safe spaces that value and affirm Black youth. Unfortunately, through personal experience and hundreds of conversations with others, I know this is not always the case. However, it is a requirement if you work with us.

Give an example of your nonprofit's success and impact in the region.

I want to focus on the success of our L.A.A.W. Scholars. Last May, our teens came to us eager to learn but timid. They were not yet confident in asking questions, sharing their thoughts and perspectives, or working as a team. Fast forward to today and after the lessons from The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, interviewing residents and experts, and some genuine nurturing and affirmations, they made the connections between the concepts from the book, their interviews, and their personal lived experiences which has resulted in a powder keg of lobbying and grassroots activism. The once timid teens are now speaking out at school board meetings and collaborating with peers to introduce bills. They are building relationships with delegates and attending press conferences. One Scholar is now a member of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. This positive youth development centered around literacy as a weapon is sparking a movement among these students and their peers.

Clever Communities in Action
Clever Communities in Action

What do you believe is one of the greatest needs in Hampton Roads?

Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, and Portsmouth have higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity than Virginia on average. This needs to be addressed and corrected from a systemic perspective. No more quick fixes or band-aids over bullet wounds.

What are three ways you would like the community to support your nonprofit?

Community support is paramount to the success of our work and extremely appreciated. The community can support us by:

1. Spreading awareness of what we are doing. Share our website with your social media network, colleagues, and peers, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

2. Volunteer skills and expertise

3. Donate at CleverCommunities.org. Every bit helps!

What advice would you offer to other nonprofit leaders, staff, or volunteers?

The work can get daunting, so always take the time to focus on why you started doing this. Celebrate the wins and remember you are making a difference!

Do you have any upcoming events that the community can attend or support?

You can visit our Facebook and YouTube pages to view seasons 1 – 5 of the Virtual Village Show and be on the lookout for season 6 this summer!

The L.A.A.W. Scholars are working on their documentary!! It’s guaranteed to inform, inspire, and empower! Like, follow, and subscribe to stay abreast of the debut.

Want to learn more about Clever Communities in Action? Here’s how:

Website: clevercommunities.org

YouTube: Clever Communities in Action

Facebook: Clever Communities in Action

IG: CCA_org

Email: admin@clevercommunities.org

Clever Communities in Action
Clever Communities in Action
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