Why Juneteenth matters: Q&A with Milan R. Balinton of African American Community Service Agency

Milan R. Balinton of African American Community Service AgencyBased in San José, African American Community Service Agency provides programs, services and activities to perpetuate and strengthen African American identity, culture, values, traditions, knowledge and family life. To that end, AACSA runs many programs, including a summer science camp, events dealing with health and wellness in the community, and a career center that provides tools for local residents to find and obtain jobs.

Milan R. Balinton, AACSA’s executive director, and a member of SVCF’s Community Advisory Council, spoke with SVCF about his organization’s work and what Juneteenth means to him. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

1) What is the most vital work you and AACSA are doing right now?

COVID relief. AACSA Cares is our program that provides food, supplies and accurate information about housing in Santa Clara County. We’ve partnered with Destination: Home and Sacred Heart Community Service to help people get funding and pay their rent.

We’ve also grown during the pandemic, going from 12 team members to 18. That has let us form a policy and advocacy arm, which is working on how to support our work from that angle.

The homelessness prevention arm of the organization is concerned about June 30, which, as of now, will mark the end of California’s eviction moratorium. We know people will call and reach out to us.

And with all of that work, we’re still committed to our six pillars and providing an enormous amount of programming that’s still happening virtually.

2) What are you most excited about next?

March 16, 2020, we put tables outside our agency — we didn’t have much information, but knew our community needed to see our faces, needed to see us, to ease their confusion about what was going on in the world. I say that for context as I’ve been thinking that when we come out of the pandemic, we should do it with new ways of being, as opposed to returning to normalcy.

We are beginning to think about opening back up and bringing people back into our agency outside of our team and  volunteers. We’re excited about people being able to use the building and being able to hear new people’s laughter. I think that’s going to help us take on what’s next.

I’m also hoping to hire a new associate director and more new staff members to take on the concerns of the community as we build and maintain a sustainable nonprofit.

3) What are your feelings and thoughts about Juneteenth?

I identify as Black, African American with African ancestry, so Juneteenth is special. It’s special to me, personally, to my 83-year-old grandmother and to many organizations in the Santa Clara County community.

As much as we invest in the Fourth of July, it must be that and more for Juneteenth, which is about what happened to a community that was enslaved since we got here and then broke out of bondage. It is independence for the African American. In 1776, my people were enslaved and were not celebrating freedom; they were making food and taking care of the babies of slave masters. The celebration of America’s founding is a part of history, but other parts often aren’t told.

This past year, we made Juneteenth history in a way that should make more people aware. We had advocated for Juneteenth to be a countywide paid holiday. Dave Cortese, who was a Santa Clara County Supervisor at the time, presented the idea to his colleagues, and we helped support the idea in partnership with the NAACP and other local community leaders. It was passed unanimously in September, making Santa Clara County the first in California to make Juneteenth an official county holiday.

4) Tell us about Juneteenth in the Park.

This year marked the 40th annual Juneteenth in the Park. We celebrated Juneteenth for a full week, starting Sunday, June 13, and during that time we supported a lot of the small Black businesses that have been hurting during the pandemic with events and programs. On Saturday, June 19, we held a festival at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

I’ve told people before that there may not be a “Black neighborhood,” but I can tell you where to find the Black churches, beauty shops, barber shops, the places where we create community. Some people who have come to the Juneteenth celebrations in the past have said, “Wow, I didn’t know there were so many Black people in San José,” because this is when a lot of the historically Black fraternities, sororities and other social groups are out and present.

We saw those groups and more there, and allies. Everybody was there because they were trying to empower our community with information and resources. We also had COVID-19 information and opportunities for people to get vaccines.

On top of all that, we had food, space for children to play, story reading, book and backpack giveaways, and great music.

SVCF's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is reflected in our work across multiple initiatives since our founding in 2007. For more information about our efforts, visit our page with racial equity and social justice resources and information.