When COVID-19 — and the panic of the pandemic — hit the South Bay, Milan Balinton was at the local Walmart buying grocery carts full of food and supplies nearly every day, but none of it was for him.
The supplies were for the people he serves as the executive director at the African American Community Service Agency in San Jose. In the weeks after the pandemic shuttered businesses and relegated residents to their homes, food and supplies were hard to find through the agency’s partnerships with food banks, but that didn’t halt the need, he said.
“I said, ‘trust me, I’m shopping for the community,’” he said in a recent interview. “I’m in a place in my leadership abilities where I can actually spend the money that people are donating for these goods, and I’ll do it every day if I have to.”
He isn’t going to Walmart daily anymore, but that’s the kind of humility and action that’s typical of Balinton, said Michele Lew, chief executive officer of the Health Trust. Lew has known and worked with Balinton for about a decade, and a couple weeks ago met with him before he left to pack 100 boxes of food into a U-Haul truck. Later that day, he had a meeting with Mayor Sam Liccardo about the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.
“There’s a term called servant leadership, which is basically leaders who put service at the center of their work,” Lew said. “To me, Milan is the epitome of what a servant leader looks like. He is always thinking about how he can serve individuals and the community, even at the expense of his own life.”
Jolene Smith, chief executive officer of FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, echoed that sentiment.
The African American Community Service Agency is a community resource center for FIRST 5, providing families with children educational programs and supplies for the past three years. This year, the centers shifted their work to meet new community needs due to the pandemic, Smith said.
“Milan did it in every way and that’s why (AACSA) has become a major distribution site, and it has become part of the fabric of the COVID-19 response,” she said.
But the pandemic isn’t over and the agency has found itself at the intersection of two of the most pressing issues facing the country: COVID-19, which is disproportionately affecting communities of color, and an urgent conversation about racism and police brutality.
The AACSA is working on creating support and healing programs for those impacted by racism, which Smith said could become a model for others.
Balinton is known in the community for his leadership, often called a “natural leader” by those who know him, including the young people he mentors in the South Bay.
Kenyatta Yarn is one of those mentees. She arrived at San Jose State University in 2013 with no family or friends, trying to figure out where she fit in. Then she met Balinton, who illuminated her path to community service.
“I went to a Black Student Union meeting and this gentleman in a suit walks in the door, and I mean you can tell just by the way he walked in the room that he had something about him,” she said. “He was about to get something done.”
Indeed, as the executive director for AACSA for nearly a decade, Balinton has gotten plenty done in the South Bay, growing the agency from two employees — including one part-time worker — to a 12-employee operation. He’s dramatically increased the annual budget from almost nothing a decade ago to about $1.3 million.
The AACSA is one of Silicon Valley’s only African American cultural centers providing services related to education, health, economic development and social services. Balinton started volunteering with the organization in 2003, joking at the time he’d become the executive director.
Balinton has also been deeply involved in committees that have helped shape the region over the past decade.
The San Jose State graduate is a former member and advisor of the Delta Rho Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and currently on a number of committees within the AACSA. Balinton is serving on the newly-launched Health and Racial Equity task force in San Jose. He’s won many awards, which he keeps in a box, rather than hanging them in his office.
“People will probably be mad to find out, but I usually keep them in a box to keep me humble,” he said.
Though Balinton seems effortlessly congenial, he considers himself an introvert. He’s quick to credit others — particularly his grandmother, who raised him — for helping him find his leadership stride.
“I think leadership is something that is innate with us, but I think that it takes people to pull it out of us and put us in places and positions to test us,” he said. “For me, it is a never ending journey.”
Balinton often speaks to students at his San Jose alma mater, pushing young people to organize, lead and volunteer, often with powerful results.
One of those moments was the Black Student Union meeting where he met Yarn.
“I told them that, although we’re less than 3 percent here in the Black community … you need to get involved, your community needs you,” he said. “(Yarn) raised her hand and was like, ‘I’m signing up.’”
Yarn became a board member for the AACSA, and got her first job out of college when the agency partnered with FIRST 5. She continues to volunteer for the agency.
These career accomplishments were set in motion by Balinton’s mentorship, she said.
“He spoke to me, his charisma really spoke to me and I really felt, in a room full of students, that he was talking directly to me and so it really got me out of my seat,” Yarn said. “I thought, ‘well, I’m going to see what he’s talking about,’ because he has so much energy, and I believed him.”
Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.