It began with a conversation...

At a time when Howard County was having conversations about inequities in our community, ACS's Executive Director at the time, Joan Driessen, understood that people of color comprise a large percentage of the client constituencies of many of ACS’s nonprofit members and believed that those claiming to have “colorblindness” were actually missing how the status quo was failing to move the County forward. She believed that the ACS members would better serve their clients if they had a better understanding of racism and racial equity issues.

Many ACS members provide social services and yet the needle isn’t moving. The Self-Sufficiency Indicators Report gives us data to show that we’re addressing immediate needs, but without going beneath the surface to better understand why people are not becoming self-sufficient. - Joan Driessen, ACS Executive Director

Joan admired HopeWorks of Howard County for embracing racial equity work within the organization under the leadership of Jenn Pollitt Hill, then Executive Director of HopeWorks and ACS Board President. She also respected how Vanita Leatherwood, their Director of Community Outreach, infused that work into the organization’s outreach programming. As individuals, Jenn and Vanita, and as an organization, HopeWorks, modeled the bravery needed to take on this work. Searching for a first step in identifying how ACS might increase its own and its members’ capacities to incorporate racial equity into their organizations, Joan asked Jenn, “How are you doing this work?” That conversation began the ACS racial equity journey.

Check out the timeline for highlights along the journey and keep scrolling to find out more about our racial equity work.


The Beginning

Joan Driessen, then ACS Executive Director, explored the first steps of moving ACS towards racial equity.

Getting Started

The Horizon Foundation opened a grant opportunity for local nonprofits to become a cohort of organizations focused on racial equity.

HCEC Year 1

ACS joined four nonprofits in what we would come to name the Howard County Equity Collaborative (HCEC). 

HCEC Year 2

The HCEC successfully advocated for an improved HCPSS Educational Equity Policy 1080 while ACS transformed our housing advocacy & the SSIR, established a CPRE, and prioritized internal organizational work.

HCEC Year 3: The Final Year

Each HCEC organization built new strategic partnerships amongst members to advance one another's work. ACS launched new a SSIR and housing affordability communications, and started making our organizational work more substantive. 

Growth & Transition

The CPRE finalized our common narrative. ACS released a FY 2021 Housing Brief and expanded SSIR.

Continuing the Work

ACS released a FY 2022 SSIR as a companion to the comprehensive FY 2021 report, and launched a second CPRE cohort.

Our Journey

The racial equity journey of ACS has been a collaborative effort every step of the way -both internally within ACS as its own organization and externally with members and community partners. It has brought individual and organizational growth, struggle, success, and learning. More than that, this journey has been making an impact on community leaders and is essential to nonprofits improving the quality of life in Howard County.

Read below for more details about each year of our racial equity work so far.

Growing national and local attention began to focus on institutional racism. Locally, the Howard County Library System and The Horizon Foundation hosted multiple community meetings and gatherings of leaders and residents to discuss the negative social and economic impacts of the inequities on Howard County. After getting the NonProfit Collaborative up and running in 2017, Joan Driessen, then ACS Executive Director, turned her attention to moving ACS towards racial equity to address the critical barriers that were keeping people from moving forward – beyond focusing on economic stability to also happiness and success in life, and clearly saw racism at the core of it.

Jenn Pollitt Hill, then ACS Board President, pointed out the need for diversity on the ACS Board of both racial/ethnic diversity and the diversity of thought so the Board would comprise of people who understand racism and racial equity, and so, the journey began. The primary work in 2017 was beginning to both diversify the ACS board and seek ways to thoughtfully move the organization forward. 

As it turned out, The Horizon Foundation, Howard County’s community health foundation, was increasingly understanding that racial equity was also central to their mission. With the approval of its Board, the Foundation offered a grant opportunity for local nonprofits to work together as a cohort to begin and/or further their racial equity journeys.

ACS saw the grant as an opportunity to continue its racial equity work. Although it does not offer direct services to clients, which had been the original vision for Collaborative members, ACS believed its access to the range of County nonprofits offered the potential for greatly expanding the impact of the work. Joan assembled a team of people who committed to devoting at least 20 hours a month for a three-year period to the racial equity journey, which was a grant requirement, and ACS submitted an application. The opportunity for a wider impact, along with its longstanding reputation and past experience working with The Horizon Foundation, contributed to ACS being selected to join the Howard County Equity Collaborative. The initial goals of the Collaborative were to:

  • Advance and systems change that promise equitable health outcomes and increasing engagement with diverse leaders.
  • Elevate the voices of leaders from diverse communities in the county to highlight and address health disparities in the community.
  • Build the capacity of community organizations to organize for health equity and systems change.

Find out more about The Horizon Foundation's Racial Equity work.

ACS began its racial equity work in early 2019, when it joined four other nonprofits to form the initial Howard County Equity Collaborative. The other nonprofits were the African American Community Roundtable (AACR), Equity4HC, HopeWorks, and The Howard County Chinese School. The first year was largely about education and hard conversations, with each organization learning about and building trust within their teams and with one another.

The ACS initial team consisted of the Joan Driessen, executive director; ACS board members, Lisa Jablonover, Grace Morris, and Laura Salganik; and a Community Advocate, Jackie Eng. Notably, the team—five white women—looked quite different from the other Collaborative members.

As part of its participation in the Collaborative, each organization was required to identify an advocacy priority. Consistent with a long-term public policy priority, ACS focused on affordable housing and began its work by interviewing longtime African American County residents as well as advocates and individuals involved with housing policy decisions dating back to Columbia’s early years. The ACS team also conducted a listening session to learn the perspectives of tenants who rent from the Bridges to Housing Stability’s Alliance program, which provides rental housing at below-market rates to families with between 30 and 60 percent of County median income.

Seeking to reflect the importance of disaggregated data to racial equity advocacy, ACS developed the HoCo Population Analytics to highlight the different racial and ethnic characteristics of the population in Howard County and its seven Regional Planning Districts. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic changed how business was conducted, the Collaborative continued to meet virtually and move toward its advocacy goals. HopeWorks decided to leave the Collaborative in year two while continuing their racial equity journey on their own. The ACS Team evolved in year two, with the addition of Deborah Toppenberg-Pejcic, an ACS volunteer. The grant funding also allowed ACS to expand its staff by hiring Dana Davenport as a Policy Associate and she joined the equity team. These additions added both racial/ethnic and age/generational diversity to the ACS team.

Working together, the remaining four organizations positively influenced the outcomes of the HCPSS Educational Equity Policy 1080 through successfully getting the Board of Education to delay the initial hearing and voting timeline to allow for community input, individual meetings with Board of Education members, a letter-writing campaign, and other strategic actions as the team advocated for positions that were eventually included in The Collaborative’s key policy amendments recommended were:

  • Set yearly equity goals with public input on the formation of those goals.
  • Transparent budget allocations specific to racial equity.
  • Hire, promote, and retain racially/ethnically diverse staff.
  • Implement a more culturally relevant curriculum.
  • Make data disaggregated by race and ethnicity more readily available on the HCPSS website.

The Equity Collaborative funding enabled us to transform ACS’s housing advocacy work, to expand the Self-Sufficiency Indicators Report (SSIR), establish a Community of Practice for Racial Equity, and begin focusing the racial equity work internally on ACS as an organization.

  • Housing Advocacy: The ACS Team worked with nationally recognized housing messaging expert Dr. Tiffany Manuel (known as Dr. T) and her organization, TheCaseMade, to develop a communications campaign for promoting affordable housing. One of the key elements of the initiative was holding community voice sessions to listen and learn about how people think and talk about housing in Howard County. Dr. T and her team developed a housing advocacy playbook based on these sessions so we could better communicate about housing advocacy in our community.
  • The ACS Self-Sufficiency Indicator Report was expanded to include data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. This can influence policy and program decisions in the County by making visible how racial and ethnic groups have different experiences and outcomes around economic stability in Howard County.
  • In an effort to expand the racial equity work to other ACS members, the ACS team formed a Community of Practice for Racial Equity (CPRE), curated by Adar Ayira of Ayira Core Concepts, LLC. The Community of Practice started with education about history, racism, diversity, and racial equity. This first iteration of the CPRE included members of the ACS team and executive directors of 13 ACS member organizations.
  • ACS began strategizing on how to focus on racial equity internally. The current strategic plan was in its last year and ACS realized the need to: update the personnel policies, engage and educate Board and staff members who were not part of the Collaborative, improve the processes for hiring staff and recruiting board members, and invite the broader ACS membership along in racial equity work. ACS also began incorporating racial equity more fully into its voice through testimony and other communications with members and the community.

The Equity Collaborative continued to meet virtually during its final year and focused on: building on the relationships formed, initiating new strategic partnerships to advance each member’s work, and sharing personal and organizational challenges of the pandemic. For example, ACS worked with AACR to co-host a robust forum on affordable housing for AACR members to jumpstart new conversations around housing needs in the County.

With funding from The Horizon Foundation supplemented by a grant from the Kahlert Foundation and the work of dedicated volunteers and board members, ACS built on the previous years’ work in the following ways:

  • The first Self-Sufficiency Indicators Report with Fiscal Year 2020 data disaggregated by race and ethnicity was completed under the leadership of Laura Salganik, ACS Board Member, and Dawn Valentine, Principal of The Variable Scoop. ACS also created infographics on housing and food access and insecurity to further highlight key findings in the data. After its release, the work began on developing the Fiscal Year 2021 report.
  • ACS began strategically sharing the housing advocacy playbook with the Howard County Housing Affordability Coalition, business partners, and additional community stakeholders to continue the work of changing the narrative around housing.
  • ACS formed the Internal Racial Equity Committee to assess the internal workings of the organization and begin evaluation for developing a new strategic plan. This led to review of the mission and vision statements, the staff working collaboratively updating personnel policies with the inclusion of a Workplace Culture Statement for the first time, and the Board formalizing a Racial Equity Committee to exist beyond the lifespan of the grant from The Horizon Foundation. Additionally, staff engaged in shared reading and discussions about vulnerability, courage, race, and racism.
  • Based on feedback and questions from members, ACS created a Members-Only Racial Equity Toolkit on the website to support the educational aspects of members’ racial equity journeys.
  • Dana Davenport participated in the Howard County Council’s Racial Equity Taskforce, Joan Driessen became a member of the Howard County Library System’s Racial Equity Alliance, and Laura Salganik and Dana Davenport joined the Howard County Public School System Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Committee on behalf of ACS.

With the conclusion of Collaborative meetings, the ACS team wrapped up work begun in 2021 by completing the Fiscal Year 2021 Self-Sufficiency Indicator Report and concluding meetings of this year of the Community of Practice for Racial Equity (CPRE). 

  • ACS released two new publications with data about Fiscal Year 2021: a Housing Brief and a much-expanded Self-Sufficiency Indicators Report. Of particular note for the SSIR is a new appendix specifically discussing whiteness norms and data as well as expanded background information to place the indicators in the context of the pandemic.
  • The CPRE finalized a common narrative about racial equity and set to work introducing it to our respective organizations. With both the successes and challenges of growth, ACS decided to continue the CPRE but with a new cohort of participants, expanding beyond executive directors and ACS Equity Collaborative team members who made up the first cohort.
  • The Racial Equity Toolkit moved from being a members-only benefit to becoming publicly available to encourage stewardship of resources, education, and growth in racial equity.

With generous funding from the Kahlert Foundation, ACS was able to continue working towards racial inclusion in two significant ways:

  • The FY 2022 Self-Sufficiency Indicators Report (SSIR): ACS Board Member, Laura Salganik, and ACS Consultant, Dana Davenport, worked together to develop the FY 2022 SSIR as a companion report to update local program data from the comprehensive FY 2021 report.
  • A second cohort of the Community of Practice for Racial Equity (CPRE): Dana Davenport once again worked with Adar Ayira of Ayira Core Concepts, LLC to curate a second cohort of the CPRE comprised of individuals with varying forms of influence within the community. The group learned about building an Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression (ARAO) analysis and framework to advance racial inclusion in their personal and professional lives.    

As ACS moves towards 2024, the organization will continue to assess the ARAO analysis and framework and the organization’s priorities to determine its next steps.