Milan Balinton Already Believes in You
While Milan Balinton has served as the executive director of the African American Community Service Agency (AACSA) for more than a decade, and dedicated most of his personal and professional time to cultivating and supporting the community, his initial call to service came years earlier, as a child in San Francisco. When he wasn’t singing in his church choir or volunteering with the NAACP, Balinton joined his brothers and cousins at their grandmother’s daycare, helping nurture and teach young kids.
“My grandmother, Cleo Balinton, raised five Black boys in the city of San Francisco, and thus had a solid heart,” says Balinton, ’10 Communication Studies. “At an early age she taught us how to be resilient, how to work with students and parents. I learned a long time ago about the need for daycare, juggling work and feeding your family.”
That innate desire to help others grew at San José State, where Balinton sought out opportunities to connect with like-minded Spartans through the Mosaic Cross Cultural Center, the Black Student Union, the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and a number of other student organizations. For four years, he worked as an accounting assistant at San José State, an experience that helped him develop new strategies for addressing and accepting his learning disability.
“Accounting can be very tedious and repetitive, but Milan always approached it as something new to learn,” says Jenny Escoto, longtime SJSU accountant and his former supervisor. “I helped him understand that these skills that he was developing as my student would be an asset no matter what career path he would select. He learned that in accounting, everything should always balance. I have been a witness to his marvelous journey and seen him achieve so much for this city, whether as an executive director or as a school district board member.”
Balinton first started volunteering with the AACSA through his fraternity, and quickly realized the value and potential of the storied nonprofit, which had provided services to Santa Clara County residents since 1978. (The late Charles “Chuck” Alexander, ’82 Management, helped found the agency.) Within a few months, he was serving as a student representative on the agency’s board of directors, inspired by its investment in education, economic development, health, wellness, social services and racial justice.
“As a student board member, I made this joke about becoming the agency’s next executive director — and here I am, having served 13 years already,” he says. “We had one and a half full-time staff members when I started, and now we have a $3 million operational budget and more than 25 staff members.” Any time he felt overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, Balinton says he “looked at what my ancestors went through, and realized that I have the ability to use all of the resources around me to make things happen.”
Speaking of making things happen: Under Balinton’s leadership, the AACSA has partnered with First Five of Santa Clara County to provide a Family Resource Center and teamed up with the Golden State Warriors to enhance the Inez Jackson Library and establish robust literacy programs, computer training programs, workshops for young adults, career building resources and more. The agency also hosts two flagship events: an annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Luncheon, and the Juneteenth in the Streets Festival to celebrate African American and Black culture, identity, history and traditions, and educate the public about ongoing initiatives.
While service has long been central to the AACSA, Balinton, former operations and finance manager Sabrina-Mone Lamontagne, staff and his board had to get creative when the pandemic forced many like-minded nonprofits to shut their doors or halt programs. Instead of closing their doors, Balinton provided a vision and instructed staff and willing volunteers to set up tables outside the agency on N. 6th Street to distribute free food, sanitary items, masks and more. In the early days of COVID-19, Balinton made daily trips to Walmart to buy essential items to share with the community.
“We wanted to establish pathways to resources for everyone,” he says. “People started coming out in droves. We told the city to spread the word that we’re out there for the people.”
Balinton’s efforts caught the attention of new corporate partners who donated money, resources and technology. During the height of the pandemic, the influx of outside funding allowed him to increase agency staff to meet the needs of the public. And while in time, the AACSA returned to in-person programming and services, the pandemic shone a light on pre-existing social, economic and racial inequities that the agency has always worked to confront.
One key to his success — and the success of the agency as a whole — is Balinton’s hunger for partnership. In his early days as a leader, Balinton turned to fellow nonprofit executives to understand their growth strategies, common obstacles and shared goals. Always an advocate for fellow Spartans, he shares that the AACSA board often has openings for student members and encourages students and alumni alike to get involved.
“Students have the ability to create what their future looks like — whether that means creating the next Google or leading a local nonprofit,” he says. “Nonprofits are the engine and backbone of most cities. As a university student, you can apply what you’re learning in real time by volunteering at a nonprofit. Instead of waiting around for a big company to see you, know that you are already seen by nonprofits like AACSA. We already believe in you.”