Alexis Akarolo (left) and Zelnnetta Clark founded Rebuild the Block in June

Alexis Akarolo’s spirit wouldn’t let her rest until she did something, anything, to help small, Black-owned businesses that had been hit by the theft and vandalism that popped through Philadelphia in late May and early June.

In the spur of the moment, the 23-year-old Kensington resident created a GoFundMe called Rebuild the Block.

Seconds later, she called her former Penn State Abington roommate Zelnnetta Clark.

“Listen,” Akarolo told her friend. “I don’t know what this is, but I need you to help me. We need to figure this out together.”

In less than a week, the two women had raised close to $100,000.

It’s been three months since Akarolo’s spontaneous impulse to help turned into action. She and Clark, also 23, have since formed an official nonprofit for Rebuild the Block, and used it to distribute funds raised via the online donation page.

The pair has so far given out more than $20k in grants to nearly a dozen Black-owned businesses, including those affected by the pandemic. They’ve raised more than $200k from thousands of individual donors (the goal is now $1 million), developed a team of volunteers to help execute the venture, and started a second fundraising stream dedicated to start-ups.

Because of their grassroots fundraising efforts — the nonprofit has no major funders, yet — and their dedication to Black businesses, Clark and Akarolo said they’ve also been able to support entrepreneurs who’ve been passed over for traditional COVID-19 resources.

Fundraising on the original GoFundMe has slowed significantly, the duo said, so they’re asking people to continue sharing, even if you can’t donate.

April Burks of Pink Social Strategies Credit: Anthony Page Photography

Using a $2.5k grant to open up bigger doors

One Rebuild the Block beneficiary was April Burks, a Philly proprietor who operates a one-woman events brand called Pink Social Strategies.

The young company’s approaching its two year anniversary, which Burks said made the pandemic’s timing even more frustrating.

“My business was really starting to get out there,” she told Billy Penn. “I felt like I was on the brink of something great, and then corona hit.”

Pink Social saw between 7 to 10 scheduled events vanish as the virus made its way to the Philadelphia region. Between the cancellations and lost revenue on any future holiday contracts she’d have otherwise secured, Burks said her business is looking at up to $20k in revenue loss this year.

In July, she was awarded a $2,500 Rebuild the Block grant. It’s the only grant she’s received so far and has been helpful on several levels.

First, Burks used the funds to help build her online presence, since virtual gatherings look like the way of the foreseeable future.

She was also able to pay two months of back health insurance, which is about $300 a month.

Perhaps the most significant help came because Burks was able to use the money to file her business taxes, thereby qualifying her to apply for future grants and loans.

“A lot of other grants, you can’t even file for them unless you’ve filed your tax returns,” she said. “Rebuild the Block was so helpful for me to get all that done and handled… At this point and time, it’s about survival.”

Kickstarting a drive to help others

Both cofounders say this is only the beginning.

Akarolo’s an MBA student at Penn State Abington and works as creative director for local  clothing brand Lovello Elizabeth. Her unique background and studies in African-American history helped shape her desire to give back to the Black community, she said.

The Maryland native is half Black American and half Nigerian, and has a Jamaican step-parent. Because of that diversity, Akarolo said, “I have such a dynamic viewpoint on what it means to be Black.”

For Clark, who’s currently preparing for med school in California, giving back started at home in Long Island where she’d volunteer with her church. As a student at Penn State Abington, Clark said she led a service organization and did a lot of hands-on work at Philly organizations like the Share Food Program. When Akarolo reached out, she saw a place to dive in.

“Both of us felt like social media is great because it’s bringing that awareness, and protesting is great because it’s bringing that activism… but it still didn’t feel like enough,” Clark said.

The coronavirus pandemic won’t be forever (fingers crossed). Neither will, one would hope, the ongoing unrest fueled by racism, inequality and police brutality, like what’s happening right now in Kenosha, Wis. over the video-captured shooting of Jacob Blake by police.

With all that in mind, the Rebuild the Block team is looking toward the future. Their next goal is to partner with a variety of organizations offering services for Black people and businesses.

“One thing about Rebuild the Block is we pride ourselves on having resources,” Clark said. “Being a one-stop-shop. If we don’t have programs for you, we’ll know of someone who does.”

Akarolo hopes her grassroots effort inspires other young people to fight for justice.

“It’s up to us to create what our world will look like,” she said. “If our ancestors sat in the world that they were in comfortably, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...