January 30, 2017

Meet The People Behind #ThisIsAC

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If you’ve spent any time on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook lately and you’re in the Atlantic City area, you’ve probably come across the bold red logo or seen the hashtag #ThisIsAC. Maybe, like us, you thought it was some marketing effort by one of our many quasi-governmental overlords in these parts. But you, like us, would be wrong. #ThisIsAC was formed by a few people who just really, really care about Atlantic City. We went to meet them.

So what was the idea behind launching #ThisIsAC?

Evan Sanchez – The overwhelming narrative on Atlantic City is negative on all levels so we wanted to be a counter-balance to that and to really shine a spotlight on what’s going on here from a community perspective.

Dawn Belamarich – We were motivated by the negative perception of Atlantic City. We wanted to flip the script on that by really shedding light on all the positive things that Atlantic City has to offer. As people that live and own property and love it here and work here, we really were seeing a different side of Atlantic City. So we really wanted to say: look at all the great people, all the great places, look at all the great activities and see how many great things are happening in the community at large.

Who is #ThisIsAc for?

Dawn –  You know when you’re in EHT [Egg Harbor Township] – and this is a perfect example for me –  and I’m like “I live in AC” and they’re like, “Why?”

Like I’m being held hostage and they need to call for help. So it’s for those people, but it’s also for people from outside the area.

How did you all meet and come to found #ThisIsAC?

Dawn – In 2015, Donna (Danielson) and I were in an initiative called LEAD ACT – it was a year-long leadership initiative put together by CRDA and Stockton. There had been some talk about the negative perception of Atlantic City and how that really needed to be changed… In that same time period, Evan and I had been introduced. We were all kind of on the same path, in the same head space and we joined another committee that was put together by AtlantiCare. It was a steering committee.

The three of us had a similar vision for what Atlantic City was and what it had to offer – it started out with this premise for three social media platforms and using this hashtag to really shed light on what Atlantic City has to offer  – and here we are.

Evan – We are completely a-political and always positive – those are the only two rules we have.

All three members of ThisIsAC have regular day jobs. We asked them how they came to be in Atlantic City and what inspires them:

#ThisIsAC founders: Evan Sanchez, Dawn Belamarich and Donna Danielson

Donna Danielson – I went to Stockton and Tanger hired me about four years ago. (I love that) there’s so much opportunity here. One thing that we did pull together was the half marathon: we realized we could make it a fun event, so we had packet event here at Tanger, Bass Pro offered discounts, we offered discounts, Noyes Arts Garage got involved. And when I saw that we could do things together and we weren’t operating individually in silos, it just had such a great feel for everybody. We also did the same thing with the ‘Trunk or Treat’ event at Halloween. All these organizations came together and just did this fantastic event. And that’s what the city has to offer and that’s what keeps me going and being positive.

Evan – I am from here, I was born in Atlantic City and I was raised in Pleasantville. I came back to really be a part of positive change in Atlantic City… I think that having left AC for a while and this area for a while and experiencing bigger cities, major metros – I saw a lot of the same challenges but here we were focusing much more on our problems than our assets. Being a start-up person, I thought, how do we move forward – what is working and how do we make it work better?

Dawn – I moved down here to go to Stockton when I was 17 years old. I started renting in the inlet… I lived offshore for a hot minute… I bartended, I served for a while and for the last decade I’ve been in the non-profit sector. I think for me, as a person, as a leader, I always try and take a strength-based perspective. I started to see the narrative of Atlantic City taking a little bit of a dip in the last few years and when we all teamed up it just seemed like a natural transition to use that strength-based attitude for something I see as a positive

I literally ride my bike on the boardwalk every day in the summer – the views I see, the sunrise, the people – there are so many positives that the city has to offer.

Not every day is perfect but our general attitude is there’s a lot of amazing things here and that’s the core of our mission.

What’s an example of changing the script on Atlantic City? What is #ThisIsAC doing?

Evan – Atlantic City is probably one of the best food towns in New Jersey, if not the best food town in New jersey, but that’s not an angle that is focused on, right? That’s something that we would love to see – lets promote more of our restaurants. You can talk about the ethnic food we have, whether its Vietnamese or Mexican – across the board we have great ethnic restaurants, Italian… It’s everywhere. There’s super high-quality stuff in Atlantic City and I think that’s what we want to focus energy and attention on and I think that more people that we talk to want to see that as well, they want to see that type of coverage.

We ask people what do you like about Atlantic City? We came up with laundry lists of what we like about Atlantic City. Real estate is one thing – you probably couldn’t get a studio in Manhattan and you can get a beach-block house here –

Dawn – But instead people always look at it like “Ugh, property values are down so low.” And I’m like – let’s scoop it up! That goes back to Evan’s point of the opportunity instead of the deficit… I think in general there are so many great things to cover here that people look at in a bad light.

One of the things that we’ve been able to spotlight with Faces of AC (a feature on ThisIsAC’s website that profiles local residents) is there are a lot of interesting people here that have been giving back to the community for decades and we don’t really know about all that because we are so inundated with negative, negative, negative…

Evan – There’s also an opportunity to work more collaboratively… We always talk about #ThisIsAc as an umbrella group, that’s really when we’re being most effective, when we’re bringing different organizations together. (Last year, ThisIsAC was instrumental in reviving Atlantic City’s Wedding of the Sea procession and mass, after a 20-year hiatus).

Donna – It’s really just about working together. We’re a small city, why don’t we?

What’s the plan to grow #ThisIsAC?

Dawn – We acquired nonprofit status in October of 2016 – so of course we would love to see it grow and we would love to see #ThisIsAC be the positive force behind things happening in Atlantic City but I think we’re just playing it by ear right now.

Evan – We’re really looking to build capacity within the organization but we want to see #ThisIsAc grow… and we know that to do that effectively ultimately there has to be full-time people working on #ThisIsAC, so it’s kind of TBD on who and what and when. But the goal is certainly to grow it.

Donna – And the more people we bring on board, the more positive information out there.

Evan – There are people that are involved with #ThisIsAc aside from us as founders, there are four people volunteering outside of us to do different things… they’re handling things likes social media or doing the Faces of Atlantic City, or keeping up to date with events that are going on, or talking to small businesses, so all those different things are going on and aspects are being handled by different team members…

How can people help?

Dawn –We’re definitely looking for funding because in order for us to build capacity as a non profit we need the money to kind of support those people coming on board.

Evan – We are very much open to volunteers that are interested in the mission and have the time and skill and ability to run with an initiative… And to Dawn’s point, we need money, there’s no doubt. To fuel growth, to support more positivity – we’ve been doing this with very limited funds and I think we’ve gone far but we want to go farther.

We’re in a place where we need to grow the pie. So we need to figure out how to grow the pie. We’re building bridges in this city and that’s how I think about it from a business-development perspective… We can all come together and collaborate. The response has been amazing. Whenever we reach out to people, people are like, how can we help? What can we do? What do you need? That’s been the response to any initiative. I think the Wedding of the Sea – that was 10 local restaurants that came together. Everyone was really excited to see an old tradition come back.

You can get in touch with Dawn, Donna and Evan from #ThisIsAC here on their website or via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They maintain an events calendar on the site and are always looking for event submissions as well as ideas for their Faces of Atlantic City featured profiles.

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