We’re Black leaders. Here’s how we’re closing a 228-year-old racial wealth gap | Opinion

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By Regina A. Hairston

Last year, we invited Black Mayors from across the country, regional business and community leaders and business owners to Philadelphia for an inaugural discussion about the unique challenges that Black businesses face, the importance of effective corporate partnerships and banking relationships, and best practices for creating communities where Black families and businesses can not only recover from the effects of the pandemic but thrive.

We invited leaders to come back earlier this month for a deeper dive into what it takes to keep (or get) their respective cities on track to building back better.

When I conceived the idea of a national convening of Black mayors, I believed it was critical to understand the perspectives and priorities of mayors. I envisioned it to be an opportunity to learn, align and collaborate on a clear set of strategies that, when adjusted for local conditions, can address systemic barriers to economic opportunity and generational wealth.

Now in our second year, I wanted us to double-down on how entrepreneurship is a viable way to help close the 228-year Black-white wealth gap. The conversations across the three-day event were riveting and revealing, and centered on post-pandemic recovery efforts, homeownership and combating neighborhood blight, and changing the culture and services of local government.

We learned from one delegate that they created revitalization programs and low-interest loan programs to strategically leverage the American Rescue Plan Act of 2022. Delegates also put a premium on partnerships with neighboring cities to provide technical assistance, peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and collaboration on strategies for advancing equitable outcomes.

It’s a good start because small businesses are the economic engine of a city. When we support and empower Black-owned businesses we are creating stronger communities where they are located and improving the quality of life for the people they serve and employ.

Interestingly, as we progressed through the conversation, one notion stood out: the striking knowledge gap between the support and resources Black-owned businesses need to thrive and whether the very institutions charged with addressing those needs know them.

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In other words, there is a significant and alarming disconnect between perception and reality.

For example, Black entrepreneurs not only felt state and local governments made it even harder for them to get their business up and running successfully; they also felt they had fewer chances to create a successful business and less time to make it successful due to a lack of access to capital and resources.

When we truly understand the benefits and impact of inclusion then we can begin to close the financial and opportunity gaps in meaningful ways.

The first step is to be intentional about their inclusion in every opportunity to advance, and hold decision-makers accountable for it, starting within the halls of government. In many instances, it is the effect of systemic disenfranchisement that gets addressed rather than the past policies that created the gap and the current policies that widen it.

Second, the notion that Black entrepreneurs simply do not bid on opportunities, secure certifications, or execute effectively on other bureaucratic tasks perpetuates stereotypes about Blacks and Black life that have been force-fed to people – Black and white – for centuries.

It is often the justification for leaving Black founders out of the loop and out in the cold. Meanwhile, the complicated or expensive legislative process is never under review.

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Third, as we look forward to building a sustainable ecosystem for Black businesses in Philadelphia, we must take a comprehensive look at the real barriers businesses face and then muster the courage to implement program and policy interventions that will level the playing field. It is mission critical for us to examine how the city interacts with the Black business community.

We know that nothing grows without an investment, and we learned from the national convening that investment without representation is just charity.

We must resist the pressure to throw money behind a program and ignore the infrastructure issues and power structures that fail to hold the people in power accountable for equitable outcomes. We must prioritize progress over platitudes.

I do believe it can be done, but it will take work. It will take a coordinated effort for some cities to help get businesses off the ground and running while other cities will need help attracting Black businesses to set up shop.

Williamsport, Pa. Mayor Derek Slaughter (City of Williamsport, Pa. photo).

This work is not simple. It’s riddled with nuance and success hinges on intentionality, from the top.

Mayor Derek Slaughter of Williamsport, Pa., understood the assignment, stating that when he took office, there were no policies or procedures in place to support Black businesses.

Even though they can boast about revitalization programs, Mayor Judy Ward of Pleasantville, NJ expressed that there is great difficulty attracting Black businesses to her city.

So they, along with others, are building solutions and addressing the everyday challenges of doing business in their cities. They are bringing intentionality and accountability from within and, in doing so, are changing the face of Main Street and the outlook for Black businesses in their cities.

As we chart a new path for Philadelphia with the new ideas from newly elected leaders, we must take a realistic, pragmatic approach to building back Black, and do so across all zip codes with the utmost intention.

This kind of transformational change will require considerable effort and focus, collaboration, dedication, and the willingness to confront racialized systems and policies.

This is the kind of change that this city needs to maintain its competitive advantage.

Regina A. Hairston is the president and CEO of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. She writes from Philadelphia.

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