OP-ED: American business leaders are stepping up to fight injustices in the South

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from dr Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., President and CEO, National Newspaper Publishers Association

Even as the pandemic has exposed societal injustices that are eroding the very foundations of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and state capitals are mired in resentment and partisanship on a scale not seen since the ideological struggles surrounding the Vietnam War. This toxic atmosphere has left them unable to address urgent but deep-rooted issues such as the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and huge inequalities in everything from healthcare to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still a pervasive concern and the country’s recovery still at great risk, individuals, families and communities — particularly communities of color throughout the South — are struggling to cope with problems that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From barriers to wealth creation opportunities and a lack of education and workforce development to lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing and inadequate political representation, communities of color have taken an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders are failing to agree on even basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy to combat a pandemic amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant, which is currently ravaging parts of the country, into a new wave appears to be entering south.

Against this disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. To fill the vacuum left by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have launched a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social injustices and systemic racism that have historically plagued us the southern communities of our country.

The campaign, known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), was founded by financial technology company PayPal, investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to address the pervasive issues of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities across the South. SCI notes that these areas — Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Houston, Memphis, and New Orleans — were chosen in part because they are home to about 50 percent of the country’s black population and because they have some of the greatest disparities.

SCI aims to drive long-term change as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to close the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African American residents. Although there is a strong Black business community and high levels of Black educational achievement in the city thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership, with only 6 percent of employer companies being owned by blacks.

To bridge this gap, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The companies behind SCI also use their networks to help other companies partner with minority-owned utilities.

In Alabama, SCI is trying to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 homes have no access to the internet. To help manage the crisis, SCI is using relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another approach SCI is taking is to partner with apartment building owners in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

Lack of access to capital is another reason black communities throughout the South have traditionally been underserved. In Memphis, where 47 percent of black households are underserved, SCI is working with Grameen America to cover $2 million per year per branch incorporation costs to develop banking in minority communities. This alone gives 20,000 women access to more than $250 million in funding each year.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI works with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind contributions to improve the outcomes of minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions and to harness the power of technology to expand access to health care in underserved urban and rural areas.

The problems facing these communities across the South are not new, nor will they be solved overnight. Fortunately, SCI has a long-term approach focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a fairer and fairer country for every American.

A century-long pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to quell uneasiness and bitter partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, business leaders are stepping up and working with local attorneys and nonprofit groups to solve the problem of systemic injustice in the US

We applaud and therefore embrace the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to hesitate because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”

dr Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and executive producer and host of The Chavis Chronicles on PBS television networks in the United States. He can be reached at [email protected]

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