This past year and now into 2021 has challenged our resilience, it has challenged our ideas, and it has challenged us to do better. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and magnified the broken, non-inclusive systems which have corrupted American policies and institutions for centuries. Small businesses, the engine of job creation in the nation, are being hit hard. Businesses that are located in low-income communities or owned by entrepreneurs of color are being hit much harder.
In March last year, we hosted “Interise 2020”, where we convened visionaries, practitioners, and small businesses. Our conference centered on speakers who are actively working to change economic development models while addressing the systemic issues that prevent sustainable change and impact. The three-day event featured conversations focused on economic inequality and the ever widening wealth gap, particularly ending the racial wealth gap.
The event was a success in many ways. We had great speakers, received great press, and sparked many conversations. But, there were also great disappointments as it quickly became clear that many people in attendance – and across our nation – do not realize the magnitude of the wealth gap in this country. Or they just don’t believe it. Attendees told me that the facts laid out at the conference made them “uncomfortable.” During a session on unfair bias in lending practices in banks which ultimately blocks access to capital for Black and brown-owned businesses, someone said to me, “Is that really still happening?” Yes, sadly, it is.
That week, Covid hit, the Governor of Massachusetts declared a state of emergency the second day of the conference, and everything we talked about at Interise 2020 came into focus: a pandemic sickening and killing people of color at 2.8x the rate of whites; frontline workers (majority Black and Latinx) risking their lives while lacking emergency capital to cushion their fall; the largest demonstration of civil rights since the 1960s brought on by yet another murder – this time a horrific 8 minutes and 46 seconds of cruelty and injustice against George Floyd.
As has always been the case, people who are struggling, struggle harder, and people who have access and resources find ways to change course. But this year, people are listening and mobilizing. And so did Interise.
For sixteen years, Interise has been working to disrupt unjust systems and confront the barriers that continue to prevent so many Americans from participating in our economy. And like so many other businesses this year, we pivoted. We poured our collective knowledge and efforts into an online program specifically designed to help vulnerable businesses survive the immediate future, while setting them on a path to thrive in the years ahead. Through our Interise STRONG program we hosted 12 cohorts for more than 200 Interise alumni whose businesses have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
Throughout the challenges of 2020, more people are seeing the role that systemic inequality plays across our health – both financial and physical. It is our role within the economic development space to continue to serve our businesses with programming that will help to create an economy that works for everyone and leaves out no one. We need to take advantage of this opportunity where our mission resonates so clearly. I believe Interise has a unique opportunity in the coming year to set an example on how to move forward. Join me. Join us.