Business leaders say pandemic should propel change, progress
Leaders of BIPOC business groups on Wednesday, Feb. 3, said that lasting progress toward equity requires small but important changes involving not just government but the business community as well.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson of the Urban League of Portland moderated the virtual hour-long discussion, part of a series called "State of the Possible" hosted by City Club of Portland.
Participants said the state's pandemic economy was "K-shaped," meaning that some businesses and people have done well while others have suffered.
"That just highlights this segregation that there is with the different sectors and how some are thriving, and some are not, and some are in really dire straits, said Jan Mason, president of the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce of Oregon.
Orlando Williams of the Black American Chamber of Commerce said businesses that have thrived have been those that are well-capitalized.
"They were able to take advantage of some of those areas that many other undercapitalized or underfunded businesses — of which many of them are Black — are not able to take advantage of," he said.
Some of the fastest growing areas of employment in Oregon have been sectors such as home health care and physical therapy, Williams added. "And if we're just candid, many of Black and Brown people occupy those spaces, and they occupy those careers ... We do run the food service places, we run the restaurants, we run the nail salons. And unfortunately, those are places that were hit hardest by this pandemic."
He said there's more of that to come as the economy continues to shift.
"It is projected that by 2030, we'll see a lot of those jobs either go away or be transformed into something different. That is a significant risk to Black businesses."
Ashley Henry, executive director of the Business for a Better Portland group, said the pandemic has highlighted another aspect of economic disparity: it is geographic as well. Before the pandemic, businesses west of East 82nd Avenue had seen great growth, and those to its east had not.
"We were already experiencing real deep inequities in our communities," Henry said, adding that the pandemic "puts us in a situation of really needing to pay attention to those disparities."
Andrew Hoan of the Portland Business Alliance agreed, saying "We're at a crossroads where (we need) to make the decisions to rebuild in a more inclusive way ... and it's incumbent on all of us to lead with race in this conversation."
James Parker, executive director of the Oregon Native American Chamber, called it "a time to reimagine and revision," adding that the plight of BIPOC-owned businesses is not an accident. There are, he said, "a handful of Native-owned brick-and-mortar businesses in the Metro area and probably less than 20 in the state … we need policy that seeks to repair the harm and trauma that's been done over the last 500 years. And this policy shift needs to be informed and led by us."
So what should the future look like in 2030?
Williams cited the threat posed by technological and societal change to industries where Black-owned businesses have done well, saying "we're going to witness probably one of the largest displacements of industrialized labor that we've seen in the history of our country."
As a result, he'd like to see more of a focus on business-to-business investment rather than a reliance on philanthropic giving. That investment should occur in industries geared toward innovation, "so that we can have more of an impact on our economies. And then we can also support the education that is necessary for Black businesses to thrive in downturns and also in growing economic environments."
He added, "I would think that in in 20 years, in 2030, we will have developed an internal talent development system within our region that invests in talent, invests in Black and Brown people — that we can create those types of skills that are going to be enabled to work within those growing sectors."
Parker, for his part, said that investment in the future could look more like a time before Europeans colonized North America, when communal efforts supported equity and the common good.
"There were centers of trade and commerce, education that allowed for prosperity for all our community members," he said. "Before 1491, we weren't homeless, we weren't hungry. We had access to culturally responsive education. So we have a model that we know works, right? It's how do we extrapolate that model into what [and] where we're living now?"
Henry said she feels that the Portland City Council and Oregon Legislature could trigger new opportunities in the near future, such as by expanding access to capital for Black-owned businesses [and] for rural communities that have historically not been able to access the banking system.
The panel members discussed more traditional business concerns as well, such as graffiti, the plight of downtown businesses and a seeming escalation of intolerance for differing political views.
Harmon-Johnson said graffiti has been a unifying force for businesses. "Big businesses downtown can have the same conversation that mom and pop corner stores are having, as brand-new businesses are having ... about being able to secure their premises, secure their investment … it's a unifying moment that we can stand up against it for the good of us all."
Hoan, of the Portland Business Alliance, lamented protests that have turned violent, saying "protests are welcomed. Expression is important; it's the Portland way. But ... it has been a situation where political violence has marred our city … it has been chilling to our democratic institutions. In fact, those elected officials, [those] businesses are feeling the threat (to their) ability to express themselves, because of the threats of physical violence."
Henry said that while she generally agrees, the response by government needs to be to help all businesses, including BIPOC-owned. "We need to hold our elected officials accountable for ensuring that when they're having meetings with the business community, that that's not just one group of business leaders that they're meeting with."
She argued that some people have encouraged a story line in the national media "about the 'demise of Portland' … I think it's just really unfortunate that we can't find ways to acknowledge our differences and work together with our elected officials to address the challenges rather than having a big PR campaign to get people's attention."
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