Being an entrepreneur as a Native American is not only an investment in myself and my family. It's an investment in my community and a form of resistance. Ownership — whether it's of our own narratives, cultures, land, or labor — is a powerful way to determine our own futures, based on principles that are sacred and authentic to us.
Since starting my own consulting business, my goal has been to support small businesses, tribal organizations, and nonprofits with organizational solutions that empower them to focus on achieving their own vision for the future. Through my own experiences and conversations with small-business owners in my role as executive director of the Oregon Native American Chamber, I am acutely aware of the challenges facing BIPOC business owners, including limited access to capital, difficulty accessing technical assistance and exclusionary procurement processes.
At the onset of the pandemic, my fellow small business owners, entrepreneurs of color, and community leadership knew we needed to support one another in solidarity. Not only did we anticipate the public health crisis would impact our communities disproportionately, we also knew we would suffer the brunt of the economic fallout, as well. We had lived through the crash of 2008 and saw how businesses led by Black, Indigenous and People of Color could fall through the cracks of the federal and state response. The decimation of Native American-owned businesses in this state was a real possibility, but we were not going to allow that to happen.
Together, we founded the Community Chamber Coalition, formalizing partnerships that had existed before the pandemic. But COVID-19 gave us a new charge: to advocate for funding and policy frameworks that could help insulate our BIPOC-owned businesses from the economic impacts of the pandemic and generate the conditions and resources our businesses and communities need to thrive over the long term.
The Community Chamber Coalition includes the Oregon Native American Chamber, Philippine American Chamber of Commerce, Black American Chamber of Commerce and Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber. Together with allies like Business for a Better Portland, we have advocated for access to economic recovery resources and a more equitable approach to economic development in our region.
In our first two years, we've made significant progress:
• We helped secure $32 million in state and federal funds for emergency assistance that helped Oregon small businesses survive the pandemic.
• We won passage of legislation that expands access to capital for underserved businesses.
• We are building support for the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a campus and community grounded in equity and designed to call forward entrepreneurs of color in all aspects of business development.
• And we continue to advocate for government agencies to approach procurement with equity at the forefront — rather than favoring only the least expensive or most experienced bidders, which disadvantages BIPOC vendors and contractors.
We still have more work to do, and everyone — individuals, business owners, and elected leaders alike — can play a role in bolstering historically underserved businesses and in turn, their communities.
Each of us can examine our family's purchasing power and recognize that where we spend our dollars represents our values. We can uplift communities and businesses that have been intentionally left out of opportunities for lending, investment and procurement. By doing so, we uphold our neighbors' right to exist and prosper.
Infusing equity into economic development is not something that can be accomplished in a single legislative session or funding cycle. We will continue to engage government leaders in a conversation about improving procurement practices, expanding access to economic development resources, and addressing challenges that limit access to economic opportunity such as low wages, unaffordable housing costs, and growing inequality. None of this changes until our approach to economic development shifts to become more equitable and inclusive.
Widespread economic success relies on cultivating an ecosystem of small businesses that provide our communities with essential services, job opportunities, and self-determination. We know that if we increase investment in BIPOC-owned, local businesses, the economic benefits will reach everyone in our region.
James Parker is an entrepreneur, executive director of the Oregon Native American Chamber and co-chair of the Community Chamber Coalition.
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