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Combatting poverty with entrepreneurship


The increasing need for food assistance is one piece of a bigger problem in California: increasing poverty. Nearlysix million Californians are part of families living below the federal poverty level – that’s an average of no more than 22,000 dollars a year for a family of four.

In the Bay Area, Oakland has the highest number of children living in poverty – nearlyone in three kids according to the latest Census. Earlier this fall, a group called Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy brought local businesses, non-profits, and philanthropic leaders together to look for answers. KALW's Holly Kernan spoke with the chair of the organization, Cedric Brown.

HOLLY KERNAN: What do we do about this? We know what the problems are.

CEDRIC BROWN: Great question. We can address racism.We can address class differences. We can do a serious power analysis. Why do folks who are in the 1 percent have so much? Folks who are in the 99 percent, perhaps, don’t. We need to look at that in a way that’s going to advance the dialogue in this country around race and class. We need to do that work. We need to think about, well, why do we invest in the public sector or why don’t we want to invest in the public center more.

KERNAN: Yeah, why don’t we?

BROWN: I think it’s in part because the country is becoming increasingly brown, Latino, and other people of color. I think there is an old notion, perhaps in the 80’s if not earlier, and I won’t name the thinker behind this notion that government is unworthy...

KERNAN: Ronald Regan?

BROWN: If you are poor it's your fault. You know, we even heard one of the Republican candidates say as much during one of their debates.

KERNAN: I think that narrative has really permeated our culture. I think that we do have that sense.

BROWN: I absolutely do, too, and I think that this coupled with the kind of snarkiness and the lack of social connections in a meaningful way and the deteriorating social contract that we have in this nation right now means that folks in a certain way feel less responsible for one another. When I think about this in a philanthropic context, I think we have some really difficult conversations to have around race, around class, around money, and power. So now that we consider corporations to be people, what does that do to our sense of individual selves? Our sense of community members when a corporation is given a voice in our political processes? I think that that really cheapens, lessens, and minimizes what we’re able to do as members of a democracy because it is David and Goliath. We have to address these huge inequities and these huge kinds of power differentials.

KERNAN: I don’t think people want to do that.

BROWN: I wonder if folks don’t want to do it or if people feel disconnected or disempowered because they don’t have a lot of assets at hand. We’re always seeing these images of people who have have have in popular media and so if you don’t have all of that and it doesn’t seem like you’re going to get it, can you truly feel like you have anything to contribute or give? Or that you can even move a needle? Or that you can do anything that’s going to have a social impact in the end? I think that folks probably do feel disconnected but there are ways for us to feel empowered.

KERNAN: Tell me about some of those ways.

BROWN: Well by voting, by becoming involved in one of these online communities in particular and even offline in community organizing activities that exists in all communities across the country. These are folks that are doing the hardcore social change work and want to ensure that everybody has a voice. I think that by supporting these organizations and taking action and by applying some pressure - and some folks will scoff at this - but applying some pressure to our elected officials to hold them accountable either as and individual or as part of a collective, part of a larger group that is trying to pressure our officials. Change has to come and we know that it does happen.

KERNAN: So this is really interesting because you’re talking so much about community organizing and politics and yet one of your frames is also entrepreneurship, which is really rooted in capitalism. Is there a tension for you around these two kind of mindsets or do you feel like you can marry this?

BROWN: I feel like I can marry it because I think some of the ideas that come from, well... In certain ways I guess I think about them separately and in a complimentary manner.  So community organizing groups that are starting to think about, well, what are ways that we can create something else of value to offer our membership that may help us to bring in some revenue in order to become more self-sustaining so that we don’t just have to rely on fees from our members and on a foundation grant dollars? This is one way that I see them being able to partner those two - what could be very separate frames being able to partner and compliment one another. I remain hopeful that the social entrepreneur sector will continue to grow more and more robust so that the awareness that you can have a double or triple bottom line impact while also creating a sustainable labor while creating sustainable labor and product is possible.

KERNAN: And social entrepreneurship has been a really big movement over the past three decades in particular. How has the downturn affected that whole movement towards asset building and social entrepreneurship. Is it feeling the effects of this downturn?

BROWN: It is. But I think that as the understanding of what this sector is, social entrepreneurism grows. The capital that flows into it will at least stabilize, if not grow, because I think folks realize that at worst - to put it in the worst frame possible I guess – that there is money to be made. And where there is money to be made, there is money to invest. So if something is having a double or triple bottom line - so if it is green – and it’s employing people in healthy ways, I think we are just going to continue seeing investments made in that kind of work. I really don't see us backing up from that because of the context that we are in now, where we are seeing these enormous wealth disparities and these enormous problems that this country - and indeed the globe – is faced with right now. These are solutions. These are ways to get at some of these issues.

KERNAN: And how are you watching this Occupy Wall Street movement as it grows and as it’s focused ion this idea of the 99 percent and really is kind of shining a light on the original problem that is the wealth gap?

BROWN: I’m really fascinated by it because I think that this provides an opportunity for us as a nation to finally start talking about things outside of the partisan framework that we use so often. That’s always going to be present in the discussion because we are just in tune to think like that – to think blue and red, left and right, Republican and Democrat. But, 99 to 1? There are implications for those other frames, but 99 to 1 gives us that opportunity to say, "Wow. I’m among this huge group of other people demographically. What does it mean for me to be a part of this group with all of these other people who don't necessarily look like me or think like me or act like me or speak the same language as I do?  What does it mean for us to function together understanding that a very, very small percentage of folks own so much of the wealth, which means that they own so much of the power and they own so may of the platforms that allow folks to be heard and take action?" And I’m fascinated by this and want to see how it moves as we get closer to the 2012 election.

KERNAN: One of the things that’s interesting about it is that if this movement continues, if there is a shift to perception, it would be a real cultural shift in the American mindset, which stereotypically is that everyone belongs to the middle class: you don’t want to be poor and you don’t consider yourself rich.

BROWN: But as we understand that the middle class is deteriorating right now – is in real grave danger right now – and as folks have been able to look at their own financial stability and see how this economic context has impacted them. That could end up being a good thing, in terms of people’s middle class identity, because folks see that this can be a middle-class driven movement that needs to link arms with people that are low income, and some of the "one-percenters", or some of the folks that are on the wealthier side of the 99 percent, linking arms together and saying we really need to do something about this power differential because it effects all of us.

KERNAN: What is something that gives you just great optimism?

BROWN: I think that the notion of entrepreneurism and entrepreneurship. Folks saying, "I have this idea. I want to bring this idea forward. I want to try and gain momentum. I want to get financed for this." I think the trick really lies with getting financing. That’s where the road block really exists.

KERNAN: But you have to be heard to get financing so there’s another stumbling block.

BROWN:  You do. My hope is that there are additional forums that are being birthed now and nurtured now that are going to allow people to get the information that they need in order to take charge. This is framed as small business ownership in certain sectors and respects, but I also think that thinking about entrepreneurship as someone having a great idea and wanting to bring it to bear in a way that’s going to allow for the enterprise to have some longevity to it. I think about folks who say, "Well there’s a lack of African Americans in the entrepreneurial sector."  It isn’t because we don't get it or aren’t entrepreneurial folks to generalize hugely.

KERNAN:  The opposite would be true. I’m particularly thinking in the urban core where there is high unemployment. The entrepreneurship is happening everywhere you look.

BROWN: That’s right and folks have to quote unquote hustle to be able to think about how am I going to create something of value to someone else and sell it so I can make a living is kind of fundamental to what we see in the urban core and even spreading beyond into the suburbs. So I think there are plenty of ideas that exist. Getting the forum for these ideas to be shaped into a business plan and then getting financing for these businesses and then finally the support so that businesses can thrive and grow is going to be the challenge in front of us now.

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.