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A Call to Action for Enduring Change

All of us who work at REDF stand with those who are mourning men and women like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor cut down in the prime of their lives. And we stand with people across the US who are demanding real changes now. “We need change that is transformative, because work in the margins will not produce the change we seek,” Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation stated, adding, “….a return to normal should not be on the menu.”

Intertwined with the devastations of COVID-19 are the intolerable impacts of another virus – the virus of racism. This is at the heart of inequities that have harmed and killed men and women in the prime of life not only over the past few weeks, but tragically over decades and centuries in our country.

Words are important, action is essential. Protests create the imperative that can and should lead to change. The most seasoned protesters and observers have spoken of their anger and hurt, while also expressing the urgent need for the kind of sustained effort required to pull the causes of inequity out by the roots. REDF is committed to do all we can in support.

What are the root causes?  

Protesters calling for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others build on the outrage that pandemic deaths have not only been much higher among older people, but also among African Americans. The interlocking economic and health inequities spring from well-documented root causes like these:

  • Unequal access to health insurance and health care;
  • Differential treatment for African Americans even once receiving health care;
  • Discrimination and racial bias in housing, employment, and the criminal justice system;
  • Jobs that don’t afford the luxury of sheltering in place; and
  • Underlying health conditions caused by both inadequate access to quality care, and the trauma and constant stress of living in a society where indignities at work and in the public square, and violent manifestations of racism are still facts of daily life.

Taking the long view, the deep roots of racial injustice in America go as far back as the 1600’s when slavery began here. 84% of Black people and 58% of white people know that the legacy of slavery affects the position of African Americans in the US today.  As a white woman I believe that we must actively challenge racial injustice because of the harm it causes African Americans and other people of color, and because, while it benefits white people materially, it harms us all by undermining human values that demand respect and compassion, and by demeaning core American values that demand fairness.

REDF’s origins/Who we serve

REDF was established 20+ years ago to open doors to a more inclusive economy that values and supports young people and adults who have been involved in the justice system or have been homeless by supporting employment social enterprises (ESEs) – a special kind of business that intentionally offers paid employment, a supportive work environment, on-the-job training, and access to services and education to individuals who face significant barriers, including a bias against hiring people who have been involved with the justice system, and racism – whether overt or concealed. Despite these hurdles, tens of thousands of people have joined the workforce, and evidence is building of increased earnings, more housing stability, and less recidivism for those employed, at a lower cost to taxpayers and the society as a whole due to the business model which generates revenue for the jobs and training.

How is this work anti-racist?

The people served by ESEs reflect the racial inequities of many of our systems and institutions. African Americans represented 33% of the sentenced prison population, and 40% of the homeless population; although they are 13% of the US adult population. These statistics are testimony to the racial inequities, and a mirror image of the people who are employed by ESEs, including 43% who are African American.

Widespread evidence finds that the causes of these racial disparities include our country’s history of institutional racism (criminal justice system, housing ‘red-lining’) and interpersonal racial bias (medical treatment decisions) that adversely affect African Americans, and biased hiring decisions.

A controlled study cited in a Department of Justice publication found that white applicants with a criminal record were more likely to receive job callbacks than were Black applicants who did not have a criminal record.

“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist’,” Ibram Kendi, author of the book “How to be an Anti-Racist” points out. As a white woman leading an organization that primarily serves communities of color, I know that I cannot understand or grasp the full impact of racism. And I know that as a citizen and leader of an organization dedicated to full economic empowerment, seeing and feeling how intolerable this is, we have a responsibility to do all we can to take action that is anti-racist.

ESEs are doing anti-racist work by creating new, hybrid business and social structures aiming to eradicate some of the most pernicious impacts of racist practices and systems that have limited and constrained economic opportunities for African American men and women.

The courageous people who work in ESEs affirm the possibilities for contribution, accomplishment and achievement that come with equitable treatment and respect for their value and worth as human beings. The incomes, benefits, assets and networks that enable people to contribute; and the basis of a societal compact that engenders trust and hope – an antidote to mistrust and despair.

More support is needed

Nonetheless, despite decades of success, this set of businesses and the extraordinary social entrepreneurs who run them have not been able to access the level of resources to take their initiatives to scale, and instead of serving tens of thousands, serve the millions of people who could flourish if able to access the opportunity.

The reason may be rooted in the “race-colored glasses” some white people who hold institutional power may wear. As just one example, an Opportunity Fund study based on Federal Reserve data shows that Black–owned business application rates for new funding are 10 percentage points higher than white-owned firms, but their approval rates are 19 percentage points lower.

And the hard truth is that as these enterprises and their incredibly motivated, courageous participants try to turn their lives around, they still live in a society where white people who have been incarcerated have a three times better chance of getting interviewed for that next job than an African American with no prison record.

ESEs have experienced the harsh effects of the pandemic, as have all small businesses. And its impact on the people that they employ has also been painful. ESEs have been making Herculean efforts to keep people employed, and when they can’t, to stay in close contact, offer material support, provide relevant information on benefits available, and help people deal with the traumatic effects of COVID-19 and the murders that have sparked civil unrest across the country.

Creating change/taking action

As we aspire to amplify the anti-racist nature of our work, REDF has made these commitments:

  • To increase our support for ESEs across the US; and especially those founded and led by men and women who have themselves experienced racism, homelessness and incarceration. Just in the last few weeks we have provided $850,000 to help ESEs make it through the economic disaster. As we did with grants made earlier this year, REDF prioritized organizations led by people of color and people with lived experience.
  • To get better informed and facilitate learning among ESEs about how racial bias and injustice impacts them and their employees and participants, create space for people of color-identifying enterprise leaders to connect and heal, and to invest in the delivery of the kinds of trauma and race-conscious supports that will help their employees succeed.
  • To inform and influence policymakers to promote the growth of employment social enterprise in advancing the economic inclusion, security and mobility of individuals who do not have stable employment or earn a living wage; building an evidence base to both improve the results, and to motivate government to do more.
  • To be more transparent about reporting data and facts about our work with a race lens in order to understand and set the right goals, continue to increase the racial diversity of our own staff, leadership and Board, and generate greater accountability.

Many of the ESEs we work with are also challenging mainstream businesses to open their doors and change their employment practices to be inclusive and more attuned to race and related issues on the job.

Our country is 13% Black and more than 50% white. Power in the halls of our major institutions is still primarily in the hands of white people. If we all really care about racial injustice, we can stop it. But it means speaking up, not giving up. It means persistence. It is uncomfortable. It is exhausting – particularly for African Americans and other people of color who continue to directly experience and witness racism. And for people who experience life differently because of our white skin, we have to listen more, we must learn and be open to criticism and to change, and we should promote the leadership of the people with direct experience. All of this work is absolutely necessary.

We challenge our colleagues in government and philanthropy to invest more in the economic empowerment of people who have been incarcerated and homeless and in social enterprises. Particularly now. Thanks to a drumbeat of advocacy, more people are being released from prison and jail to the community. And the economics of the pandemic are already resulting in more homelessness. Many more people will need jobs and support in order to avoid recidivism to incarceration and/or homelessness. And they will be competing with others who have recently lost jobs.

We have hope

In the midst of pain and harm, there is often more openness to change. I believe we are in a moment like that now. What gives me hope? The many African Americans, other people of color, and allies who are running for office, winning and creating change. A wave of criminal justice system reform that is still underway and gathering steam. The numbers of people who work in and are part of the criminal justice system that are publicly acknowledging the urgent need for change. The increased urgency with which cities and states are trying to address homelessness. And the outpouring of widespread support across the country, with people of all races demanding change.

And the employment social enterprises we work with – their leaders and participants who are dealing with the interrelated issues of race, racism, and trauma, and getting involved as businesses and as citizens in anti-racist work.

The brilliant professor and decades-long activist Dr. Clarence Jones was a friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He shared his assessment of the “tipping point” our nation faces recently in a poignant :

“…We have come to the point where enough is enough…..We cannot be satisfied by excuses and efforts to diminish the gravity of the systemic racism our community has carried decade after decade throughout the history of our country…..When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of ‘the fierce urgency of now’, he was not speaking in metaphorical terms, but of life and death.”

Dr. Jones challenges us: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

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