Racial Equity

Chambers Work to Address Racial Equity

By Amy Shields, Director of Community Advancement, ACCE

Over the past several months, we have seen a renewed national spotlight on race in America. From the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the national protests that followed to the disproportionate economic and health impacts that COVID-19 has wrought on communities of color, we are grappling with issues of systemic inequity across the nation.

For some chambers, it may not be clear why focusing our diversity, equity and inclusion conversations specifically on race is important and relevant to the chamber’s mission. The answer is straightforward; race is the primary predictor of outcomes in America. As Jason Benitez, vice president of talent and inclusion at the Capital Region Chamber said, “Numerous studies have shown the wide racial disparities, in a number of categories, which predict life outcomes. From health to employment, education and homeownership, Black, Indigenous and People of Color largely fall far behind their white counterparts in most, if not all of these areas.”

In 2019, inspired by ACCE’s Education and Talent Development Fellowship, Lindsay Keisler, president and CEO of the Chamber of Catawba County, began diving into workforce and education data in her community, specifically regarding race and unemployment, educational attainment and entrepreneurship. She said, “I started asking myself the question, does a rising tide really float all boats? We like to say that in economic and community development, however, is this statement really true in our county, or do some boats have heavier anchors? And, what I found out is the data proves the latter.”

The disparities that she discovered were alarming; the African American unemployment rate was twice that of the white population. Only 7 percent of Hispanics in the community go on to acquire education beyond a high school diploma. Keisler shared, “We have a lot of work to do, but I’m confident that the chamber is well positioned to lead conversations and progress around diversity, equity and inclusion in our region.”

Chambers have the power to make lasting change in their communities and to tackle systemic inequality. Below you will find several areas and examples of how chambers are addressing racial inequity.

Workforce and Education

Education funding and school segregation reinforce racial disparities in our country. Minority students who attend nonwhite school districts continue to receive less funding than their white counterparts. This is due in part to using property taxes to fund schools, but also due to other systemic disinvestment at the local and state level.

The Capital Region Chamber is part of a collaborative partnership with the Capital Region BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) working to level the playing field and promote greater inclusion. The chamber's work with Capital Region Pathways in Education Early College High School helps to expose a diverse group of young students to experiential and other learning opportunities to provide students with the skills needed for careers in emerging areas of science and information-technology. "We are working to better ensure that young, future talent—from all walks of life—have access to cutting-edge information and opportunities,” Benitez said

Systemic issues continue as people reach the workforce. Research shows that diverse businesses perform better on key metrics than less diverse businesses, but employers may not know how to tap into that diversity to improve their business outcomes. Many companies do not have plans to address implicit bias in their hiring and HR practices. As a result, candidates of color are less likely to get called in to interview or to be promoted to senior positions. This makes it challenging to build a more diverse workforce and take advantage of those rewards.

The Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce provides training to employers to assist them in capitalizing on the diversity of their workforce.  “When we look at challenges in a business, there’s often no single right or wrong answer," said Adrian Hale, the chamber's senior manager of talent strategy, workforce development and education initiatives. We have to learn how to value each other’s differences and utilize those differences to get the most out of your talent corps and, ultimately, the most out of your business. We need leaders and supervisors that can build a culture of equity and inclusion that supports a more diverse workforce.”

Economic Development and Social Mobility 

Transportation systems, one of the critical components of successful economic development, have a racialized history in America. As cities grapple with gentrification, investments in public transportation systems have not kept pace with the movement of certain types of employers away from expensive downtown cores, making it more difficult for workers to access jobs that might provide pathways for advancement.

The Indy Chamber has been working for several years on issues of economic mobility. “One of the most daunting issues facing Indianapolis is our extremely low rate of upward mobility – we need more people participating in our economy to be a more competitive region, but it’s tough to realistically promise a fair opportunity to share in the benefits of growth,” said Mark Fisher, the chamber’s chief policy officer.

Fisher acknowledges that geography plays a role in hampering mobility. “We’ve seen a significant concentration of poverty, with low-income households increasingly isolated from employment and educational opportunities, even basic necessities like healthy food and medical care. Public transportation helps reconnect people, employers and neighborhoods, and ensure that zip code doesn’t have to equal economic destiny.”

The chamber initially focused on mass transit because its members wanted a bigger potential workforce with reliable options to get to work on time. But as economic inclusion became a bigger part of the chamber’s agenda, Fisher said, “the potential of transit to improve equity became a bigger part of our message – a message that won at the ballot box [a 2016 financing referendum victory] and continues to drive public support for building new rapid transit lines and implementing more convenient service across Indianapolis.”

There may be other long-term economic development consequences for ignoring issues of race and equity. Many companies, both large and small, have made statements in support of Black Lives Matter and other organizations.  Showcasing a community-wide commitment to address racial equity challenges could make a difference when a business is looking to relocate or expand. It may also impact the type of talent you can attract or retain in your region.

Small Business and Entrepreneurship

Discrimination in banking, both overt and implicit, and access to capital are barriers to success when it comes to incubating and supporting minority-owned businesses. During COVID-19, this became particularly problematic when not having an established banking relationship prevented many small business owners of color from securing PPP and EIDL funding.

Systemic inequity has also impacted minority business owners’ access to networks. The places and spaces where informal business happens, like country clubs, elite education institutions and other social clubs, have only been guaranteed to be accessible to all people since the 1970s, and implicit bias continues to play a role in controlling access to those networks. 

“We had an economist come in and do some research within our community, and we noticed a glaring gap,” said Avril Stinson, director of minority business accelerator and economic inclusion at the Tampa Bay Chamber. “Minorities own the same percentage of companies as non-minorities in our region, but minority businesses were contributing less than 5 percent to the gross economy. To us, that stood out as an area that required some assistance, so we as a chamber wanted to step up and do our part to help the greater business community.” 

In response to this challenge, the chamber launched its Minority Business Accelerator (MBA). This program helps Black and Hispanic business owners who are concerned with their lack of business growth and want to learn how to compete in the market more effectively. The MBA helps these businesses identify and overcome growth barriers, connect to corporate decision makers and uncover potential funding opportunities. By providing practical tools for change, program participants are positioned to increase capacity, create jobs and build wealth.

Community Health

Systemic inequity also impacts our communities in less obvious ways. When we look at an issue like community health, which intersects with many of the areas in which chambers work, we understand that the environments in which we live impact our health and quality of life outcomes. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate health impact on communities of color. Historically, we have ignored environmental impacts on health outcomes in minority communities. This includes everything from how industrial byproducts impact the safety of those living in surrounding communities to how readily available healthy food is in certain neighborhoods.

In June, the board of the Greater Cleveland Partnership voted to support the Cleveland City Council in declaring racism a public health crisis. The board sent a letter to the City Council that stated, “We live in a caring and compassionate community that for decades has worked to address each individual challenge before it. But we know there is still a lot of work to be done. Rarely have we named the systemic cause of many of these challenges.  It is far past the time to do that.  Racism is real and is harming all people in our community. We have a collective responsibility to facilitate change. The business community has an important role to play and we, including our Equity & Inclusion Division, plan to be deeply engaged with city leaders in this work.”

What Chambers Can Do? 

While there are a variety of ways chambers approach diversity, equity and inclusion work, there are a few common tactics that everyone should consider. Listening is key, no matter how your chamber approaches racial equity work. In order to be effective listeners, it is important for chamber leaders to lean into difficult conversations and acknowledge the value that can come from these kinds of dialogues. 

The Tulsa Regional Chamber invited its executive committee and top CEOs to North Tulsa, the site of the 1921 race massacre, to meet with African American leaders and historians to have conversations about what equity means to the Black community in Tulsa. While the conversations weren’t easy, they opened the door for future work. 

“I encouraged our chamber to be unflinching in how they addressed these issues in the community, what occurred 100 years ago, why we’re at the table now, and what’s next,” said Kuma Roberts, the chamber’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion. “I knew that anything less was only going to be seen as fake, like the chamber wasn’t really committed to the work of moving our organization forward.”

Chambers also have a powerful opportunity to fight for legislation that addresses systemic racism. In June, Georgia passed its first hate crimes bill, legislation that was vocally supported by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber. Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, released an op-ed that stated, “We are in an important national conversation on systemic racism and the underlying inequality of economic opportunity in America. The Georgia Chamber and the business community will directly engage in dialogue and actively advocate for policies that create long term job growth, mobility, and equality for all Georgians. Doing so is essential for our collective prosperity.”

Even if policies don’t directly address systemic inequality, chambers should review legislative priorities with a racial equity lens to ensure that proposed policies don’t unintentionally grow gaps between different populations.

Lastly, there are important and powerful partners in our community, like the United Way and the Urban League, that have been working to address systemic racism for decades. Chambers should consider their relationships with those groups and identify opportunities to move forward in partnership. It may take time to build relationships and gain trust from new partners, but systemic issues cannot be addressed by a single organization or sector. Addressing racism requires everyone to collectively work toward a more equitable future.

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