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Kansas City knew Black businesses needed help 40 years ago. We’re doing that work now | Opinion

In 1982, the Kansas City assembled a Kansas City Race Relations Task Force with the purpose of identifying the greatest need and opportunity for improving race relations in Kansas City. It then identified ongoing structured measures that could be implemented to achieve this goal.

Its board of directors was made up of 20 community leaders representing both minority and majority groups. They convened multiple times over the course of 2 1/2 years, receiving input from various additional community members. My point is that this was a well-organized group whose members took their time to ensure an accurate assessment of the challenge and potential solutions.

They chose to narrow their focus to “creating equity through economic development” because they found: “Commerce has been a catalyst for equality in America. When one person offers goods or services needed by another, characteristics of race, gender, and class should become irrelevant.”

Upon reading the report they published, I found some relevant comparisons to contemporary race relations and economic development. It may or may not surprise you to hear that the challenges they identified back in 1982 remain exactly the same in 2024.

The report found that 96% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. had zero employees, and that Black-owned firms made up only 1.8% of all businesses in the country. Those numbers are virtually unchanged today. It also said white-owned businesses in Kansas City exhibited a lack of support for minority-owned companies because they refused to commit to supplier diversity. It found that white-owned businesses were more comfortable purchasing janitorial services from a minority business, compared to other professional services or products.

It stated that the racial wealth gap in 1982 was 12 to 1 (it is currently 10 to 1), and because of the lack of wealth in minority communities, it was a challenge for businesses there to start, grow and scale. All these challenges were clearly laid out and identified in the report given to the City Council.

When it came to the solutions, they too were eerily similar to what we still discuss today. Increasing supplier diversity, committing to youth entrepreneurship education in the urban core, diversifying the industries that minority businesses pursue, implementing a minority-focused leadership development program and adopting diverse hiring practices were some of the recommendations from the report. However, there were a few suggestions that I found intriguing considering the work that we’re doing at Generating Income For Tomorrow, also known as Kansas City G.I.F.T.

The report suggested that there should be a pool of funds reserved for minority entrepreneurs. Our organization provides grant funds exclusively to Black-owned businesses in Kansas City’s urban core. The report recommended a high-quality incubator to assist with business management. We offer a year of coaching, bookkeeping services, legal services and a marketing package for all companies that receive grants, as well as a 7,500-square-foot business center that provides all of those services for free to the general public, located in the urban core.

The report suggested a focus on businesses that have the potential to grow, rather than solely on startups. Our grant program is solely focused on Black-run businesses that have the potential to grow and create jobs.

Nonprofits didn’t even see 1982 report

I find it very interesting that my co-founders and I were able to create a program centered around the same principles that were suggested more than 40 years ago without ever seeing this report. We are not alone in this endeavor. Black Excellence KC recently launched a leadership program exclusively aimed at leaders of color. The Village KC has programming that focuses on youth entrepreneurship in the urban core, Entrepreneur Business Basics has been championing the need to start more nontraditional businesses. The Porter House KC has developed high-quality training and education for minority entrepreneurs, and there are many organizations championing the need for a real and sustained commitment to supplier diversity.

There is a saying that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer example of this. The fact that multiple Black-led organizations are addressing the issues that it took a committee two years to identify more than 40 years ago — even though they have never seen this report — shows that proximity to the challenge breeds answers.

This also speaks to the idea that the role of nonprofit organizations in the community is to act on issues that government institutions refuse to address. That Kansas City has had this report for more than 40 years and still does not have programming around creating equity through economic development in these specific ways is a clear example of that.

It is a shame that we are still facing the same problems we had four decades years ago. It is a shame that the institutional powers in our society have not taken more intentional action on the solution, and that Black leaders who built these nonprofits that are addressing needs did not need to spend two years researching the challenge — because we have a lifetime of experience with it.

Supporting Black-led nonprofit organizations is imperative. If we want our community to thrive and really address the root causes of race relations and social challenges, that is clearly where the help needs to go.

Brandon Calloway is co-founder and CEO of the Kansas City-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit Generating Income For Tomorrow.