TCR Talks: The economics of black power

Mark Allen, chairman of National Black Wall Street Chicago, says economic self-sufficiency is key to the success of African-American communities.  [Photo by Emily Jan]

Mark Allen, chairman of National Black Wall Street Chicago, says economic self-sufficiency is key to the success of African-American communities. [Photo by Emily Jan]

Chicago has its fill of violence. But the answer to this problem isn’t more law enforcement, according to Mark Allen, chairman of National Black Wall Street Chicago. The answer is economic and consumer power.

“There is no need to be physically violent when the economics and resources are there to provide more legitimate institutions for black communities,” Allen said.

Allen, 52, has been involved in the civil rights movement since childhood, including Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket and Operation PUSH. Now, he focuses on helping African Americans start and maintain businesses.

National Black Wall Street Chicago’s office rings with activity. Staffers make phone calls and assist small businesses with paperwork and promotion. Black youth learn business and entrepreneurship skills as part of a summer youth program.

To help sustain and increase black businesses, NBWSC conducts workshops and trains business owners in how to complete legal paperwork. The organization also builds relationships with banks and lenders.

NBWSC has helped about 20 small black businesses take off. In addition, it promotes over 800 businesses through social media, helping businesses that otherwise may not be able to afford advertising.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Allen to discuss how African Americans can use their economic and consumer power to rebuild their communities.

Why is this important?
When you add 50 new police today, that’s not going to stop crime. The majority of youth are caught today because they were caught doing something illegal to solve an economic problem. The more we work on showing the black community how to use consumer power and resources, the more you can show them how to create and sustain black communities and businesses. 

How did Black Wall Street begin?
We started out of a black community newspaper called South Street Journal. We decided to use the power of the community newspaper to educate the community on economic power. We identified blocks in Chicago where black business communities are running those areas. One of the problems with the Civil Rights movement was that economically, blacks did not control their own movement. A lot of the fights we have to fight – health, education, social services – we can’t fight these fights without a base. We must have a self-sustaining and economic base. It will eliminate violence in the black community. [An economic base is] not in the majority of black communities. Only in majority black communities can you see a majority non-black workforce. All ethnic communities should be self-sustaining.

What are the main issues that affect the community’s businesses?
The main challenge that we face in building black businesses is capacity building. There are a lot of people that want to do business but don’t have the legal or business capacity to do business. A lot of black businesses are going out of business because they don’t have a business model to keep it going. Our biggest challenge has been helping existing businesses get their legal business operations in order. That’s why we need workshops, to do proper business paperwork right.

What is Black Wall Street Chicago currently working on?
Two things. One of our member groups hosted a meeting with Bruce Rauner, who made a commitment of $1 million that could help the South Side community. The short answer is we’re working with the South Side community credit union on the new million-dollar investment plan to bring small micro- lending loans to black businesses. We’re collaborating with the Chicago Community Loan Fund on how to bring over $100 million in housing and development to black development communities. We’re collaborating with the CHA, HUD and our black congressional officials on revamping Section 3 on the housing jobs program to access money that has not reached the black community. [The Section 3 program makes economic opportunities and HUD-financed employment available to low-income residents.] We want to make it easier for Section 3 to bring over $100 million in community housing and jobs that our community has not seen. Those three projects alone could bring over $400 million in new development dollars that the black community has not seen in over 30 years.

How can black communities empower themselves and their businesses?
I watched how the community first comes together, brings together resources of that community and then reconnects the dots. In our community, we have a lot of different dots. In the black community, we have to identify our common goal. Once we’ve got the common issues, we identify the objective and people that can bring those resources and pull them together. Black Wall Street is uniquely qualified to do this. There is new capital to rebuild the South and West sides. Our biggest challenge as an organization is to prepare business to access capital and turn businesses, economics and jobs around. Finding access to money is one thing, building capacity of business communities to manage money is another thing.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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