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Economic development plays a role in anti-racism. Here’s how Portland is doing it

Anti-racism is the new buzzword these days, but what does that mean from a practical sense and in regards to real solutions and approaches to becoming anti-racist?

We spoke with Kimberly Branam, Executive Director of Prosper Portland for a discussion on the role that economic development plays in the anti-racism movement. The Portland community has been among the most vocal communities joining Black Lives Matter protestors and speaking out against systemic racism. Diversity and inclusion programs, while noble, are typically bandaid solutions and don’t do enough to peel back the layers of systemic racism.

While there’s no singular solution, Kimberly shares how Prosper Portland is becoming anti-racism and the greater role that economic development plays as an industry.

There is no economic development without economic equity.

Becoming anti-racist

What led to the organization’s journey towards anti-racism?

In about 2008 or 2009, right around the time that we had our great recession, a group of community organizations got together through the Coalition of Communities of Color, and they put together what was called an Unsettling Report. The report revealed how communities of color in our region of Multnomah County and our district disproportionately have lower incomes, poorer health outcomes, access to employment, and are disproportionately invested in a negative way. And I think that began at a broader scale in the kinds of conversations that have been happening within communities for a long time, but it really was this clarion call that we needed to do things differently.

 

So it started before the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder and the protests that erupted as a result.

The pandemic exacerbated the need to really address racial equity, but Prosper Portland was well ahead on this journey. Even prior to COVID, the organization was intentional about economic and racial equity and had both non-profit and private sector investors working towards solutions. As a matter of fact, since 2015, we have really been focused on building an equitable economy as part of our strategic plan.

Confronting a racist past

What led up to the point of reexamining the organization’s approach to racial equity?

It was important for us to acknowledge that the backdrop of the state of Oregon, the City of Portland, and even the history of my own organization all have a very racist past. That was the first part.

Every institution in the United States has a racist history. We acknowledge that we’re on our journey to becoming an anti-racist organization, and that means fundamentally rethinking almost everything that we do.

“This is not a side project. This is not something that is ancillary. This really is a fundamental element of what we need to be doing as economic developers.”

The work towards economic equity

What does this work (economic equity) look like for Prosper Portland?

We know that more diverse companies outperform those that are not. So we started thinking about how we could do community-led, community-driven work in our economic development and urban development initiatives in partnership with the community. And that got us to really rethink how we do racial equity focused work in terms of building cities and building our neighborhoods.

We also looked at innovative ways to increase access to capital for Black businesses. There was some skepticism from maybe traditional economic development partners that we were becoming the social service agency or that we weren’t really focused on economic development anymore. And I would say to them that if economic development is not inclusive it is fundamentally insufficient.

We know that local economies that are diverse and Inclusive outperform those that aren’t. So this is not a side project. This is not something that is ancillary. This really is a fundamental element of what we need to be doing as economic development professionals. We’re thinking about who benefits, who’s burdened, and how can people really participate in creating economic opportunities. So that is a big focus of our work and our learning today.

Closing the gap during COVID-19

In response to COVID-19, how has the organization enhanced its work towards economic equity?

With support from the City Council, Prosper Portland launched a $1 million Small Business Relief Fund as loans and grants specifically to Black businesses as a relief to the challenges with accessing capital during the pandemic.

We addressed the pandemic and economic shock by providing immediate stop-gap relief to small businesses led by Black, indigenous and other people of color to help maintain their operations.

As a commitment to helping companies grow by being inclusive, our holistic approach goes beyond access to capital and includes hiring and retention, business planning, policy action, and even peer-to-peer mentoring to help minority businesses grow. Our goal is to continuously work aggressively towards income and asset disparity of communities of color.

Check out Kimberly’s full interview here.

Economic Development Podcast series

As economic development marketers, Blueprint Creative launched the podcast series to drive thought leadership and shape best practices as we move towards recovery and resiliency in a post-pandemic world. Throughout the series, leaders discuss the changing dynamics of the economic development industry as a whole and predict the trends that may shift their targeted industries.

The series features economic development leaders from across the country and can be checked out here.

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