Rep. Omar, Black Caucus members offer Black businesses help, hope

Photo by Abdi Moma Rep. Omar (center) and Congressional Black Caucus members formed the panels for business forum

Residents of the Fifth Congressional District got a taste of discussion at the nation’s capital when its representative, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) met for forums in Minneapolis August 30.

Talks focused on African American issues and ways to find solutions from all levels of government. Joining Omar were fellow U.S. House members Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, California Rep. Karen Bass, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. They attended forums on disparities in education, Black business growth, and mental health resources. 

In the afternoon, dozens of community members, local officials, and business owners joined CBC members at the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA) for a discussion around ways to support Black businesses.

Also participating in the discussion were leaders of local organizations such as Warren McLean of the Northside Economic Opportunity Network, former Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Shawntera Hardy, and Justin Butler of the MN Black Chamber of Commerce, among others.

They considered how public officials can support minority business owners, especially Black business owners, covering a range of topics from procurement, access to private equity, federal support programs, and wealth disparities between Black and White families in the United States. 

Pressley stressed how wide the disparity is between Blacks and Whites when it comes to wealth. She referenced a study by Duke University and The New School on wealth in her own district, the Seventh Congressional District in Massachusetts.

The study shows Black families with a net worth of $8 competing with White families with a net worth of $247,000. The wealth disparity, noted Pressley, then translates into a disparity in life expectancy. For Black constituents in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, life expectancy drops 30 years shy of Pressley’s White constituents due to financial factors. 

Pressley highlighted the need to support Black business to change these disparities in districts similar to her own, such as the Fifth Congressional District that covers all of Minneapolis and parts of Anoka and Ramsey County. Pressley pointed to supporting the “informal industries” found in Black neighborhoods like restaurants, barbershops and salons. These serve as staples in the Black business community, Pressley said, emphasizing the importance of sustaining these existing enterprises.

Intentional, intersectional growth

Lee spoke about the importance of having representatives in local and federal positions to allocate resources to help alleviate these issues. “If the money is not steered or someone isn’t aggressively in the mix, there is no relief,” he said.

During the Q & A portion of the forum, Cheniqua Johnson of Worthington asked Omar about congressional plans to help minority business owners and stakeholders who live outside of urban areas. Johnson said public resources going to communities of color seem to overlook rural areas.

Omar echoed Lee’s point about having representatives in office who can be attentive to the needs of the minority communities and ensuring they receive the much-needed resources to run a business and develop their economy. 

“We have to think about investment being not just race-based but intentional and intersectional. If we’re not intentional about where that investment is going, we are going to leave someone behind,” Omar said. 

Sam Ndely works as a business consultant for MEDA and took part in the business forum with the CBC. Ndely shared excitement for the congressional members’ involvement in bringing resources to business owners like the ones he consults.

Looking forward, he said he’s encouraged by what he heard from the representatives and how they can help give Black owners the tools needed to compete. “Some of the biggest challenges they have are these roadblocks in the way these policies are set up. The way these requests for proposals and initiatives in corporate companies are set up can be stifling for these businesses,” Ndely said. 

Omar and the other congressional members ended the forum on the note that much of their work to solve these issues for Black business owners in contracting opportunities and getting approval for lending depended on their engagement with their representatives. They also said the political climate and gridlock in Washington, D.C. currently with a Democrat-run House and a Republican-controlled Senate and White House are making things difficult.