Black-owned organizations leading the way toward diversity, equity, inclusion

Both local and national organizations have been making new commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) over the past few years. Much of this progress was motivated by growing awareness of social justice issues, as well as struggles due to the pandemic.

Leaders say DEI is most effective when it’s intentional and guided by the needs of the surrounding community. Interest groups, staff, and clients are keeping a close eye on their progress.

Kenneth Worles Jr. is founder and president of the local, Black-owned marketing agency Three(i) Creative Communications, which works on DEI and corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns. 

“One of the biggest pieces of DEI, going forward, will be communicating value,” he said. “The questions will become, ‘How do we keep people involved?’ ‘How do we provide community-focused opportunities for people to feel seen and heard?’”

DEI isn’t black-and-white

This summer, Bank of America released a report based on a 2020 survey of U.S. small business owners. The social justice section of the report revealed that “94 percent of Black business owners are committed to advocating for social change through their business, compared to 53 percent of small business owners overall.”

Bank of America outlined Black-owned business DEI efforts in their 2021 report. (submitted)

“I think that DEI is in our DNA,” said Marcellus Harper, co-founder and executive director of Collage Dance Collective. “It’s just part of our culture. It’s active work that we do. It’s work that we’ve always been very committed to. We’re very intentional about all of the decisions that we make, even building this new facility.”

Collage recently held the grand opening for its $9 million dance performance center in the Binghampton neighborhood. The Black-owned company opened in New York City in 2006 in response to the ballet industry’s lack of racial diversity on stage, and relocated to Memphis in 2009.

Harper pointed out that most white-led institutions think having an “everyone’s welcome” attitude is enough. Without making any deliberate effort, they expect more diverse communities to show up and participate.

“What they don’t realize is that type of work has to be more intentional,” he said. “We thought about everything—from the materials that we used in the building, to the paint on the walls, to the artwork.”

The results of the Bank of America survey were weighted to account for company size, revenue, and region. But Memphis doesn’t always match up with national benchmarks.

The Greater Memphis Chamber reported that there are 2.6 million Black-owned businesses in the U.S. That’s only 9.5 percent of the nation’s total. In contrast, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, minority-owned businesses account for more than 60 percent of total businesses in Memphis. 

“When you add up all the business transactions in Memphis, only 1 percent is transacted with Black-owned businesses,” said City of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland in an interview with WREG. “In a city that is 65 percent African American, that’s not fair and it’s also not good for the city, so we’ve got to grow that number.”

Bittersweet progress

“I think Black-owned businesses,” said Worles, “Which usually have smaller budgets, have to be creative in asking, ‘How do we provide value to our community and show that we’re a part of it and respect everyone without having the money that bigger companies have?’”

Three(i) was founded in 2017 and specializes in social impact marketing. Worles and his team have helped national companies like Saks Fifth Avenue with their DEI initiatives. Closer to home, they recently assisted Turner Construction with its annual CSR event which was centered on doing better for local vendors and communities.

“For a Black-led arts organization, I think the data shows that we historically do not get [equitable funding],” Harper said. “If we were a city like San Francisco, where Black people made up a much smaller percentage, or people of color (POC) made up a much smaller percentage, it would be different.”

The data backs up Worles’s and Harper’s sentiments.

In the Bank of America report, 82 percent of respondents said “entrepreneurs of color have to work harder to achieve the same level of success.” The Census Bureau said in one of their working papers that “Black-owned firms are less likely to receive bank loans, more likely to refrain from applying because they expect denial, and more likely to report that lack of finance reduces their profitability.”

“I watched Black businesses in 2020 just close down,” Worles said. “Because of the financial woes of the pandemic. So, one of the biggest things that 2020 made me feel, as a Black-owned business that made it out, is blessed.”

Harper said that the social justice climate over the past few years has been a “weird time.” Increased attention to social justice issues has brought more concrete opportunities to grow, but he said Black-owned businesses have always deserved this level of support. They just haven’t gotten it.

Similar to Harper, Worles described working in and on DEI as a Black-owned business during the past few years as “bittersweet.”

“We saw the upliftment of Black and brown companies, entrepreneurs, creatives and voices,” he said. “But it had to be because a Black person was killed.”

Looking ahead

Worles said that moving forward, DEI will come more naturally and should feel authentic for Black-owned businesses.

“I think the first step is to really research this concept of DEI. The reality is, in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty new terminology,” he said.

“The second step is to learn from your team. What you’ll notice is, a lot of the ways to improve upon this system will be right there in the feedback that your team gives you.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Ashlei Williams.

Memphis native Ashlei Williams has been writing for business, philanthropic, minority and academic audiences for a decade. She earned her master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School and bachelor’s in English from Spelman College. In 2016, she started GJC Publicity, focusing on editorial, marketing, advertising and creative writing. Get in touch with her at [email protected].