This year came as a bit of a surprise. Having studied international politics and spent semesters and summers abroad in college, I had been sure that Peace Corps or some similar international service year would follow graduation.
A change of heart landed me instead as a Newman’s Own Foundation fellow at Propeller, a small business accelerator in New Orleans working with businesses that aim to reduce social disparities. I have found enormous value in this new city and job. The entrepreneurs we support bring incredible energy to their work, and I get to travel all over this immensely diverse city working with small business owners. However, the most important part of my growth and education has been around Propeller’s emphasis on reducing racial and economic disparities. In New Orleans, data shows that the widest and most persistent disparities in access to wealth and high-quality health, education, and food relate to one’s race.
In this work, I have often been reminded of a quote by Paul Newman introduced during our fellowship orientation in June, explaining Paul’s motivation for donating all profits to charity:
“I wanted, I think, to acknowledge luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others.”
Luck, indeed, can be brutal, and it is up to each of us to reduce suffering in the ways that we can. Even so, I have come to believe that luck is much less about individual success or hardship, than it is about systems and institutions. Philanthropy has to involve more than balancing out unequal distribution of luck; it has to recognize systemic barriers to social progress, and remove these or at least support sustainable paths around them.
Of course, it is often not easy to recognize systems of inequity, let alone interrupt them. Here are two that I’ve been encouraged to learn about from my work and colleagues at Propeller.
- A food economy that focuses on profits at the expense of people. Many grocery stores in New Orleans closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and dozens chose not to reopen in neighborhoods that were seen as having low purchasing power. These low-income neighborhoods, given the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other racist policies in Louisiana, were predominantly African American. Lower-income residents in these areas are also less likely to own a car than their wealthier counterparts. This lack of access gave sharp rise to food deserts in New Orleans. Local convenience stores sell shelf-stable items like chips, soda, snacks, and alcohol, but purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables often requires a longer (and more expensive) trek unrealistic for many residents. These diets have short and long term health impacts, usually with high financial costs.
- Racial Funding Bias for New Businesses – A Propeller team member explains it here better that I ever could. The problem: “Less than 1% of American capital-backed venture founders are black.” Essentially, investors favor startups that have some cash already in the bank, usually drawn from the founder’s network of friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, etc. Assuming that your network reflects you, black entrepreneurs on par start several steps behind their white counterparts since the median net worth of whites is about 10 times that of blacks in America. This effect is made stronger by (and reflects) a lack of diversity among investors.
Luck is built by systems.* I am grateful and proud to work at an organization that takes these issues seriously. In response to the first system I mentioned above, Propeller’s Healthy Corner Store Collaborative works with convenience store owners in low-income, low-access neighborhoods to sell their customers fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. For the second, Propeller recently launched the Social Venture Fund, a $1MM loan fund whose borrowers will mirror the demographics of New Orleans – 70% people of color. Lastly, Propeller has worked with several of our funders and partners to encourage attendance at racial equity trainings and to change their practices as a result.
I have learned that this work, while requiring a systems framework, is also deeply personal. Coming from a predominantly white communities since elementary school, living and working in a city that is 60% African American, has made me confront my personal bias daily. This work is not brave or bold or impressive (as white people in my networks will sometimes say when we talk about these things), it is simply waking up to the American reality in a country I have been sleeping in for 23 years.
I am beyond grateful to the Newman’s Own Foundation for this opportunity to work with a host organization that is teaching me so much. Additionally, NOF’s engagement of the The Discovery Center, an equity and anti-prejudice education group, for two fellow workshops added a strong racial equity lens to our training as future nonprofit and business leaders. These systemic challenges won’t improve until large swaths of people in positions of power (public offices, banks, schools, neighborhood associations, philanthropic foundations, nonprofits, places of worship, local and national media outlets, the list goes on) begin making equity and inclusion fundamental pillars of how they make organizational decisions. As I enter the last three months of a whirlwind year, I am looking for ways to stay in New Orleans and continue finding my place in this work.
*I have mostly been talking about race, but want to acknowledge that wealth accumulation and access to healthy living in New Orleans relate to many other identities and demographics as well. Additionally, since the city population is 60% African American and 31% White, I have mostly been discussing black-white gaps for brevity. This overly-simplifies the wide breadth of racial disparities and experiences. Topics for other blog posts!
By Kyler Blodgett – NOF Fellow at Propeller, New Orleans, LA