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Even as the pandemic has exposed societal inequalities that have long eroded the foundations of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and state capitals are mired in a level of resentment and partisanship not seen since ideological struggles over the Vietnam War.

This toxic atmosphere has rendered them unable to tackle pressing but ingrained issues such as the racial wealth gap, the digital divide and the vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still a pervasive concern and the country’s recovery still under serious threat, individuals, families and communities – especially communities of color across the South – are struggling to cope with issues that have been exacerbated only by the pandemic.

From barriers to wealth creation opportunities and a shortage of education and workforce development to lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an inordinate toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders cannot even agree on the basic facts that would enable the nation to implement a cohesive national strategy to tackle a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the variant. Highly contagious delta which is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against this disappointing backdrop, there are at least some grounds for hope. In an attempt to fill the void created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders from the tech and investment sectors have embarked on a massive campaign – and perhaps without precedent – to tackle the social inequalities and systemic racism that have always plagued communities in the south of our country.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology firm PayPal, investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to address pervasive issues of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities in the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Georgia, Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, North Carolina, Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana, – were chosen in part because they are home to approximately 50 % of the country’s black population and this is where some of the biggest disparities exist.

SCI aims to drive long-term change, as pointed out by Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, Robert F. Smith, CEO of Vista and Rich Lesser, CEO of BCG.

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to close the wealth gap that exists among African American residents in the region. Although there is a strong black business community in the city and high levels of black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the voice of the black press, there is still has an extremely low level of Black Entrepreneurship and Business Ownership, with only 6% of businesses employing Blacks.

To address this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and acceleration programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The companies behind SCI also use their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned procurement companies.

In Alabama, SCI seeks to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 homes have no Internet connection. In order to cope with the crisis, SCI is relying on its relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with multi-unit building owners in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

Lack of access to capital is another reason why black communities in the South are traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of black households are underfunded, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $ 2 million per year per branch to build physical banks in minority communities.

Alone, 20,000 women will have access to more than $ 250 million in funding per year.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups such as the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve career outcomes for minority students, expand access financing the home through partnerships with community development financial institutions; and harnessing the power of technology to expand access to health care in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these southern communities are not new and will not be resolved overnight.

Fortunately, SCI takes a long-term approach that aims to tackle the root of structural racism in the United States and create a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement unprecedented since the 1960s were not enough to shatter the malaise and resentful partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, business leaders are stepping up their efforts and partnering with local advocates and nonprofit groups to address the problem of systemic injustice in the United States.

Therefore, we salute and applaud the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put it, “The time has always come to do what is right.


Louis R. Hancock

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