Tyrone Russell, owner of Faces International, a marketing and advertising agency in Allentown, knows what racial inequality feels like. As a Black business owner launching a business eight years ago, obtaining financing was a challenge. After being turned down several times he finally secured a $15,000 loan, but at 10% interest. The lack of financing hampered the growth of his firm.
“Sometimes I think about the potential we would have had and where we’d be now if we had been able to get money back then,” he said.
Will that change now?
Following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year old Black man, by police in Minneapolis, the nation is once again addressing the pernicious issue of racism against the Black community. Rallies led by Black Lives Matter have attracted thousands across the country and the world, triggering an unprecedented call for racial justice from a broad coalition.
Many companies and organizations opened their wallets and promised changes in the way they do business and address racial inequality. PPL Corp. in Allentown, Camp Hill-based Rite Aid Corp and PNC Bank in Pittsburgh are just some of the Pennsylvania-based firms that have contributed to the cause.
That response is giving Joanne Leasure, owner of Day One Accounting and Financial Services in Effort, Monroe County, and a woman of color, a feeling she normally doesn’t have about racism in America.
“It fills me with hope that this is real,” she said.
PPL is partnering with the United Way to launch its United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley’s Fund for Racial Justice and Equity. It contributed $100,000 to that effort. The company is also supporting the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley’s Color Outside the Lines initiative and NAACP chapters in Harrisburg, Lancaster and Wilkes-Barre.
“We are proud to stand with United Way to support efforts aimed at confronting discrimination, advancing social justice and building a more equitable future,” said Vince Sorgi, president and CEO of PPL. “Like United Way, we recognize that more must be done to create a fair and just world, and we’re committed to promoting meaningful and lasting change.”
Marci Lesko, executive vice president of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, said the organization will use the money and donations from other businesses and individuals for anti-racism education and programming in the region for schools, businesses and other organizations.
The Rite Aid Foundation pledged $2 million towards a Racial Equity Awareness and Action initiative. The money will be invested in organizations, networks and programs that promote dialog on the treatment of people of color.
Calling the outcry for racial justice “one of the most important civil rights movements of our time,” William Demchak, chairman, president and CEO of PNC, announced the bank has pledged $1 billion for external and internal efforts to support racial equality. PNC will put money into neighborhood and community development financing as well as financing for individuals and small businesses.
Russell said it’s good to see people talking and thinking about race, but pointing to his own difficulty in getting funds, he said the largest impact will come from banks offering better financing options for minority-owned businesses.
“It will help these small businesses with the capital they need to grow their business in a way they haven’t been able to. This gives those folks a little bit of an edge,” he said.
He said access to capital is an essential component of any effort to uplift an underserved community.
Other efforts have included work by organizations such as the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and PowerLV to compile lists of Black-owned businesses in the region to help people who want to do more to support those businesses.
“We’ve seen a call for lists like this,” said Allison Mickel, community coordinator for PowerLV, the local chapter of Power Pennsylvania, a racial justice organization. “We want to help people to support our living and thriving Black-owned business community.”
But the larger question is, as Leasure hopes, will the death of George Floyd and the outrage it caused lead to lasting, meaningful change?
Mickel said the issues of racial inequality aren’t new and reform has been slow in coming. “It does feel different to me,” she said. “Part of it is watching the video. I think it activated people in ways that previous stories couldn’t.”
She said the coronavirus shutdown may have had an impact on the intensity of people’s reaction to Floyd’s death. Being at home and facing the issue without the normal distractions, people felt the pain so deeply they turned to the streets.
Leasure, whose husband is white, believes the increase in the number of blended families has broadened the impact of racial issues; more people are seeing it not as a problem of “others,” but one that impacts people they know and love and members of their family.
According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, in Bethlehem nearly 6% of people list more than one race. In Reading the percentage is nearly 19% and in Harrisburg its around 4%.
Russell said emotions are high now, and he likes the action he’s seeing, but he said if the efforts of businesses to support racial equality are to be sustainable, they need to “dig deeper than just handing out money.” Companies need to follow through on changes in their internal structure and wages, and to support Black-owned businesses and organizations.
He said people who want to support racial justice need to remember that eight-and-a-half-minute video of George Floyd being slowly suffocated and ask “are people willing to continue moving forward? Are you going to continue to keep your feet in the fire?”