The Poverty of Blackness… Your Control or Theirs.
Marva AllenMs. Marva Allen is CEO of the Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe in Harlem. An author and lecturer on entrepreneurship, Allen's contributions to leading business growth initiatives span 25 years. She is past president and a co-owner of USI, a multi-million dollar technology firm and is the recipient of numerous business awards, including the IBM & Kodak Excellence Award, the MMBDC Diamond Award, and Crain's Business 40 Under 40.
Let me say up front, I am no expert on poverty. By that I mean that I am not a statistician or a sociologist, nor do I belong to any related group considered fluent in the language of poverty. I am, however, a business owner in Harlem, which led me to my Gandhi moment of discovery and enlightenment.
I was born and raised outside of the United States. By the time I was 38 years old, I had been thoroughly educated, traveled to five of the seven continents, got married, raised a family, and was a successful technology entrepreneur. My family was close knit and insulating, and our generational legacy was in place. At 47 years old, after 25 years in America’s Midwest, I retired and moved to Harlem.
I’ve seen physical poverty before in China and India, where I discovered that the people were physically poor, but mentally vital. So when I entered Harlem, an area rife with poverty, I had no idea that I was about to receive the best education of my life and the most sobering reality check on “the poverty of blackness.” I soon learned that being black was not just a shared genetic trait but also a state of mind. I realized that there was much to be gained from the ravages of “blackness.” The vacant, glassy eyes on benches in front of the state office building responsible for creating social welfare programs multiplied. The apathy, the interstitial anger of the people and worse, the educational void, even with Columbia University a mere ten blocks away, seemed only to incense me, a newcomer.
No less culpable was the political stranglehold on Harlem that rewarded inbreeding rather than encouraging new ideas. It was depressing to me as an outsider and it felt downright wrong. The “poverty of blackness” in Harlem is not one of just physical poorness; it bears the scar of the lethal ravages of mental slavery, much like the untreated mental patients who roamed the streets, the ones that no one sees or cares about.
With my so-called prismatic vision of world poverty, I just knew I had the solution. I had seen Sou Sou, partner, micro lending or the myriad other names work in Jamaica, Korea, Vancouver, Haiti and several third world countries, and realized that this financially empowering system was the answer. Using the Power of One concept and the ideology of positive deviance, I believed that people could bring about change with the power of self-help economics.
The premise is simple – community members would purchase a Power of One card for $1.00, with the goal of selling one million cards and circulating the money from the cards in the community. Local businesses would encourage spending by providing incentives to cardholders, and local spending would then create a prosperity ripple effect, producing more local job opportunities, increased tax revenue to improve local public schools, reduced unemployment and so on.
Annually, 10% of the profits would go to local charities that supplement public education by providing additional cultural and recreational options in local neighborhoods, important elements of a top-flight community. A micro lending program would be started with 60% of the funds, which would be specifically focused on community partners who were unable to receive traditional loans to expand their businesses.
The community would work together to select the minority investment choices and financial partners to manage the funds. How hard could $1.00 be even for the most disenfranchised community member?
Surely, the government would be happy to see a blighted neighborhood help itself. They would be able to redirect social welfare funds to progressive ideas rather than having to maintain the status quo. I can think of at least 71 urban communities that could benefit from the Power of One system, which could generate $71 million of self-sufficiency to urban communities on annual basis. When accounting for compounded interest rates, that kind of money would make a sizeable dent in poverty for sure.
Surely, the churches in Harlem, one on every block, would evangelize the idea and easily raise the money necessary to affect change in a few weeks time. I assume corporate social responsibility could see the benefit of a solution driven approach and relieve themselves of pouring millions of dollars into communities that only seem to get worse. Maybe this would assuage their guilt of bilking these communities dry. And, community solidarity for a program such as this could carry it to triumph.
The PTSD of America on both sides of the color line takes over – enter egos, fear, distrust, betrayal, apathy, political oppression, corporate greed, and above all, the deeply rooted racism seared into the DNA of American life, and renders the Power of One program a public enemy.
This raises several questions. Is poverty intended to be a solvable problem in America, or is it just a diner conversation topic? Are political and policy makers truly concerned about finding real solutions for poverty? Are poor people interested in no longer being poor?
If there were any place on earth to experiment with the eradication of poverty it would be America. I’m in.
So, let’s occupy poverty.