Patrons of Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in Northwest gather on the front steps of the establishment on July 9 for the launch of a campaign to expand protections for D.C.-based small businesses. (Courtesy of Color of Change)
Patrons of Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in Northwest gather on the front steps of the establishment on July 9 for the launch of a campaign to expand protections for D.C.-based small businesses. (Courtesy of Color of Change)

The D.C. Council’s passage of a 10-year tax abatement for Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in Northwest has inspired conversation about how supporters could organize around similar protections for legacy businesses in the city and longtime residents under the threat of displacement.

A recent small-business town hall at Sankofa explored that very topic, attracting staff members from Council members Brianne Nadeau and Kenyan McDuffie’s offices, representatives of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute in Northeast, and affiliates of grassroots organizations tackling issues of relevance to economically disadvantaged people.

Though next steps haven’t fully coalesced, the nearly dozen people who sat at the table Friday agreed with the tenets of a 10-point retention plan for longtime residents and small businesses that Kymone Freeman of We Act Radio presented. Freeman said he concocted a document over the course of 18 months in response to the bevy of issues local government hasn’t directly addressed.

“This is a confirmation of the fierce urgency of now as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, and the realization that no one will save us but us,” Freeman said at the Aug. 9 gathering at Sankofa.

The 10-point retention plan he presented included calls for a more accurate average median income calculation to be used for housing in low-income communities, a cut and cap on property taxes, equitable school funding, rent control, community funded and controlled banks, and guaranteed housing that doesn’t cost more than 30 percent of an occupant’s income.

“DOPA [District Opportunity to Purchase Act] has been on the books for over 10 years and as far as I know it has never been used to protect and preserve residents,” said Freeman, also a key figure in the #DontMuteDC movement.

“There’s no existing retention plan [out of the D.C. Council] that the city has taken to preserve community,” he said. “The folks at the table [on Friday] were an acknowledgement of that. We’re doing the heavy lifting to get behind a plan. Without lobbyists or campaign contributions, we’ve depended on people in positions of authority to reflect our agenda. That hasn’t been the case now, if it ever has been.”

On July 9, exactly a month before the recent small-business town hall organized by Sankofa co-owner Shirikiana Aina Gerima, Freeman, Check-It Enterprises’ Ron Moten, and representatives of online racial justice organization Color of Change hosted a press conference on the steps of Sankofa in support of expanding protections for historic District-based small businesses.

Not long after that event, the D.C. Council secured tax abatements for Sankofa and The Players Lounge in Southeast. More than 100 other District-based small businesses, arguably due to a lack of grassroots support and political savvy, haven’t been able to acquire similar relief, quietly fading to the wayside over the past two decades.

Within the same time period, D.C.’s Black population fell by more than 30 percentage points. Today, Black people account for less than half of District residents, raising particular concern among that demographic about the future of the District’s remaining majority-Black enclaves, most of which are based east of the Anacostia River.

Business owners vying for government contracts have also expressed anxiety about their ability to flourish in a market they believe doesn’t favor African Americans.

In recent months, the DC Department of Small & Local Business Development (DSLBD) has been under scrutiny for not keeping the appropriate data measuring its effectiveness in doling out contracts to minority-owned Certified Business Enterprises. Legislation passed more than a decade ago mandated triennial reviews about this matter. However, as McDuffie (D-Ward 5) noted during a Business & Economic Committee roundtable in the fall, DSLBD hasn’t submitted a report in four years.

Local business owner Alfred Swailes, also a participant at the recent business town hall meeting at Sankofa, said the ideal government procurement disparity study would cost more than $1 million, more than five times what the D.C. Council recently allocated toward that goal.

An event Swailes will host, via the DC Black Business Task Force, at Martha’s Table at the Commons in Southeast next month will center on fulfilling that goal, primarily by gathering testimony from local Black business owners and analyzing the work done in neighboring Maryland to protect Black entrepreneurs.

Only with the appropriate data can D.C.’s Black business community work with the local government for protections in the procurement process, Swailes said.

“The D.C. government is supposed to be a representation of the city,” said Swailes, owner of A&A Premium Paint Distributor, LLC and head of the DC Black Business Task Force. “If we’re 47 percent and not being included in the procurement process, we have a right to say something is wrong.

“The disparity study would take best practices and give us the solutions to remedy the discrimination and underutilization that has occured over the last 15 years,” he said. lThen the mayor and D.C. Council would have to come together and figure out what program they have to remedy the past discrimination.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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