Alfred Swailes, owner of A&A Premium Painting Distributor, LLC in Northeast D.C., also is a key architect of the D.C. Black Business Task Force, which has long contended that Black businesses are not being served well by the District’s existing Certified Business Enterprise (CBE) program.
The Black firms are often left out of contracting opportunities, Swailes and the task force argues, by systemic or covert racial discrimination and, absent documentation, can’t prove discrimination is occurring.
However, there’s hope on the horizon. Nov. 17, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the city’s economic planning office will conduct a city-wide study “to examine the availability and utilization of minority-and women-owned businesses under D.C. procurement and contracting activities” since 2017 and create a minority business enterprise program.
When Swailes heard about the proposed study, he said, he began to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. “This is great,” he said. “The disparity study will show that Black businesses are largely missing out in the District government’s contracting program. D.C. is the only jurisdiction on the East Coast that doesn’t have a minority business enterprise program and that is what is needed, a true minority business program.”
The disparity study is funded by a bill authored by D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Committee on Business and Economic Development. McDuffie said the coronavirus in the District adversely affects the city’s economy and minority-owned businesses need the support of the District government.
“I funded a disparity study in fiscal year 2021, understanding that it is a necessary step to create a true minority business enterprise program, a desperately needed tool to keep the District moving forward as leaders for racial equity and economic issues,” McDuffie said.
The RFP will be open for those interested in it until Jan. 20, 2021. The solicitation will be a set-aside for CBEs or a joint venture with a CBE as a partner to conduct the disparity study. A pre-proposal conference for those interesting in working on the disparity study will be held on Dec. 4 by DMPED and the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development.
While Swailes praises District leaders for putting in motion the disparity study, not all Black entrepreneurs are as enthusiastic.
“All a disparity study will do is tell what we already know,” Fred Hill, founder and CEO of Gotta Go Now, LLC, a portable sanitation firm in the District. “It only shows what the District government has been hiding. We in the Black business community have been asking for this for years. The mayor talks about supporting small businesses but her administration gives out contracts to a small group of people.”
Hill said, ironically, that he holds business certifications in six states — including Maryland and Virginia — but can’t seem to get local government contracts in the District, his hometown.
Swailes said the disparity study can be the start of Black businesses getting city contracts routinely.
“Setting up this program is significant for Black businesses in D.C. and the Black community,” he said. “The disparity study will tell the true story of how Black businesses have been shut down out of D.C. government business opportunities. The CBE program hasn’t worked well for Black businesses. But we want the District government to go a step further. We want the council to make the findings of the disparity study as a part of a law. Mayors come and go and they can change contracting practices as they see fit but if it is the law on the basis of the disparity study, Black businesses will have D.C. government contracts from now on.”