Rebuilding with Race in Mind: Two Worlds, One Mission

By Sarah Trent

This is the second in a three-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Crystal German. Below, read the story of Crystal, her journey into the BALLE Fellowship and Localism. The first installment is a mini case study of the Minority Business Accelerator Crystal runs at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. The third looks at four businesses working with her Minority Business Accelerator that are creating impact and increasing economic inclusion in Cincinnati. Stay tuned for details on our March webinar focused on opportunity for all, which Crystal will moderate.

Crystal German considered herself an unlikely candidate for BALLE’s Local Economy Fellowship.

Her traditional Chamber of Commerce used different language to talk about local economies than BALLE did. And as she read the bios of other BALLE Fellows, she thought they were doing far more radical work than she was: they’re challenging the system, she thought, “creating new systems and new paradigms. And our work is at a Chamber. Chambers have been around for hundreds of years, ours for 175.”

She felt like an outlier.

Even after being invited to the Fellowship and showing up at the first group immersion in October, she wasn’t sure she was in the right place. But over the following days, she found her connection to the work and reconciled what she saw as ideological, political, “and probably a bunch of other differences,” and realized that the 17 members of her cohort and the 25 others who have been through the program before have more commonalities than differences.

“We all, each one of us, is a resource in the greater toolbox that BALLE is creating,” she said, and all of them finding solutions to “create the type of communities in our areas, in our regions, that reflect the full participation of its citizens. And if you can apply the different tools and the different solutions, programs, and organizations where they’re needed when they’re needed – if we’re able to figure that out, then as a country we can grow because we will have folks meaningfully engaged.”

Coming to Localism

Crystal explains that it was serendipity that led to her work in economic inclusion, building opportunity for all. In between leaving a corporate career and pursuing an MBA degree, she was given the opportunity to participate in two short-term assignments. The first was an AmeriCorps position in the Atlanta Public School system, where she alternated between one of the worst performing schools in the system and one of the best. While the population demographics were nearly identical, she said, the wealth of the communities was not at all.

“It gave me a bird’s eye view of the challenges of what it means to get a good education when you do not have a stable environment because of lack of wealth in a household,” she said. Despite parents working multiple jobs, some households still struggled to meet the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing for their kids. On top of that, Crystal said, “when the community around you is not being invested in but being divested, where you think you’re going lines up with how you internalize that and therefore perform in school.”

The second assignment was at Wells Fargo, where she saw how community wealth is viewed from a corporate perspective. “For a large business, the investments that they make in a community to redevelop it , build it, create jobs, and better the economy have to be in line with their business operations,” she said. “It has to make dollars and sense to them, in a very different way [than to the community itself], and the value has to be tangible, measurable, and articulated – for them if it’s charitable, it’s not sustainable.”

These back-to-back experiences informed her MBA program, where her real question was now: “how do I take the current economic system and the current players and work to create solutions that have a positive impact on the lives of the folks who are participating in that system?”

That her work focuses on minority communities in that system is no accident. “As an African American woman I grew up understanding that the world doesn’t value people the same, and that there are discounts that are applied based on your gender or your race or your socioeconomic status. I felt at home in this space, and being able to marry those two worlds,” the corporate and the community.

Supporting minority businesses and helping them scale is a powerful and necessary tool in building economic inclusion, she said. “With that economic power and scale, the owners of those businesses get a voice and a seat at the table where they can articulate positions or perspectives that may not have been at the table before. And the entry fee is the size of that business. If you’re a one or two-person shop your voice typically doesn’t carry the same weight in a community as if you’re a 100-200 person or a 1,000-2,000 person organization. The smaller the community the more that those voices really do carry some weight because they’re vital to how that community thrives.”

And while scale is important for individual businesses and business owners, she said, “the positive impact on the community of scaling that business goes far beyond the individual business.”

The need for this work becomes even more apparent in times of racial tension. Incidents of race-related violence and the ensuing community outrage serve as reminders that economic inclusion is not yet a reality.

“The problems that you see and the problems of environment that have created the conversations, protests, and frustrations that we see in communities around the country are not isolated to the communities that have experienced an incident,” Crystal said. “You see them everywhere, and in Cincinnati, while most folks would commend the progress we’ve made, most would say that there’s still a lot of opportunity to do more. And until people feel like they have a chance at creating a successful life for themselves, you’re going to have reactions to feeling disenfranchised, to feeling as if your life is not valued the same way someone else’s is, as if the system as it currently operates is tilted against you – and feeling powerless to be able to respond in a way that makes a difference.”

Crystal’s work in Cincinnati brings together two worlds that some might see at odds: community impact and corporate reality. And in the BALLE Fellowship, she brings her experience shifting the current economic system to the table alongside other Fellows’ work building a new one.

Economic inclusion – what BALLE calls opportunity for all – is a crucial piece in creating prosperity for all. And Crystal’s work in this space is an important addition to the current cohort of Fellows, who are the most diverse group of leaders BALLE has worked with: a group whose vision and courage in tackling tough issues across a spectrum of places and communities inspires and informs all of us across the Localist movement.

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