Three Washtenaw County business owners have teamed up to found the Association of Businesses of Color. The ABC provides aid to businesses owned by people of color that are struggling with the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The ABC was created by Brian Jones-Chance, Patton Doyle and Ylondia Portis, business owners and members of the Downtown Development Board in Ypsilanti, to address the economic disparities between businesses owned by white people and those owned by people of color in the area.

“A lot of businesses have closed permanently, and staffing is another issue,” Jones-Chance, co-founder of 734 Brewing, said. “Many of our remaining businesses have found it difficult to keep teams employed, the revenue issue stemming from reduced hours or reduced capacity or both.”  

As businesses adapt to another round of forced closures, members of the ABC have focused on how business owners of color in particular are handling the new restrictions. 

When county leaders declared racism a public health crisis this summer, they noted that Washtenaw was 80th out of 83 counties in Michigan for income inequality according to a 2020 ranking. Black residents have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

A new grant will be introduced on Dec. 15 to support businesses that closed in response to the most recent state order. The ABC is working to ensure equal access to this grant. 

“There’s no element of that grant program that targets business centers of color,” Doyle said. “This particular program is going to be first-come, first-served, and so you can imagine that those people who are not as connected are much less likely to get access.” 

The ABC has gained momentum, with over 30 Washtenaw County businesses joining the organization. Jones-Chance said the ABC is looking to continue its work after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“My goal is to just include an educated and influential and plugged-in membership,” Jones-Chance said. “We hope that (ABC members) all have thriving and successful businesses, we want them to have access to funding, but to also become some of the folks who make these decisions.”

It is easier for some businesses to adjust to a COVID-19-safe environment than others. Jones-Chance said 734 Brewing has established a beer delivery system that keeps customer relationships and a sense of community intact through the pandemic.

“We have happily complied with all the state orders to keep the community safe and our staff safe, so we’ve had to make some changes,” Jones-Chance said. “In such a social business, people who come in are generally looking to socialize and it’s been challenging to maintain those relationships with our customers.” 

In May, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation released a grant-fund program called Match-on-Main that supports small businesses in areas like Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor with main streets experiencing less foot traffic than usual. This program went through the Downtown Development Board to provide grants to local businesses. 

“I found that it was inconsistent with the group of people … and their businesses that are in the district here,” Doyle said. “And it was concerning to me, and of course this is in the middle of a broader national conversation and protests about racial justice.” 

Jones-Chance said the ABC helps connect businesses of color to sources of funding that may help them survive repeat closures.

“The grant fund allocation didn’t appear to be intentional, and so we set out to help plug more businesses of color into the pre-existing sources of funding,” Jones-Chance said.  “And over time we’ve begun to see some other areas where we can be of use. So more education, helping members gain more influence in the community and over some of these funding decisions.”

Jones-Chance cites lack of access to capital as the main struggle for people of color who own businesses.

“The main difficulties of being a business owner come from the same systematic social issues as difficulties of being just a person of color or being a racial minority,” Jones-Chance said. “In business, that kind of takes the shape of rugged, economic individualism for people of color but government-sponsored support for white counterparts.” 

Jones-Chance said the G.I. Bill, which provides financial assistance to veterans, is an example of how the U.S. government denied thousands of Black World War II veterans access to higher education and resources.

“A lot of folks are able to build wealth over time to start businesses, whereas we’re intentionally excluded from that,” Jones-Chance said. “That access to capital and that systemic advantage we just don’t have, and so even when things aren’t intentional now, they’re sort of built on that foundation and it can make capitalizing your business extremely difficult.”

Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Maya Boyd, who frequently uses Instagram to encourage her followers to support businesses owned by people of color, said the dual impact of racial discrimination and COVID-19 has put these companies in a difficult position.

“In Michigan, for instance, Black people were 40 percent of the reported (COVID-19) deaths, while only making up 14 percent of the state’s population,” Boyd said. “Adding all the other obstacles of owning and maintaining businesses that people of color will inherently face in comparison to non-minority owned businesses I feel says it all. And when there are issues that non-minority owned businesses are able to face, it will always disproportionately affect POC-owned business due to the structural systems that are ingrained in this country.”

Doyle said that while Ann Arbor is often viewed as a progressive city, discrimination is still very much present and impacts business owners of color.

“I think it’s easy to look at Ann Arbor and say, ‘Oh well, you know, we’ve solved all these problems that exist out there in the real world,’” Doyle said. “And the truth is, of course, it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Boyd said she believes organizations like the ABC can help Washtenaw County better support businesses run by people of color.

“There is so much room for growth,” Boyd said. “These kinds of organizations are so important because I feel like they have a lot of potential and there is a lot to benefit from locally having more diverse businesses.”

Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.

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