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File photo from The Associated Press / The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, as National Park Service ranger Gordon "Gunny" Gundrum, left, stands beside King.

While we are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, I worry over time we will lose perspective of the man himself, his work and his vision for our country.

Dr. King's vision was comprehensive — concerned with the emotional, spiritual, social, and economic wellbeing of all people but Black people in particular. He was deeply concerned about poverty and economic justice. Our collective memory forgets this, but the concern is ubiquitous in the man's work.

The famous march we usually refer to as The March on Washington was originally called The March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. Dr. King's powerful and final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," was delivered in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. In his 1964 Nobel lecture, Dr. King included the following insight: "There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it."

As vice president of community investment for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the gap between resource and need is at the center of my work. A look at the data reveals an America that still requires attention to economic disparities for Black folks. In the 35 years since King's birthday was declared a holiday, those troubling facts remain.

In early 2020, the Community Foundation's board of directors approved a strategic plan that addresses the root causes of poverty, barriers to economic mobility and the systems that perpetuate inequity, in other words, one that reflects that reality of our community.

One of the ways we choose to work on this is by supporting entrepreneurs of color.

In general, about 20% of small businesses fail to make it past their first year. That failure rate increases to 50% after five years. The experience for people of color, however, is more fraught: roughly 80% of Black small businesses fail in the first 18 months. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "Black-owned non-employer firms were less than half as likely to get financing as their white-owned competitors," and the pandemic loss is even greater. Black-owned small businesses were almost twice as likely to close during the pandemic (a decrease of 41%).

While we should recognize the economic disparities in our community, we should also lift up the victories. To that point, I want to celebrate our partners in the foundation's Accelerator Loan Fund. This fund is a partnership among the foundation, LAUNCH Chattanooga, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, and a few generous foundation donors. Together, we provide low-interest rate loans to entrepreneurs of color who would otherwise be unable to find the capital to start, grow and thrive.

There are currently four entrepreneurs in the ALF portfolio: Ella Livingston, owner of Cocoa Asante; Kenyatta Ashford, owner of Neutral Ground; Mahogany Hudgins, owner of Wings Top Tots; and Brandon Ellis, owner of Chatter Box Cafe.

These entrepreneurs have managed to grow their businesses and their own visions. Ella moved into the INCubator and spoke at TEDxChattanooga. Kenyatta won Chopped Next Gen and grew his staff and menu. Mahogany has expanded her menu and reach, and Brandon had his most successful year yet.

Not only do these small businesses provide wonderful products and services; they also add diversity, substance and livable-wage jobs to our local economy. We should consider how successes like this become the rule — not the exception — in Chattanooga.

I invite you to join that vision in some small part by learning more about and supporting Black-owned businesses in our area. Dr. King envisioned a world in which families would be economically-secure and self-reliant, able to put all of their God-given gifts to use building lives of their choosing. We know that is not the world in which we live now. In the work of bold, creative business people like these, however, his vision for how this could look in Chattanooga becomes a bit clearer.

Dwayne Marshall is the vice president of community investment for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. The Accelerator Loan Fund offers low-interest rate loans for minority-owned businesses. For more information, email rgouger@cfgc.org.

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