`According to U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey, only 2.9% of Oregon’s population is African American. Since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black residents have struggled to get access to the state’s COVID-19 aid programs to help their struggling businesses. In response to seeing Black business owners struggle in their community, these individuals got together and created the Oregon Cares Fund to help.
The Oregon Cares Fund for Black Relief + Resiliency was established by four individuals—Akasha Lawrence- Spence, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, Joy Alise Davis, and Jesse Beason with support from local community—to direct 4.5% of the state’s CARES Act funding, which equates to $62 million, toward the Black community. “We could see the effects of the pandemic. We were afraid that if we didn’t act, more Black Oregonians would fall ill and suffer lasting health issues,” said Johnson to BLACK ENTERPRISE via email.
“Many would die, and others would lose their homes and businesses. By summer, too much time had already passed with the government not answering the call to assist all Oregonians. So, we gathered our collective resources. We placed our trust in each other.
The founders say that establishing a fund like this was critical as the leaders came across numerous Black businesses that were getting left out from COVID-19 relief programs. “Last year, the SBA backed just four loans to Black-owned businesses in our state,” says Lawrence-Spence to BLACK ENTERPRISE. “Without direct, debt-free, cash investments in Black-owned businesses, the very inequities the state and federal government have allowed to flourish will further deepen in a state still grappling with the impacts of COVID-19.”
After the founders launched their fund, they found themselves the defendants in lawsuits filed by non-black business owners. One Mexican-American entrepreneur, Maria Garcia, who owns a coffee shop in Portland; and a joint lawsuit from two white business owners of logging company Great Northern Resources and Dynamic Service Fire and Security have sued the organization for $62 million for alleged discrimination. Right-wing activists have also worked with both parties to further attack the group’s effort with the fund.
Due to the ongoing litigation, $8.8 million of the fund is on hold. For Lawrence-Spence and Johnson, the news was both infuriating but not surprising given the racial history of the state. “We created the fund with the understanding that we could be sued. Anytime you create a targeted fund using race as a criteria, you set off certain alarms for those who choose to ignore the impacts of systemic racism on the lived experiences of those with a hue that society has identified as Black,” said Lawrence-Spence.
“When Black people receive equitable access to public resources, there is always opposition from people who are used to having all of the dollars for themselves,” said Johnson in response to the lawsuits against their business fund.
Despite the setbacks, the founders have not lost their resolve and say they will continue to provide support for Black-owned businesses still recovering from the economic fallout of the pandemic. “Because of the lawsuits, we did not complete the grant allocations by the end of the year,” said Lawrence-Spence.
“Our goal in 2021 is to finish granting the funds to Oregonians in need. [We will] do an assessment on what it means to the Black community to have made this happen for us by us and to continue to hold the state accountable to us through the equitable distribution of resources as we continue to navigate the impact of this pandemic. We [also will] seek to remedy the institutional barriers that make living while Black all the more difficult in a state, in a nation, built on Black exclusion and exploitation.”