Every year, Black History Month provides a valuable opportunity for us to reflect on the history of Black Americans — but one month is not enough. In order to build a better society where everyone is treated fairly, we need to recognize the ways Black History continues to echo today and work hard to address the legacy of discrimination that still holds Black people back.
This past year, we have seen a historic, resurgent movement for racial justice that has spurred glimpses of progress. However, these small steps forward are often paired with devastating evidence of how far we still have to go. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated our communities, people of color were unable to participate fully in the American economy, and far too many families struggled to make ends meet while worrying about their children’s economic futures.
The only way to correct these historic inequalities and build a new economy that makes resources and opportunities available to everyone is by removing barriers to participation, expanding access to jobs, and fully enforcing the laws that we already have on the books while creating new protections to ensure equity. This is especially important now, as the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affect Black people.
A focus on equity has been central to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s (NJEDA’s) work to address the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for recovery. The NJEDA is guided by the concept of “diversity on purpose,” the idea that diversity at the Authority and in the communities we serve should be recognized and intentionally fostered.
We have put these values into practice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, the NJEDA has provided more than $238 million in grants, loans and other resources to nearly 55,000 small businesses, and we are currently in the process of standing up a $50 million Main Street Recovery Fund that will support New Jersey micro businesses and entities that work with small business owners, such as Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).
Outreach efforts for almost all the Authority’s COVID-19 relief programs targeted minority and women-owned businesses, as well as businesses in historically marginalized communities. As a result of these efforts, nearly 30% of the grant funding the NJEDA made available to COVID-19-impacted businesses went to minority-owned small businesses.
As we begin to pivot toward recovery, we must remember that generic programs will not necessarily trickle down to the Black community. Because of systemic racism, well-intentioned policies designed to “lift all boats” often end up missing Black people. As the NJEDA’s COVID-19 relief efforts show, if we really want to help, we need to craft programs that specifically target communities and businesses of color.
The recently enacted New Jersey Economic Recovery Act of 2020 provides the tools we need to do that. This law creates a robust new suite of economic development tools that will create jobs, revitalize abandoned and contaminated properties, bring healthy grocery stores to food deserts and boost our innovation ecosystem.
Critically, nearly all these programs include bonuses for businesses and companies that go above and beyond to foster equity and inclusion. New programs that support commercial and residential development, as well as brownfield and historic property revitalization, include bonuses for projects that bring apartments, offices and recreational spaces to majority minority communities; and the new job creation incentive, Emerge, includes a significant bonus for companies with diverse leadership.
The New Jersey Innovation Evergreen Fund will ensure equitable access to opportunities in New Jersey’s growing innovation economy, and existing programs such as the Angel Investor Tax Credit and NJ Ignite have been modified to include expanded bonuses for Black-led startups. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s budget proposal also includes a groundbreaking $10 million Black and Latinx Seed Fund, one of the first ever public investments specifically targeting Black and Latinx-owned startups. Even the Film and Digital Media Tax Credit includes a bonus for productions that provide a diversity plan for hiring minority talent for all positions, from sound technicians to lead actors. These are important steps that will help ensure New Jersey does not simply return to an unfair “normal” after COVID-19 but actually moves toward a stronger, more equitable economy that will better serve all of our state’s diverse residents.
Black History Month is a vital opportunity to learn about and reflect on the unique role Black Americans have played in our country’s history. But unless we allow what we learn during this month to inform our understanding of the challenges Black people face today, and take concrete actions to address those barriers to success, we will never achieve equity.
I am proud of Governor Murphy and the NJEDA’s commitment to building a stronger, fairer New Jersey, and am excited to work with our partners in State government, private industry and in New Jersey’s communities to effectively execute on the promising ideas laid out in this legislation.
Michelle Bodden is the Chief Diversity Officer at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA). The NJEDA grows the state’s economy and increases equitable access to opportunity by supporting high-quality job creation, catalyzing investment, and fostering vibrant, inclusive community development.