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Black Chamber of Commerce has been overlooked by Fairfax County’s business relief planning, director says

A customer uses a handheld credit card reader (via Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)

Fairfax County is slated to send additional funding to businesses that suffered the most during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a Black nonprofit says more can be done.

The Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly been neglected in the development of major business grant programs connected to Fairfax County, the nonprofit’s executive director Sheila Dixon says.

“I would have thought we would have had the opportunity to be at the table,” she said.

The county says it’s committed to working with more than 55 chambers, including minority chambers, multicultural groups, and other community and business support groups in multiple languages with its most recent financial assistance initiative.

A working group of local minority business owners is also trying to make changes and build bridges. A webinar co-hosted by the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia on June 23 seeks to address the needs of minority-owned businesses and how they can be helped.

The group has reached some conclusions and recommendations about equitable recovery across the region and is sharing data, according to the event description. Georgetown University adjunct professor Melissa Bradley, who also co-founded a business mentoring service called Ureeka, is the keynote speaker.

The county has noted these kinds of inequities. A consultant report for the county completed in January detailed how low-income and minority households faced greater difficulties in the workforce, along with women, who have been held back by affordable child care challenges.

Those findings came from working with businesses and a roundtable of minority chambers. The Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce was invited to give input and was also asked to participate in a survey about impacts and recovery, according to the county.

Fairfax County’s Relief Initiative to Support Employers (RISE) program, which gave grants to small businesses and nonprofits, dedicated at least 30% of funding to businesses owned by women, minorities, or veterans. Those businesses ended up with 72% of the approximately $53 million of RISE funding, according to the county.

“We are building on and expanding those efforts,” county spokesperson Wendy Lemieux said in an email, adding that the county is committed to extensive outreach with businesses, particularly ones owned by women and people of color affected by the pandemic.

Unlike the RISE program, the county’s new PIVOT grant program didn’t include any provisions explicitly dedicating funds to often marginalized groups when the Board of Supervisors passed it last week.

Meanwhile, the Black chamber of commerce has shared the PIVOT grant information, but it’s also continuing its own initiatives to help businesses recover from the economic effects of COVID-19.

The organization recently launched an outreach called BTRNow (Build Thriving Returns Now) that provided an online workshop for kid entrepreneurs this spring, held a “Caring through COVID” panel discussion on Monday (June 14), and is currently carrying out a listening tour, among other programming.

Dixon says a lot of the chamber’s members have pivoted amid the pandemic and have been thriving.

But she also noted that there can be disparities, and various Black businesses might be reluctant to apply for resources if they’re skeptical that the support will materialize, even if race is considered as a factor in applications.

“It will be interesting to see if people feel more comfortable,” Dixon said. “We are building up and scaling up our businesses and providing them with the education and the resources that are available within the community.”

Photo via Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

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