Why does the concept of putting our dollars together for one collective purpose, say, business development, seem so foreign to us? Yes, we do a great of talking about it but seldom see the results of having done so when it comes to purchasing foreclosed homes, vacant lots, and businesses in our neighborhoods. We complain about others coming into our neighborhoods and setting up businesses or buying the property while we continue to support them through our purchasing power. Doesn’t make sense does it?
The concept of pooling our financial resources is certainly quite familiar to Black people. After all, we do it every Sunday through our contributions to the churches we attend. As a matter of fact, that’s virtually the only place Black people pool our dollars to any substantial extent, and the results have been expending billions of dollars on land, interior finishes, song books, choir robes, musical instruments, Internet and phone services, energy costs, and elaborate buildings in many cases. Unfortunately, many of the buildings are what I call “non-performing assets” because they are only used two days per week.
There are many churches that have done outstanding things by pooling their dollars. For instance, apartment complexes have been built, businesses have been started, community multi-purpose centers and senior citizen facilities have been brought on line. Churches have played a major role in economic development by utilizing their Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to build and sustain economic prosperity for their members as well as citizens living in close proximity to the church.
So the lessons are there for us, not to mention the lessons of the old African informal organizations called Susus, better known in America as rotating credit and savings associations. First used by Black people and now used by others, Susus have served as the financial foundation and stimulus for small would-be entrepreneurs. Many African and Caribbean ethnic groups use them extensively in this country to start and grow their businesses, to purchase property, and to pay off debt.
So why are African Americans so reluctant to pool our money to any great degree outside of the church environment? First of all, many of us simply don’t see our church contributions as a pooling of our resources, despite what it says about the early church in Acts Chapter 2, and we fail to recognize the business aspects of where most of that money goes on Monday morning. Our tithes are deposited in banks, most of which are neither owned by Black folks nor responsive to Blacks when it comes to approving business loans in return for the billions of church dollars held in their vaults.
Second, while we sometimes blindly trust those in charge of the church funds to do the right thing, we do not trust one another enough to pool our resources to develop businesses and other institutions. It seems we are too concerned about who will be “in charge” and who will “handle the money,” and we listen to that negative radio station, WIFM – What’s in it for me?
Susus, on the other hand, are built and function on trust and honor. They are successful because the folks involved do what they say they will do, which is make the regular monthly deposits and wait for their turn to receive the entire amount. No jealously, no envy, no cheating, and no disrespect. Just business, just debt relief, just college educations, just home purchases.
So how can we move beyond the collective economic stagnation in which we find ourselves today? We could take a lesson from the churches and then practice pooling our resources on a different level. Stop simply complaining about vacant lots and empty storefronts. Instead, purchase them, clean them up, and open businesses. Stop complaining about “other” folks coming into your neighborhoods and “taking” your money on a daily basis. Stop giving them your money and try giving it to yourself through Black business support. Stop saying “we need” this and that; start saying “let’s get” this or that by pooling our resources and taking care of our business for our children’s future.
For decades Black people have talked a good game when it comes to pooling resources, and while we do have some glowing examples of how it’s done, past and present, we still fall short of practicing what we preach. If we want and need so much economically, heed the words of Booker T. Washington: “Let us act … before it’s too late, before others come from foreign lands and rob us of our birthright.”
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his Web site, blackonomics.com.