In response to the pandemic and particular challenges faced by Durham leaders and community members, a concerted effort called the Back in the Black Campaign was born to address disparities created by the historic underfunding and defunding of Black-led organizations and businesses in Durham. The Back in the Black Coalition (BITBC) for Equitable Funding is a group of Black community members and Black-led organizations that have united in order to demand a more equitable distribution of federal funding to support closing the racial wealth gap in Durham.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) 2021 was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021. The City of Durham will receive more than $50 million as part of this allocation to help offset revenue losses resulting from the pandemic and to fund other community needs. Durham County will receive $62.4 million. Durham County Public Schools received $168.9 million, with the mandate that funds must be obligated by December 31, 2024, and spent by 2026.

This funding is the largest amount of federal investment into local communities since the New Deal. One of our initial demands called for 45 percent of federal ARPA funds to be distributed to Black-led nonprofits, businesses, and organizations. This 45 percent was determined to help redress the wealth gap, based on the fact that Black people make up 38 percent of the population demographic in Durham.

Another goal of the BITBC was to slow down the city and county’s process in order to center the Equitable Community Engagement Blueprint the City of Durham drafted in 2018 as well as the resolution passed by the county commissioners in 2020 identifying racism as a public health crisis.

In that report, the City of Durham states, “The City has not executed a standardized process for conducting community engagement that is shared or adopted by all Departments.” The resolution states that the board will “work to progress as an equity and justice-oriented organization, with the Board of Commissioners and its staff leadership continuing to identify specific activities to further enhance diversity and to ensure antiracism principles across Board of Commissioners leadership, staffing and contracting.”

Given that the report was written three years before the allocation of the largest amount of federal investment into local communities and the resolution was written one year before the pandemic, it is critical to understand the city’s and county’s approaches to the process to disburse the funds.

The city held community meetings in the summer of 2021 prior to the July 31, 2021, deadline for the first request for proposal calls.

Coalition members described the process as nebulous and opaque. Requirements changed, information requested by the city was deemed to be insufficient, and applicants were denied further consideration, even though the information provided was within the parameters articulated by the City of Durham. Coalition members attended city council and county commission meetings, where they were disrespected, rudely interrupted, and told that they were unprepared. With the charge from the city to dream big and put forth bold new ideas to meet community needs and inspire innovation, members face ongoing and consistent barriers to understanding the application process, and infrastructure required to obtain federal funding from the city.

Meanwhile, the county’s focus on RFPs for the August 15, 2022, deadline articulates the work of multiple coalition members—who have been denied funding. The funding priorities identified by the county address extremely important social challenges such as crime intervention, social-emotional well-being, and childcare. As active parts of our community, we are grateful to see these priorities named, as we have been asking for investment in these areas. Tying these funding priorities to federal funds automatically creates large barriers for small, innovative, and Black- and brown-led initiatives. We ask, “Is there any commitment to identifying other sources of funding for these priorities to afford Black- and brown-led organizations and businesses the opportunity to build capacity?”

As it stands, the county ARPA process would force smaller organizations (likely Black- and brown-led) to partner with larger, more recognizable, and affluent (likely white-led) organizations to be eligible and seen as viable applicants for funding. This discourages BIPOC, community-rooted organizations from partnering with one another, as there are likely similar challenges with capacity and history of government funding and contracts. If the priority is to fund initiatives that would further equity, it seems we are swimming against the current when we hold people to inequitable requirements.

There is additional concern that the local government is now requesting proposals for work that will heavily affect (and involve) Black and brown communities, but most eligible organizations are white-led.

If the most eligible organizations to do the work would come from outside of our communities, that, in and of itself, could cause larger problems and even community harm. It could also encourage organizations that do not have an intentional focus on enhancing BIPOC communities—but primarily serve BIPOC communities (i.e., those serving low-income folks or subsidized housing residents)—to submit proposals for the money and create new outreach programs for Black/brown communities rather than investing in the existing, genuine efforts in those spaces.

How can we leverage this opportunity to create more equity when we are enabling white-led and affluent organizations to target our communities but not empowering those on the ground to scale and improve their work?

The Equity Blueprint is the answer. Until the city and county are willing to put their money where their mouths were in 2018, we will continue to see inequity and a widening wealth gap. 

The Back in the Black Coalition is a group of Black community members and Black-led organizations that have united in order to demand a more equitable distribution of federal funding to support closing the racial wealth gap in Durham.

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