Applying the principles of Kwanzaa to advance economic justice

OPINION: Throughout history, Black people have demonstrated the power and effectiveness of working together to grow their communities, which reflects the fourth principle of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa (cooperative economics).

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, many Black families across the United States will celebrate Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili or the agricultural harvest festivals that are found throughout Africa. Growing up, my family didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa or many holidays for that matter. But over time, and especially in the last few years through my work with Black-led nonprofits, foundations and advocacy organizations, I have come to understand Kwanzaa’s importance as a way to recognize the strength of Black communities despite systemic pressures meant to break us.

Stemming from the Black Power Movement and founded in 1966 by educator and activist Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is a time to honor Black people and celebrate our contributions, heritage and culture, while acknowledging our shared struggles and our unwavering efforts to overcome them. The holiday encourages people to honor seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Nearly 60 years since its creation the meaning and importance of Kwanzaa continue to resonate. Despite achieving significant progress, Black communities continue to combat systems of oppression, institutional racism, and systemic inequities. These inequities may be most apparent in the racial wealth gap.

As a result of centuries of systemic oppression in housing, our education systems and labor force, and insufficient access to capital and other business opportunities, Black people have faced significant barriers to building wealth. In 2022, the typical white family had about six times as much wealth as the typical Black family. This is not just a problem for Black communities but the entire economy. Over the last 20 years, the racial wealth gap has cost the U.S. economy about $16 trillion.

Yet, despite great challenges, Black people have made significant strides and demonstrated the power of community development efforts in the face of oppression. The example of Black Wall Street comes to mind. In the early 1900s, the all-Black Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma — like many other Black communities across the South and Midwest during that time — developed their own stores, banks, schools, hotels, newspapers and a hospital. Despite political limitations through Jim Crow laws and the threat of physical violence, Greenwood thrived — with every dollar circulating through the community 50 times before leaving — and became one of the country’s most prosperous communities before it was demolished by a racist mob in the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre. The massacre killed hundreds of people and destroyed years of Black success and wealth-building.

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Black Wall Street demonstrated the power and effectiveness of Black people working together to grow their community, which reflects the fourth principle of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa (cooperative economics). What’s clear from this example and others is that when Black people have the freedom to use their agency to build power and create opportunity, Black communities and other communities of color can and do thrive. What’s also clear is that the United States owes these communities great recompense to right its historic wrongs against them.

The national racial reckoning spurred by the 2020 murder of George Floyd seemed like a step in the right direction, with politicians, corporations, banks and philanthropic organizations committing billions of dollars to advance economic opportunities for Black communities and dismantle systems of oppression. Three years later, much work remains to realize these commitments.

One avenue to advance economic opportunity for Black communities is through the support and funding of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), which are lenders with a mission to provide fair, responsible financing to communities that mainstream finance doesn’t traditionally reach. In short, they are mission-driven institutions that provide financial services to traditionally underinvested communities. Often situated within the communities they serve and made up of people from the community, CDFIs have a clear-eyed view of the resources communities need. Historically, traditional banking systems have deliberately excluded Black communities and deployed racist lending practices that preyed on Black and low-income people. Today, systemic financial discrimination persists and Black communities are denied access to financial institutions or are faced with high-interest lending practices that prevent them from building and accumulating wealth.

My colleagues and I at Fenton, one of the nation’s leading national full-service, public-interest communications agencies, are proud to work with organizations at the forefront of the movement to move capital to communities of color. With Locus, formerly Virginia Community Capital Social Enterprises, we are partners in its work to ensure that everyone, no matter their background, location or economic status, can live in healthy, thriving communities. We recently partnered with Locus to develop and unveil their new brand and their salient tagline, “community-focused capital.” Its project, the Community Investment Guarantee Pool (CIGP), an innovative, racial equity-driven credit enhancement tool to support small businesses, the creation of affordable housing, and climate financing in communities of low wealth, recently received nearly $20 million from funders MacKenzie Scott and the Kresge Foundation, increasing its capacity to accelerate community investment and support equity in financing for green energy. Since its founding, Locus has generated over $2 billion in total impact in local communities.

Likewise, we partner with Hope Credit Union, a CDFI headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, in its efforts to strengthen communities, improve lives and invest in the financial growth of historically distressed communities in the Deep South. Hope recently received $92.6 million in secondary capital from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP). These funds will enable the nation’s leading Black- and women-owned financial institution to serve more than 150,000 people over the next 10 years. To date, Hope has generated or leveraged more than $3.6 billion in financing that has benefitted over 2 million people in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

We also work with the African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs and leading philanthropies that aim to buttress the efforts of CDFIs, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and many more. Finally, we work with organizations leading efforts to grow power in these communities and push policies to strengthen them, such as Black Voters Matter and Color Of Change.

Our work with these organizations has shown us that communities thrive when they have equitable access to capital and systems of oppression are eradicated. Black communities and other marginalized ones have been able to overcome significant barriers through their own fortitude and principles like Ujamaa. Imagine what Black Wall Street and its sister communities across the country might be today if our economic and political systems truly upheld the moral imperative to advance equity, racial justice and economic opportunity.

During this seven-day celebration, we reaffirm the history of Kwanzaa, the need for community self-determination and revolutionary social change so that all people can live healthy, prosperous lives.

Donté Donald is a vice president at Fenton, the largest full-service, public-interest communications agency in the country. At Fenton, he works on the firm’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice practice, where he focuses on racial equity and economic justice issues in partnership with Black-led nonprofits, CDFIs, foundations, and advocacy organizations.

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