Faces of Change: In Covid crisis, a new generation of community leaders echoes Martin Luther King’s wisdom

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Stephen F. Somerstein | Getty Images

Community leaders and their enterprises are vital to promoting economic mobility in the U.S., especially in challenging times. These changemakers lead the work of nonprofit organizations, social ventures, start-ups and small businesses, alongside governments and corporations.

For many community leaders, their strategies and philosophies also embody the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Dr. King famously said in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham jail. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Reflecting on the past two years of the pandemic on this Martin Luther King Day, much research shows the Covid-19 crisis has disproportionately impacted the health and economic wellbeing of underserved communities, including many Black Americans. Yet data shows the pandemic has also resulted in the highest share of minority-owned businesses and minority employment in industries most impacted by the pandemic.

“Individuals and communities are taking advantage of their agency to fill the direct needs of the community,” said Dennis Parker, executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, an organization founded in 1965 to fight for economic justice for the nation’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. “These are people who feel the impact, know the impact and are taking steps to change it.”

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“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“What we’re seeing is an evolution of technology and access,” said Black Girls Ventures CEO Shelly Omilâdè Bell. “What people discovered while being quarantined is that they were in their homes and were like ‘If I can work at this rate and this level while I’m at home, why would I go back to an environment where I’m not appreciated?’” Bell said. “The pandemic gave us this idea of why don’t you just try something. … So people are starting these businesses.”

Bell, a computer scientist and serial entrepreneur, started Black Girl Ventures in 2016 with a focus on hosting crowdfunded pitch competitions for budding entrepreneurs. She has grown it into a community-building foundation with a network of corporate partners, including Nike and the NBA, that together have provided access to capital to over 270 businesses owned by Black and brown identifying women.

Shelly Bell, founder of Black Girls Ventures
Shelly Omilâdè Bell

After this current wave of women — disproportionately women of color — leaving jobs, Bell says one of the upsides may be that they’ll create new employment opportunities. They’ll re-enter the workforce, Bell said, “with a skill set that our workplace has not allowed for, which is a level of entrepreneurial thinking from people who have built something from the ground up. The way that they think about things will be different.”

From wages to fair housing, public health, student loan debt and access to capital for small businesses, “it’s important to support those efforts of leaders working to address issues that are impacting their communities,” Parker said.

As Dr. King and many great leaders have shown us, community advocates and organizers can help to inform and reinforce strategies that are needed to make government, business and society accountable for improving education, health care, housing, technology, and wealth-building for all Americans.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.