Black Women's Economic Development Project

By Carolyn Caver

Vol. 9, No. 2, 1987, pp. 15-16

One black woman is having trouble naming her business; another walks past ten other black women to get a black man's opinion; musing aloud, another says women just don't have the stamina to stand up under the pressure of business; another wants to get ahead but continues to hire staff who don't perform. These women are linked by two r invisible yet powerful threads. Each woman is committed to the social and economic development of black Americans, including themselves. And each faces powerful barriers that block her success.

External barriers from a male-dominated power structure conspire to keep black women in subservient and secondary positions in our society. Latest statistics show the median income of white men to be $15,401; $6,421 for the white woman; $8,967 for the black man and $5,543 for the black woman.

In addition to being detrimental materially, external oppression in the form of social disapproval, low expectations, and little encouragement has damaged black women emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. After having her leadership doubted for hundreds of years, is it a wonder that the black woman harbors doubts about herself? In effect, black women see themselves through the eyes of whites and black men: inferior, powerless, less smart, and less capable, especially in business.

We have internalized these negative messages. They have become negative "scripts" guiding our self-defeating actions as blacks and as women. They have become internal barriers, complementing the external barriers that created them. The external barriers are real, and we do not make light of them; however, the Black Women's Leadership and Economic Development (BWLED) Project believes that internal barriers, the ones in our own heads, are the real killers.

The goal of the project is to identify and break down barriers that stop black women from operating successful economic ventures and taking responsibility for our own welfare and that of the black community. The project provides an avenue for black women to love and support each other and, at the same time, challenge each other to dream, to envision what we want, and then to get it.

The following example illustrates the great need for the Project. A black woman in south Alabama created a catering business. Happy and excited, she got her business off to a good start. The community received her and her product well. With the market tested and the prognosis good, she soon had more callers than she could handle alone. She asked her husband, who had not been supportive of the venture, to keep her business books. He said he would, but he didn't appear to have any real energy or interest. Her business seemed like heaven, an avenue out of her dead-end agency job to independence--but within a matter of days it slowed to a trickle. She began to feel torn between her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and new entrepreneur. Her initiative to find business declined. When asked about it, she only says, "My family was not very supportive and I was being pulled in too many different directions." Today the business amounts to another unfulfilled dream.

The above woman is "scripted" both racially and sexually to feel inferior, powerless, not quite good enough, unable to "know" her own personal power. She would find support and identification for her struggle from other women in the BWLED Project as she and they attempted to understand how internal barriers robbed her of her dreams, energy, and initiative.

According to Sophia Bracy Harris, the executive director of FOCAL (Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama), "Women all over the country affirm that internal barriers are real and they find the objectives of the project exciting." Based in Montgomery, FOCAL provides technical assistance, training, and advocacy for a network of about ninety


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nunchild-care centers; it is particularly active in training low-income black women to take leadership roles in their communities. Sophia got the initial BWLED Project off the ground in April 1984, after she attended a workshop sponsored by the National Black Women's Health Network.

In working to break down the feelings of inferiority and to help women see themselves as peers with others and each other, the project adopted FOCAL's guiding set of concepts and principles:

  • Vision: seeing and defining what we want;
  • Responsibility: taking leadership and responsibility for our own lives and the realization of our human potential;
  • Proactive thinking, behavior, and planning: getting away from the powerless position of reacting, petitioning, rebelling, and protesting in order to get the powerful to fix things, provide for us, accept us;
  • Risking: choosing to experience fuller measures of our true reality;
  • Moral and ethical behavior: choosing a morality that is consistent with our vision and dreams of a world overflowing with unity, justice, love, and progress.

The project's main energy centers on having women declare a vision (what it is they want). Black women are so accustomed to thinking about why we can't succeed that when it comes to saying what it is we want (if no barriers exist), nothing comes. Black women stop dreaming. This project will see black women dream again.

One core project member, Martha Hawkins of Montgomery, recently shaped and launched a vision: Martha's Home Cooking, a catering service. Martha says the Project had everything to do with her getting the nerve to try catering.

Martha says she was terrified at first; she was concerned about what people would say if her business failed. She eventually said, "I'm gonna give it all I got, full-time." Today, twelve months later, she is amazed that she is paying other people to work for her. Martha's Home Cooking primarily caters lunches for industrial sites. With business booming, she says, "I am now scared and excited all at the same time, and it feels wonderful."

Some Project members currently envision offering a tutorial service, running a baking business, owning a house, changing jobs, running a cooperative.

The Black Women's Leadership and Economic Development Project offers training and seminars in selling, marketing and starting businesses. Its Technical Assistance Resource Team aids and encourages women to enter into economic development ventures.

For more information, write to P.O. Box 214, Montgomery, AL 36101.

Carolyn Caver is coordinator of the Black Women's Leadership and Economic Development Project. A longer version of this article originally appeared in Southern Exposure.