Even as a teen when learning Eleanor Roosevelt said, “no one can make you inferior without your consent,” I knew that to be a false sentiment.
My experiences say otherwise.
Being a young, hungry, green-eyed black businesswoman was an anomaly.
OUT40 was launched and a tender 21 year-old hit the ground running. I was eager to discover all opportunities available to me in the city. Like a lion eyeing its prey, my quest was audacious and devouring. I entered unique places that had never seen someone like me. I braved the tight air in suffocating conditions: young, big, bold, and black. I shook firm hands and smiled affectionately until my cold feet warmed…or froze altogether.
I networked in various places in varying comfort zones. I had wine with older, well-traveled, bourgeois white women who discussed their international vacations, thriving companies, and wilting marriages. I attended a business meeting with older white male investors who hinted I take my brick and mortar idea elsewhere. Not due to my own deficiencies, of course — they assured me, but because Frederick was a city that wanted to be preserved, a message that rang from the highest of spires.
The Frederick Chamber of Commerce is regarded as the mecca for local business owners, corporations, and budding entrepreneurs to expand and network, utilize resources, and grow in the city. Members of the Chamber are established businessmen and women who have been accepted by the organization into its society.
In response to recent local and nationwide protests, the Chamber began and altered its “Frederick Strong” campaign to reflect current times. The organization released a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and its stance on supporting local black owned businesses. Tagged at the top of the statement was a logo of a fist. The logo was widely criticized on social media as tone deaf and reactionary. The Chamber was blasted for its hypocrisy and empty sentiment toward Black business owners when its legacy tells otherwise.
The statement reads:
“We all together need to make a community commitment to implement employment, housing, healthcare and public safety procedural changes that respect the humanity and dignity of every man, woman and child.
That’s Frederick Strong.
Today, we have a unique opportunity. A chance to rally together, to combine all of our strength into ONE VOICE. A voice of community awareness, a voice of economic recovery and a voice for equality. NONE of us, no matter how justified or impassioned, are as powerful a force for good as ALL of us.”
At a time when supporting black lives is trendy marketing, the Chamber’s intentions are being publicly questioned as disingenuous. 12.5% of the Chamber board are African-American, none of whom are African-American women. Of the businesses that are a part of the organization, most are white-owned.
While opposers critique the organization for its lack of diversity and inclusion, those defending the Chamber believe that people of color and black owned businesses should take more initiative to make the Chamber their home.
Former members of the Chamber have whispered about past grievances; members who were vocal about the racial disparities were written off. Current leadership is condemned for its commitment to and defense of the status quo. Management is blasted for using “token” African-Americans, a popular phenomenon where organizations hire or elect one person of color in an authoritative position to placate black candidates and public relations, without any real change. Cosmetic, perfunctory change will not do. Though this is a common business practice that historically benefits societal aristocracies, it threatens the vitality of greater Frederick where all can partake.
While seemingly in tune and on time, the Chamber has struggled to accomplish diversity and community outreach. An organization of the business elites, its barriers to entry prove inaccessible to people of color with hopes of rubbing elbows with the key players of Frederick.
I was one of them.
Eager to mix and mingle with the who’s who of the city, I applied for a membership. Without giving corrective feedback, my application was rejected. I was encouraged to find a Chamber member to usher me in as their guest at an upcoming networking event and was deferred to the Frederick County Minority Business Vision (MBV) group instead.
Separate but equal.
Discouraged and deflated, it was another reminder of inferiority with no recourse.
The doors of opportunity must be opened to all.
The Frederick Chamber of Commerce should be held accountable on developing strategies that tackle equality, accessibility and diversity among its members and initiatives. We should strive to build inclusive communities not only in thought but in practice. More seats created and more filled. The City of Frederick is at the crux of monumental change; staying invested and committed to redefining our future will take the work and contribution of all Fredericktonians.
Now that’s Frederick Strong.