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Bias and business: As Auburn forms $10M plan, people of color call for inclusion

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On Jan. 8, the committee planning how Auburn spends its $10 million state grant will hold a public workshop at the Booker T. Washington Community Center.

What makes this workshop different than others the committee is holding, however, is its target audience: Auburn's historically marginalized communities.

Committee member Ray Richardson, a care manager at Cayuga Centers and vice president of the Auburn/Cayuga branch of the NAACP, said the goal of the workshop is getting the word out. As the local planning committee decides how the city's $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant is divvied up, he said, communities like people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities may not know how to become part of the process. Attendance at the committee's workshops and meetings has been strong so far, Richardson said, but people of color, for instance, have been scarce.

"Those communities don't necessarily have access to the streams they've used to get the word out. They have it on their website and they have it in the newspaper, but they don't necessarily have it available to marginalized communities," Richardson said. "We want to be as fair as possible so everyone has the opportunity to put in a proposal and make downtown better."

The need for the workshop was also apparent to Richardson and fellow committee member The Rev. Patrick Heery of Westminster Presbyterian Church, religious chair of the local NAACP, as they read a draft of the committee's community engagement strategy. Presented by Bergmann Associates, the consulting firm hired by the state to guide Auburn as it plans how to spend the grant, the draft included no provisions for historically marginalized communities, Heery said. So he and Richardson, with input from community leaders, added one in the form of the workshop. 

New spending proposals will be welcome there, Richardson said. Although the deadline for submitting new ones has passed, the committee can still review them at its discretion. But because the committee must submit its final plan to the state in March, Richardson continued, any new proposals it reviews Jan. 8 should be as detailed and compliant with Downtown Revitalization Initiative criteria as possible. He and Heery added that new ideas can combine with pre-existing ones, or the committee could use some of the money to create a fund for projects that have yet to be proposed.

But the workshop isn't just for people with proposals: Richardson and Heery also want to make sure the local planning committee considers the interests of Auburn's historically marginalized communities as it decides how best to revitalize their downtown.

"What will make downtown Auburn safe and inviting for these members of our community?" Heery said in an email. "Do we have restaurants, shopping, cultural and artistic opportunities, housing, transportation, education and entertainment (that) particularly serves the needs and interests of these groups? And do we have proposals that empower (their) entrepreneurship and leadership?"

For Auburn's business owners and community leaders of color, in particular, the workshop addresses some longstanding concerns. A month after cutting the ribbon on the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center and its new bronze statue of Harriet Tubman, those business owners and community leaders say that when it comes to Heery's questions, Auburn has some work to do. The amount and nature of that work varies from person to person, but they all agree that what's needed is just that: work. Genuine, proactive work.

Many of the business owners and community leaders interviewed for this story said that part of the problem is "unconscious bias." It describes how we unknowingly form stereotypes about others based on our experiences, our social and cultural background, and other factors. And though we're never aware that we harbor those stereotypes, they nonetheless motivate real, harmful behavior. They may cause managers who read a set of otherwise identical resumes to call back far more of the names that sound white than the ones that don't, as studies have shown. Or they may cause someone to call the police at the very presence of a black person, as an Oakland woman did in April and a Philadelphia Starbucks employee did in May, both to much media attention.

Sometimes, though, the behavior motivated by unconscious bias doesn't appear so harmful.

One example is the very formation of Auburn's $10 million grant committee. Heery said its 13 members initially included two people of color in Auburn City Councilor Dia Carabajal and Lyons National Bank vice president and branch manager Demetrius Murphy. Feeling that was "inadequate representation," Heery and other members asked about recruiting Richardson. Heery expected resistance, he said, but he was pleasantly surprised when both of the committee's chairs, Mayor Michael Quill and Cayuga Economic Development Agency Executive Director Tracy Verrier, expressed their "enthusiastic support." Heery still believes three people of color remains inadequate in the context of "centuries of marginalization," and hints at an unconscious bias — in this case, a failure to sufficiently value their inclusion in decision-making roles. But he was encouraged by the speed and sincerity with which the committee took action, he said.

In an August interview, Verrier acknowledged the work Auburn leaders must do to include its marginalized communities in efforts like the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

"We need to be active to be fully inclusive," she said. "We need to be better at making invitations to people who are outside of our normal networks. Our normal networks tend to be people who look like us and have similar opinions to us, and we're good at including those people because they feel comfortable to us."

Even less representative than the grant committee, however, is the application that won Auburn the $10 million state prize. It contains 15 proposals, but none of them directly benefits a business or property owner of color. Nor did any of the proposals in the city's applications the previous two years. This was pointed out to the committee at its Sept. 26 meeting by Sean McLeod, the international producer and choreographer who has operated the New York Institute of Dance & Education and other associated businesses in Auburn, his hometown, for almost 30 years.

In an August interview, McLeod said he has traditionally tried not to interpret such omissions as signs of any sort of bias. But a moment this summer led him to become more critical of the city of Auburn and its inclusion of business owners of color, like himself, in its economic development efforts. It happened in advance of his third annual Harriet Tubman Freedom Music Festival, where McLeod performed "A Soundtrack for Harriet Tubman," featuring songs from a musical about the famed Underground Railroad conductor that he wrote in the 1990s.

McLeod was being interviewed about the festival by WSYR's Dan Cummings, who asked the choreographer whether Auburn's efforts to highlight Tubman's heritage there have improved the city's diversity. The question led McLeod to further ask himself whether Auburn's business owners of color are benefiting from those efforts — and the economic development, like the $10 million grant, that McLeod believes is entwined with them. His own experience has told him the answer is "no," he said. McLeod has met with city officials and attended informational sessions about funding opportunities for years, he said, only to see his name absent from programs like the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and the Regional Economic Development Council.

"When Good Shepherds or Prison City or Auburn Public Theater get funding for their projects, I'm elated. I just wonder, where's the funding for black commerce? Maybe that black commerce isn't showing up, isn't asking. But what happens when we are?" he said, later adding, "They say that 'a rising tide lifts all boats.' Not if you're black."

McLeod would later submit a proposal to the local planning committee during its open call period: A Harriet Tubman Center for the Arts that would provide a home for his New York Institute of Dance and Education and Kaleidoscope Dance Theatre, with performance and residential spaces, classrooms, an incubator for minority- and women-owned business owners and a teen inspiration program. Tentatively budgeted at $1,200,000, the proposal requests $1 million from the Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant. The former Chemung Canal Trust Co. and Bank of America building at 120 Genesee St. was identified as a potential location. The proposal is now under consideration by the committee, along with the city's original 15 and another 17 from the open call.

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But having a proposal of his own on the table is beside McLeod's point. He believes city and economic officials must do more to invite people of color to the table in the first place, he said.

So does Chansa Heiman, owner of Alter Image Salon in Genesee Center. She worked with Maureen Riester of the Cayuga Economic Development Agency to find a site for the business and open it in August 2015, Heiman said. But since then, she continued, she's never been contacted by local officials, never asked whether she could use funds from sources like the Downtown Revitalization Initiative to invest in her business. And she could, she said, because she'd like to renovate it. But Heiman believes such communication is limited to what she called "a tight network."

"Just to hear what they have to say would be nice, that communication," she said. "But there's been none of that over the past four years."

Gwen Webber-McLeod, owner of Auburn-based leadership development company Gwen, Inc., said the community may not even have a handle on who its minority business owners are. That's partly due to issues like unconscious bias, she said, but also because those businesses, many of which are owned by millennials, fall outside of traditional areas like manufacturing. Some may not have traditional brick-and-mortar spaces beyond their own houses. But they have an impact. Webber-McLeod, who chairs the WISE (Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) Women's Business Center advisory board, said the women-owned businesses assisted by the Syracuse-based center have generated $58 million in revenue for central New York in the 10 years since the center opened.

To be inclusive, then, people in charge of economic development must change their perception of what that development looks like in 2018, Webber-McLeod said. 

With the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, being inclusive may also mean thinking beyond that area of Auburn, said Bill Berry Jr., publisher of Auburn-based literature and arts journal aaduna. It may mean asking the owners of the Don Juan Cafe Puerto Rican restaurant on Chapman Avenue whether they want to move downtown, he continued, or asking the people opening the Sushi & Hibachi Noodle House Bar on the west end whether they'd prefer to do so a few blocks down Genesee Street. It may mean probing for Auburnians of color who want to become business or property owners in the first place. But what it certainly means, Berry said, is local leadership taking an extra step — and not asking people from historically marginalized communities to be the ones to take it.

"You beat somebody down for so long, and over time, even if something's changed, it's like any abused child, animal, whatever," he said. "It takes a significant amount of time to trust again."

Because of that reticence, Berry said, people of color who submit proposals for Auburn's $10 million grant through the open call period or the Jan. 8 workshop will still find themselves at a disadvantage. They won't have as much time to flesh out their proposals, or sell the committee on them, as those who got in at the ground floor of the city's application last summer, he said. And they'll never have another chance to start on equal footing: The state does not allow winners of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant competition to reapply in subsequent years.

With the $10 million grant and the recent opening of both the Equal Rights Heritage Center and the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, Webber-McLeod also believes Auburn is at a tipping point. The two attractions will bring an increasing amount of people of color into the city, she said. And that raises a question: What kind of impression does Auburn want to send them?

Visitors who see a downtown with few people of color — and even fewer business owners of color — may not feel as welcome as they would if they saw themselves more represented here, Webber-McLeod said. But before Auburn can become inviting to people of color from other communities, she and several others interviewed for this story said, it must become more inviting to its own. 

"When people see people of color in Auburn, my experience is that sometimes the first reaction comes from a place of unconscious bias," Webber-McLeod said. "There are male members of my family who've had experiences just walking down the street and people start locking their car doors."

That bias was sharply felt by Kevin Days, executive director of the Booker T. Washington Community Center from 1997 to 2002 and a member of the Auburn Enlarged City School District Board of Education from 2000 to 2004. As a black man running a community institution, Days said, he often encountered both skepticism about his leadership ability and fellow leaders unaware how to respectfully behave around people of color. The skepticism would come out in subtle ways, he said, ways that are now commonly called microaggressions.

Days also vividly recalled the attempt to rename Genesee Elementary after Harriet Tubman during his time on the school board. After the community pushed back — "You would have thought we were trying to name the school after a villain," Days said — the board defeated the measure 5-4 and instead decided to name the far less visible district administration building after the abolitionist. Days concluded that Auburn, like many communities, was unwilling to confront difficult questions about race, he said. He moved to Virginia in 2004, when his wife got a job in Washington.

"I wasn't going to make a commitment to raise my children of color in a town where people were unwilling to do the simplest thing to honor a person of color," Days said.

Since then, Tubman's national profile has risen. She's been depicted by famous actresses in TV and movies, named the next face of the $20 bill. And as that has happened, Auburn has become more open to touting her legacy. Not only has the park has been established and the welcome center graced by her bronze visage, but murals have been raised in her honor and local events organized in her name. However, many feel that the unconscious bias behind the community backlash to that name less than 20 years ago is still there — and still harmful to Auburn.

That bias has helped fragment the city, said Jack Hardy, a member of the board of directors of Hospice of the Finger Lakes, the Seward House Museum and several other local organizations. He simply doesn't see many other black people downtown. Instead, Auburn's residents mostly stick to their own neighborhoods. Those who shop at Wegmans rarely visit Tops, and vice versa.

Heiman, whose salon windows offer her a constant view of Genesee Street, thinks that's also because there simply isn't much for people of color to do downtown. Places to eat and drink are plentiful, she said, but businesses like clothing stores and gift shops could draw more diversity.

Berry and Hardy said it will take work to reach people of color and other marginalized communities, whether it's bringing them downtown or seating them at the table of economic development efforts like the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. They suggested targeted outreach, such as advertising in church bulletins or working with community organizations like the Civil Service Commission and, indeed, the Booker T. Washington center. Heiman stressed the power of social media. But that work begins with local leadership recognizing the problem and finding the will to solve it, Berry said.

Additionally, both that leadership and the Auburn community must brace for the tension that work will bring, Webber-McLeod said. She believes the answer to overcoming unconscious bias and making the city more representative and inviting already lies in the community. It just has to summon the courage of the woman leading Auburn's way.

"Harriet Tubman challenged the status quo," Webber-McLeod said. "We need to challenge our status quo."

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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