When she opened a coffee shop and bookstore In 2016, Zenat Begum created more than just a place to pick up a snack and something to read. Playground, which occupies the space where her father operated a hardware store for two decades, also became a hub for the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and a safe space for people in marginalized communities to meet–the kind of place where customers and friends might crowd into a writing workshop or an art fair or an open mic.
But when COVID-19 hit, all of that came to an end. Begum closed the bookstore, scaled down her staff, stopped the radio program she hosted at the shop and cut down on food offerings. Indoor seating was out of the question.
Like many other small-business owners who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), Begum applied for federal aid and was rejected; the Center for Responsible Lending has found that structural problems with the Paycheck Protection Program discouraged loans to the very smallest businesses, which comprise a disproportionate number of Black- and Latino-owned companies. She’s had better luck with crowdfunding, but is still struggling to keep the business alive until the crisis ends. And yet, to Begum, it’s not enough to save Playground. The community helped make her store what it was–and even as she works to ensure its future, she wants to do so in a way that returns the favor.
“As New Yorkers, we are the children of immigrants, people who had to struggle, who work the service jobs,” she says. “We’ve always been in panic mode and emergency situations in which we had to provide, and if we can’t do that now, more than ever, then we’ve fallen short.”
So, in June, Playground installed a fleet of outdoor community fridges that hold fresh, free produce for anyone who needs it; later that month, the shop distributed safety kits during protests about racial violence. In July, a free outdoor library of books by BIPOC and queer authors was established as a proxy of sorts for the now closed bookstore.
Begum’s not alone in her commitment to supporting her community even during a tough time for many BIPOC small-business owners. These entrepreneurs shoulder an extra layer of economic uncertainty, an increased risk of dying from COVID-19 and a personal stake in conversations about systemic racial inequity that have rocked the country. Yet despite those challenges, or perhaps because of them, many are finding that community aid can be a key part of a pivot to survive the pandemic–a move that’s both sincere and strategic.
“About 80% of our businesses are POC, and I think the larger trend that we are seeing is that they are incorporating this [giving back] into their pivot,” says Jenny DaSilva, the founder and director of Start Small Think Big, a nonprofit in New York City focused on helping entrepreneurs from disadvantaged populations. “Their communities have been hardest hit by this, so they’re watching the fallout of this crisis happen in a way that’s more extreme than in other communities and their businesses are more affected. The stakes are so much higher both from a personal and a community standpoint.”
In New York City’s Chinatown, a donor-funded, volunteer-operated food-relief program called Heart of Dinner is proving that point. Developed by restaurateur Moonlynn Tsai and actor-writer Yin Chang, the initiative provides meals for elders in the city’s Asian immigrant community, while also providing work for small restaurants. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic linked to a widespread spike in anti-Asian xenophobic and racist incidents, Chang says, many restaurant owners in the area were both looking for new revenue streams and eager to help others. Switching from feeding customers to feeding those in need made sense.
“POC have been so neglected by this entire system; the fact that we even have to think about providing food, as the most basic way to survive, is an issue first and foremost,” Chang says. “That’s why there are so many small businesses owned by POC who understand this and have jumped in to provide that in a way that the government doesn’t.”
Tsai and Chang’s original aim was to serve 20,000 meals, a goal they passed in August. They’re now committed to taking Heart of Dinner long term and have filed to make it a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “We’re in it for the long haul,” says Tsai.
For Oakland, Calif.–based spice business Diaspora Co., the pandemic meant switching to a presale model. Founder Sana Javeri Kadri lost her supply chain after India went into lockdown in late March. But by preselling about 10,000 orders, Kadri was able to pay farmers in advance for the year’s harvest, sustaining them until they could fulfill the orders, though Kadri herself had to take a pay cut. The company also supported its workers with a health care program. “Diaspora was created in service of these farmers,” says Kadri. “We have their back no matter what.”
And in some cases, choices that combine equity and business survival have had impacts far beyond one company. Take Aurora James, founder and creative director of the fashion label Brother Vellies. James has used her pandemic pivot as a way not only to try a new model but also to advocate for other Black entrepreneurs. In April, she introduced Something Special, a monthly subscription service for fashion and home goods. While offering a new way for customers to engage with her business, it allowed James to keep employing the artisans, many of whom are women living in Mexico and Kenya, with whom she’d been working on Brother Vellies products.
Its success enabled James to launch the 15% Pledge, a call for major retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, to match the percentage of the U.S. population that is Black. Since it debuted in June, the pledge has garnered commitments from retailers like Sephora and West Elm and outlets like Vogue and Yelp.
James notes that while her sales went down drastically at the start of the pandemic, recent months have been the best she’s had in years. “I knew that my artisan community was going to be taken care of and my staff was going to be taken care of because of Something Special,” she says. “Then that gave me the freedom to go out and try to force my own retailers as well as other retailers to support Black-owned businesses.”
James sees her push for equity for other Black small-business owners as parallel to how communities of color–and the businesses in those communities–have historically shown up for one another. Donations from local businesses fueled the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program, for example, and relationships that transcend customer-vendor have been not only beneficial but also necessary. Structural racism has meant that entrepreneurs of color face extra obstacles from the start, such as being denied traditional bank loans or financing. The support systems that have sprung up to close the gap, however, have created their own power.
“Traditionally, people of color have had to sort of rely on themselves and their communities and their families and networks in order to support them,” James says. “I think it’s kind of natural for us to want to have an opportunity to extend [help] to someone else in our community and a true belief that all ships rise with the tide when it comes to POC communities.”
Begum, whose experience at Playground illustrates the symbiotic relationship between BIPOC entrepreneurs and their communities, is well aware of that dynamic. And when it works, she says, it means the survival of such businesses is a matter of more than economics. “Are you going to be there to make somebody’s life better through your programming and your work? Are you going to change the world?” she asks. “The ways we have shown up for our community, the way we support each other–we need to be here in the future.”
This appears in the September 21, 2020 issue of TIME.
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Write to Cady Lang at [email protected].