In his 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time, author
James Baldwin warned that America must "now dare everything" in
order to bridge the gap between the black community and the white, between
the haves and the have-nots. America has moved in fits and starts since
then, with some progress, but finds itself now, nearly forty years later--in
the midst of one of the longest economic expansions in its history--with
collective daring still in woefully short supply. The Cold War ends, but
no peace dividend materializes, no meaningful scaling back of the weapons
industry ensues. Ten years of evidence about global warming lead to no
government initiatives in cleaner technology or transportation, et cetera.So,
too, with the "New Economy" zipping right along--occasional
Nasdaq correction notwithstanding--a "digital divide" presents
itself, with much rhetoric bandied about over who gets the goodies (digital
access to the machines themselves, the right "networking" opportunities)
and who doesn't.
To counter some of the fecklessness stymieing the public sector in dealing with these issues, a community church here on the Digital Coast has taken the lead in trying to bring America's economic good times to some of L.A.'s more fiscally parched neighborhoods. The church in question is First AME, African Methodist Episcopal--L.A.'s oldest black congregation, founded in 1872 by an escaped slave (www.famechurch.org). Currently overseen by the Reverend Cecil L. Murray, the congregation was even named an official "point of light" by Bush the Elder, for its ongoing outreach and community service programs.
Among the most interesting of those programs has been its business incubator, part of what the church terms its "FAME Renaissance" program, perhaps the only such "faith-based" incubator in the country. That shorthand description comes from the program's executive director, Rev. Mark Whitlock, who describes its startling business plan as "not so much concerned about making money for ourselves," but rather, the community around it.
The idea comes from the premise, Whitlock says, that "it's not enough for the black church to holler and shout on Sunday, and then on Monday, the congregant has no place to work, no place to sleep." It gets back to parables about loaves, fishes, and best of all, teaching people to fish so they can keep feeding themselves. The program began in the aftermath of another fire--L.A.'s Rodney King riots in 1992. Afterward, as the attempts at rebuilding began, the Disney Corporation donated a million dollars of seed money for a "micro-loan" program for neighborhood small businesses.The mission, Whitlock notes, was to "economically empower" hard-pressed neighborhoods like the swath of central L.A. that First AME calls home. More donations and grants followed, allowing FAME Renaissance to "enhance" the small businesses around it, but as the '90s unfolded, Linda Smith, the program's associate executive director, said they stopped and "took the pulse of the regional economy" and found out much of it, in Southern California, was now fueled by digits.Thus, FAME Renaissance kicked into high gear, Smith and Whitlock found themselves going to incubator conferences, and married that knowledge to what they call "grassroots interest in our community" about participating in the new economy, and putting some of its myriad gadgets to use.
Towards that end, there's now a FAME venture capital fund that's raised 7 million of its proposed 20 million dollar nest egg, and more importantly, what politicians like to call "the facts on the ground" are about to be altered.That alteration, all for the better, comes in the form of a donated Pac Bell switching station built in the early 20th century, which is being gutted and fitted for T1 and T3 lines. Come February, that building will house upwards of 24 new media start-ups, though Smith imagines the initial freshman class might only hover around 12. She and Whitlock will begin actively seeking business plans later this fall, and Smith emphasizes they're looking for businesses already "in the early stages" of development, rather than the "pure start-up" existing solely as a scrawl on some coffee shop napkin.
But they emphasize they're not looking, necessarily, for African-American start-ups, or Latino ones, or Asian ones. Rather, they want "new economy" businesses that simply have " a commitment to stay in the area."And that puts the emphasis more on "economy" than "new," since all the ancillary businesses can grow around the start-ups: the restaurants, coffee shops, disc pressers, design shops, printers, etc. That's important, because even in these "virtually rootless" times, there's still an imperative to geography and neighborhood. Smith cites as an example her hope to offer training on Avid editing equipment, since there's been local desire expressed for those skills. But, she kept hearing, "the only place you can go for training is Burbank."
And despite the widely held assumption that everyone in L.A. has a car or two at their disposal, not everyone does, and a cross-town ride to Burbank isn't always possible. As a neighborhood, the area around Adams and Western, where First AME finds itself, is ready for a renaissance; decades ago, some of the city's grandest houses were found here, and many of them survive--lovely old buildings, with broad verandas and cupolas. Architecturally, it's exactly the kind of area new media loves--undervalued, with cool old structures ripe for refurbishing. But the physical area is just part of the fuel waiting to be sparked--the desire to participate in the new economy, and thereby remake both lives and neighborhoods, is there, too. If FAME Renaissance gets its way, and keeps forging strong partnerships with mentors and companies who occupy other parts of town, and other niches in L.A.'s digital economy, then the fire next time will be a vastly overdue blooming. For more information: Rev. Mark Whitlock, FAME Renaissance, 323-731-6367, firstname.lastname@example.org.