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Local procurement for economic justice

Lee's Flowershop is a family-run, Black-owned business that has thrived in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. since 1945. Local support was crucial to maintaining business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image and "Lee’s Legacy" mural by Kaliq Crosby, 2017.

Black communities have been severely disproportionately affected by the virus in Washington, D.C. My office in the Shaw neighborhood is surrounded by Black-owned lunch spots, flower, music, and clothing shops. Many of these businesses closed their doors for months, furloughed staff, or even shut down forever. And the same is true for many of the Black, Hispanic, or minority-owned businesses in D.C. 

Our city is not alone. According to an August poll by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two out of three minority-owned small businesses across the United States are concerned about having to permanently close their business due to COVID-19. This exacerbates the economic and social inequalities that these business owners have faced for decades. As Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, says in our upcoming report: “Minority-owned, women-owned, and other disadvantaged business enterprises have been systemically blocked from experiencing the same successes as their counterparts. What we want for them, and what our economy needs for them, is opportunity. The opportunity to create, thrive and become economic leaders in their communities.”

We believe that government procurement can play a major role in creating equal opportunities for local businesses and the communities that support them. Before the recent downturn, local governments in the U.S. collectively spent about 1.6 trillion dollars per year. That’s a lot of money – and a lot of potential to transform our cities. As we grappled with the ongoing, disproportionate effects of the pandemic this summer, we turned to our trusted community of practitioners to ask: “How can local governments change procurement to support a more equitable economic recovery following COVID-19?”

More than 30 experts shared their recommendations and insights providing an on-the-ground perspective from local procurement officials, businesses, service providers, philanthropy, and academia. These insights are captured in our new report with the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation, “A Procurement Path to Equity: Strategies for Government and the Business Ecosystem,” launching next month. We analyzed opportunities to change culture and values, implement more open processes, and develop game-changing recommendations at key steps of the procurement process: from setting goals for contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses, reducing barriers to entry through flexible requirements, and building user-centered data systems through research and co-design. We even discussed hot button issues such as certification programs—and whether they help or hurt minority-owned businesses. 

Most importantly, many of our contributors argued that real, lasting change will come from building a culture of collaboration between local government actors and business owners of color. As Mariel Reed, Founder and CEO of CoProcure shared, “We realized that the problem we were solving for was no longer compliance, we were actually solving for this problem of trust.”  

Our full report launches soon, and you can dive deeper into these insights during our launch event on November 19, 2020 at 12pm EST. Join our panel of committed reformers to discuss how open and participatory strategies can create more equitable economic opportunities in our communities during COVID-19 recovery and beyond. Register here

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