Watts has long been a forsaken and forgotten community. Residents of our 2.12 square miles of Los Angeles are younger, poorer, and packed together more tightly than other areas of the city or county. Our demographic profile and the lasting impact of the 1965 unrest have hindered progress and prosperity.
The most effective way to change Watts for the better is to put people to work. But in a community where many large corporations have determined “that’s not our demographic,” (a declaration to not invest), it’s time to consider how to build on the internal strengths of Watts while also forging external partnerships.
Both of these ideas—that Watts possess assets that can be leveraged and that the community can benefit by looking outside our traditional boundaries—have the potential to transform Watts into a livable, sustainable community.
The first challenge is to recognize and seize on the potential of Watts. Geographically, the location of Watts along the 105 and 110 corridor and short distance to Los Angeles International Airport are appealing. The 710 and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are also nearby. In addition, Watts is home to the new, state-of-the-art Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.
Watts is also blessed with strong churches that have survived and thrived even as banks, stores, and other one-time anchors of our community have drifted away. But our community’s spiritual needs cannot be met when residents lack opportunity for the economic growth that leads to longer, healthier, and fuller lives. That’s why churches in Watts are increasingly looking at how they can use their moral and ethical voices to call together enterprise and the community.
One example of this approach is the collaboration between Macedonia Baptist Church’s Macadeonia Community Development Corporation (MCDC) and the Los Angeles-based VEDC, one of the nation’s leading nonprofit community development financial institutions (CDFIs).
While Macedonia’s more than 100 years in Watts mean that the church has formidable influence in the community, VEDC brings expertise in addressing the complex issues that contribute to economic inequity in communities of color. VEDC also brings funding to boost economic opportunity for African American entrepreneurs—$8 million in seed money from JP Morgan Chase & Co. toward a $30 million African American Small Business Loan Program.
The new program will substantially expand the approximately 20 percent of VEDC’s existing portfolio that serves African American small business owners, with Watts serving as a prime community for this growth. By partnering to provide specialized resources tailored to meet the specific needs of African Americans small businesses, we can narrow the lending gap and widen economic opportunities in Watts.
This includes establishing a Business Source Center and a small business incubator in Watts, along with affordable loans from $35,000 to $250,000 through the African American Small Business Loan Program and a new Watts Microloan Program for loans from $1,000 to $50,000. Rather than using rigid credit guidelines, flexible eligibility criteria will address the unique credit, collateral, and cash flow situation of an individual borrower.
African American small business owners also will receive guidance while applying for loans, along with finance, accounting technology, marketing, procurement, and other business assistance after the loan has been granted.
This approach recognizes that establishing a small business incubator and executing a few loans isn’t the goal. Rather, the measure of success for Watts will be when new businesses open and succeed, creating economic mobility for entrepreneurs, employees, and their families.
Together, as a community, Watts can “be strong! We are not here to play, to dream, to drift; We have hard work to do, and loads to lift; Shun not the struggle–face it; ’tis God’s gift.”