Sowing the seeds of possibility for African-Americans

February 01, 2018 | GET MORE : Social Responsibility

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Meet Marie Dandie, Jacob Allen and Allen Woods.

In honor of Black History Month, U.S. Bank is highlighting the efforts of three nonprofit organization leaders who are creating education and entrepreneurship opportunities for African-Americans in their communities.

The bank’s Black History Month marketing campaign features Marie Dandie and Jacob Allen, founders of pilotED after-school program and charter school in Indianapolis, and Allen Woods, co-founder of entrepreneurship education program MORTAR in Cincinnati and a member of U.S. Bank’s Community Advisory Committee. 

“We’re excited to join in celebration of Black History Month, recognizing the rich contributions of the past and history makers of today by shining a light on inspiring stories of inclusion and empowerment. Our campaign, Seeds of Possibility, symbolizes our commitment to the African-American community during Black History Month and beyond,” said Kamali M. Williams, African-American segment strategy lead for U.S. Bank.

Opening doors for entrepreneurs

Allen Woods founded MORTAR in Cincinnati in 2014 with friends Derrick Braziel and William Thomas II. The nonprofit, which has received funding from the U.S. Bank Foundation, teaches entrepreneurs how to start or expand a business. Ninety percent of students in the 12-week program are African-American and 70 percent are women. 

What stands out about MORTAR is its boldness and innovation. MORTAR challenges the legacy business community in Cincinnati to patronize its students’ companies. In addition, it pairs alumni with successful entrepreneurs for mentoring, and also partners students with each other for support and learning.

“What we see is this cross-pollination of people who are able to network and help each other,” Woods said.

In addition to its work in the West End and Uptown neighborhoods, MORTAR further puts business owners on the path to success by opening pop-up shops in high-traffic spots such as trendy Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills. These locations give the businesses exposure to customers they wouldn’t normally have.

Among its biggest challenges, Woods said, is breaking the mental and emotional barriers that African-American entrepreneurs have endured for generations – barriers that say “you can’t succeed; this is too risky; we don’t know anyone who has done this.”

“We are saying, ‘This is possible. You can do it,’” he said.

“We are trying to empower people to move into a system of ownership and equity. Thirty to 50 years down the road, we want to show that entrepreneurs who came through our program have become owners of not just property and assets, but owners of destiny and generational wealth.”

Empowering young people

Dandie and Allen are working at similar empowerment issues through their educational nonprofit pilotED Schools. They started the initiative as Teach for America educators in 2013 in Chicago Public Schools, where they witnessed the effects of gang violence and generational poverty on their students. Those effects were aggravated by teachers who didn’t know how to help pupils and a system that ignored the students’ struggles for safety, respect and self-esteem, Dandie and Allen said. 

“So Marie and I got scrappy and said, ‘Could we start something?’ Marie and I shared a lot of the same experiences that our students were going through,” Allen explained.

In 2014, they launched a program for 40 students in two schools that acknowledged the violence and trauma the students suffered. It also taught them perseverance, in-depth knowledge of African-American history, books by authors who look like them and encouraged kids to expand their worlds.

“We are putting our kids on the path to navigate the difference of being a teenager from an impoverished neighborhood so that they feel respected, their voices and bodies matter and allowing them to advocate for themselves,” Dandie said.

The results are amazing, Allen said. Their students had half a point increase in their grade point averages, strong gains on achievement tests, fewer suspensions, better attendance and increased projected rates of graduation.

“We really prided ourselves on getting kids from a C or D grade level to an A or B level,” Allen said. “So it was those programs that laid the foundation for the first school we are opening in Indianapolis.”

PilotED plans to open its first charter school in fall 2018 for over 200 African-American and Latino students. It has also created a program to educate teachers and administrators how to work with traumatized and/or minority children from violent neighborhoods.

“We saw that this was a national problem. We have developed a very intensive program that includes best practices with a trauma-informed curriculum,” Allen said. 

Because Dandie and Allen have experienced violence and poverty in their own childhoods, this work is deeply meaningful to them. 

“It’s my life’s work to serve the most underserved. That’s where I come from with my family,” Dandie said. “We must allow the children the opportunity to see that there are possibilities outside their neighborhoods and there are people who are achieving at the most beautiful levels seen.”

Shera Dalin is a member of U.S. Bank's public affairs and communications team.