Melvin White, founder and CEO of Beloved Streets of America

Melvin White, founder and CEO of Beloved Streets of America, on Martin Luther King Drive

Standing on Evergreen Avenue right off Marin Luther King Drive in Wellston, Melvin White, founder of Beloved Streets of America, couldn’t have been prouder.

After 12 years, the organization dedicated to revitalizing MLK Dr. from Wellston to downtown St. Louis and beyond held its first annual MLK Street Festival on October 10. The blocked-off street was bustling with smiling faces, food trucks, live music, speeches, and vendors selling clothing, art, jewelry, oils and candles, and free COVID-19 testing.

“We’ve brought out the best in Black businesses,” White said. “Individuals and families are socializing and supporting one another. I’m looking at this event as proof that we can come together even during the most drastic conditions and empower one another.”

The “drastic conditions” White referenced is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. It was refreshing, he said, to see people who have been socially isolated, fearful, and distanced from community activities relax while demonstrating community support.

“Because of COVID we’ve lost a lot of businesses and lives,” White said. “I’m hoping the pandemic serves as an incentive for businesses and organizations to finally come together and form a collective plan to generate resources within our communities.”

Ironically, the conversation with White coincided with rapper/actor Ice Cube’s “Contract with Black America” proposal. Its introduction explains how the plan was written in the backdrop of “a global pandemic in which the Black mortality rate is more than double the White rate and in which 45% (nearly half) of Black-owned businesses closed.”

The entertainer has come under fire after he met with President Donald Trump’s team and parts of his proposal was reportedly incorporated in Trump’s “Platinum Plan” for Black Americans. Controversy aside, considering the disproportionate damage done to African Americans, a post-COVID strategy is a priority for Malik Ahmed, retired founder and CEO of Better Family Life, Inc.

“What we’ve seen from the Great Recession that started in 2008 and with this pandemic is that the federal and state government doesn’t prioritize Black communities that have been disproportionately impacted by these catastrophes,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed is the author of the newly released book “From the Projects to the Pyramids: In Search of a Better Family Life.” The symbolism of the title speaks to evolving from the current level of consciousness to another level of collective consciousness where improving and sustaining healthy Black lives and communities are priorities.

“We can use this COVID-19 crisis we’re in to start articulating a new civil and human rights movement,” Ahmed said. “We can start by addressing the disproportionate health disparities in the Black community then move to establishing robust small enterprises, then community and neighborhood development, and keep expanding until we become a major force in our own communities.”

When White and Ahmed spoke of community development, both used the word “independent,” focusing on ways to make community reform self-starting and self-sustainable without solely relying on the government or mainstream corporations.

Michael Woods, co-founder of Dream Builders 4 Equity, is in complete agreement. Woods and his partner, Neal Richardson, started the nonprofit in 2017 with the goal of teaching urban youth how to rehab buildings, own property and make money from publishing books about their experiences.

“We want to be inspirational to people to let them know we can create our own wealth,” Woods said. “We can be intentional about who we deal with, who we get funding from and prove that we don’t necessarily need anybody outside our community to do what we do.” 

Trump’s plan, “The Biden Plan for Black America” and Cube’s “contract” all neglect to specify funding for grassroots Black-led nonprofits. “Black Responsibility” is one of Cube’s bullet points, but he doesn’t encourage hip-hop artists or Black entertainers to contribute to a fund to spearhead land ownership or community entrepreneurship. Entertainers like Jay Z, TI, Queen Latifa and Akon all promote these community endeavors. In the post-COVID era, Ahmed said, Blacks have to face a harsh realism.

“We’ve got to come face-to-face with the reality that these folks who control governments are not concerned with our interests,” Ahmed said, “and start to look out for ourselves.”

White said that Black nonprofits should collaborate, choose specific areas for redevelopment, create a plan based on their specific contributions (home and land ownership, small business and trade development) and collectively demand federal, state and local funding for their plan.

“With COVID, it’s only gotten worse for our businesses, our families and our communities,” White said. “Each year the state earmarks $30 billion for development. Part of those billions should flow to organizations out here dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods, creating small businesses, jobs, and reducing crime. The time is now!”

Woods said he’s very much interested in partnering his nonprofit with others.

“Once other cultures see that we are building our own in respectable, equitable and possible ways,” Woods said, “I believe that’s when the transformation begins. It always starts with our mindset.”

“We have to make it known that we can pool our resources and believe in ourselves,” Ahmed said. “Because, after all, the only thing we have is ourselves.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.

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