LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After graduating from the prestigious Stanford University, Andrea Chen was shocked when she started teaching in New Orleans: seventeen-year-olds couldn’t spell the word ‘dog’ and were on edge a year after a gunman burst into their school and shot four students.
Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, flooding 80 percent of the Louisiana city, famed for its Mardi Gras. Some 1,500 people died and 130,000 were displaced, with the poor and African Americans worst hit.
Chen resolved to do more to fight inequality and poverty in the city, where six out of ten residents are African American.
“How did we get to a point where students had to go to a school like that? And what happened that they couldn’t read in the tenth and eleventh grade?” asked 35-year-old Chen.
“Our analysis was that it was structural racism that was feeding every single thing.”
And so Propeller was born: a business that funds and supports entrepreneurs in New Orleans working to tackle disparities in education, health, food and water.
Based in a 10,000 square foot incubator building, which used to be a tire and rim shop, Propeller offers a work and meeting space for the city’s social entrepreneurs, or businesses seeking to have a positive impact.
It has helped more than 130 businesses and charities since 2009 with initiatives such as coaching teachers, ensuring children receive health screenings in school, and developing vacant lots into orchards giving free produce to locals.
Despite these successes, Chen felt she was not doing enough as statistics showed only 27 percent of businesses in New Orleans are owned by African Americans, who make up 60 percent of its population.
Only 2 percent of all the money spent in the city goes through black businesses, she said, citing a report by the Urban League of Louisiana, which runs education and employment programs for African Americans.
“We can work so hard and run these businesses, but if we’re not actually changing the system, the outcomes that we are looking for are not going to change,” Chen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Racial discrimination has become a hot topic in the United States, with the Black Lives Matter movement protesting fatal police shootings of unarmed black men.
President Donald Trump’s refusal in August to condemn white-supremacist marchers in Virginia, where a protestor opposing the rally was killed, also put race issues in the spotlight.
Chen said more needs to be done to change structures like the education and justice systems that disadvantage minorities.
This year, she revised Propeller’s mission to focus explicitly on inequity, introducing new programs aimed at dismantling racial disparities among entrepreneurs.
White households in the United States are on average 13 times wealthier than black ones, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center think tank.
Chen enlisted the help of the Racial Equity Institute, a consultancy that trains people on racial inequity, to run more than a dozen workshops educating leaders about systemic racism to influence their work.
At the end of each session, attendees - who have included senior executives from the biotech, tourism, oil, health and education industries - commit to make changes in their workplaces.
Since attending the workshop, one member of a synagogue in the city has started sessions educating the congregation on racism and white privilege.
Another group that attended, the New Orleans Center for Development and Learning, has decided to move beyond its usual remit of training teachers to push for legal reform to improve ethnic minority children’s reading skills.
At present 82 percent of African-American and 79 percent of Hispanic 10-year-olds in the United States are not reading proficiently according to Kids Count, which tracks the wellbeing of children in the United States. The figure for white children is 54 percent.
William Snowden, a black lawyer who aims to increase the diversity of juries, joined Propeller this year after starting The Juror Project.
He wants to encourage more ethnic minorities to do jury duty, even though many believe the judicial system is flawed.
“It’s not surprising that we (black people) are often at the bottom of the list for education or job creation, and at the top of the list for incarceration or crime,” he said.
“All these things are related. And until we change the systems, we’re not going to be solving the problems.”
(This version of the story corrects “Propeller” throughout)
Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Katy Migiro.