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GREENSBORO, N.C. — In 2018, the City of Greensboro conducted a study that found a major disparity in the dollars spent with minority- and women-owned business enterprises, or MWBEs. 

“We connect that disparity to violence in our communities, to poverty,” Greensboro NAACP President Rev. Bradley Hunt said.

In our conversation last week, Hunt referred to that study when pointing out how lack of economic investment affects young people in high-minority and high-crime parts of the city. Assistant City Manager Kimberly Sowell leads the team working to address those disparities.

“The overall gist of the disparity study did show that the City of Greensboro had a significant disparity in spending with minority-owned and women-owned firms as compared to non-minority and women-owned firms,” she said.

That 2018 report showed that of the city’s biggest spending area for contracts — construction services — only about 11 percent went to MWBEs. The annual report released this week shows that jumped to 27 percent in 2019. But it fell to about 16 percent of the $96 million the city spent last year.

“We didn’t have a standardized process by which departments would submit information to our MWBE Office to get that staff’s feedback on what we could do to be more inclusive with MWBEs,” Sowell said.

The progress is everywhere you look. A woman owns the company doing the sidewalks for a major improvement project on Battleground Avenue. A Black man owns the company that installed all the sneeze guards in the libraries. The same company is leading the city’s largest construction services project: water meter replacement.

The goods category, which includes materials and supplies, is a different story. The city spent nearly $36 million last year. Less than half a percent went to MWBEs, and that’s improvement.

“We’re identifying those routine purchases and we are looking to find MWBEs that are suppliers of those goods and we are matching them with departments and we are introducing them,” Sowell said.

And they’ve found minority suppliers for office supplies and promotional supplies.

“We have been accustomed to just getting two quotes, three quotes and whoever is the lowest, that’s who we’re going with. But that has tended to be exclusionary to MWBEs.”

She says friends told her not to take this job.

“I understand why the said that. It’s very difficult to navigate what our minority community sees as discriminatory practices. And what those who are involved in purchasing and what they see as we’re just making good business decisions.”

Part of Sowell’s job is to make light of status quo practices many may not have seen as problematic.

“They will look at me and say ‘wait a minute I’m not racist. I’m not discriminating.’ And I will say no, but the fact that you say ‘well they should have the insurance anyway’ or ‘it’s not my fault that they’re not able to get the bonding’ that leads to discriminatory practices,” she said. “It takes courage for me as a Black woman to tell a Zoom full of white people that’s a discriminatory practice. And at the City of Greensboro, we are no longer engaging in discriminatory practices.”

That effort is making a difference.

“What we’ve been told by members of our minority business community is that once a dollar is spent with a minority contractor, it stays in the minority community.”

And in a city where the results of the lack of investment are never far away, the impact of her team’s effort is much bigger than “that side of town” and just Black and white.