Village Life News Archives Coalition Uses Historic Jewish Model to Rebuild Inner-City Seattle

By Jane Braxton Little
American News Service

SEATTLE (ANS) -- As a young man growing up in an African-American family of eight children, Anthony Session dreamed of establishing the nation's first minority-owned hazardous materials transport and disposal corporation.

Although the Seattle banks he approached for a loan liked his business plan, all 10 refused to lend him money because he had no capital of his own to invest.

What turned Session's dream into reality was an alliance of Seattle residents, half of them African Americans, half of them Jews. Now in its fourth year, the African-American/Jewish Coalition for Justice aims to unite the city's 30,000 Jews and over 70,000 African Americans in a long-term partnership.

Economic self-sufficiency for central Seattle is one of the goals of the coalition's more than 150 members, who run the gamut from doctors, lawyers and ministers to the unemployed. The first beneficiary of the scheme was the A. Session Hauling Co., Inc., which received a $6,000 loan.

"They're just little everyday ordinary people pooling their resources to see if they can make some changes," said Session, 35. "This is much bigger than a bank."

The money loaned to Session came from Campaign 5,000, a grassroots drive to establish a revolving loan fund to benefit new and expanding inner-city businesses. Coalition members asked for $200 contributions from 5,000 individuals to establish an endowment. Their goal is $1.5 million, and in three years they have raised over $250,000.

In addition to individual donations, Campaign 5,000 is seeking $500,000 from institutions. The City of Seattle has contributed $100,000.

According to Stefan Merken, a Seattle writer and photojournalist and co-chair of the Coalition for Justice, the Seattle African Americans and Jews who created the revolving loan program were inspired by the Hebrew Free Loan Fund, a turn-of-the-century Jewish program that helped many Jewish immigrants launch successful independent businesses. Merken remembers his grandfather borrowing $5,000 from the Hebrew Fund to buy pots and pans as inventory for a traveling general store. The capital launched a successful enterprise and a flourishing business career.

Merken believed if the Seattle community could provide similar start-up funds to its inner-city entrepreneurs, it would build a foundation for economic independence for the largely African-American community.

"There isn't a city in this country with a decent African-American economic base," said Merken. "Once African Americans achieve self-sufficiency, America will totally change."

In 1993, Merken contacted the Rev. Robert L. Jeffrey Sr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, who five years before had formed the Black Dollar Days Task Force to establish economic parity for African Americans. Jeffrey recognized immediately how the Jewish model could help African Americans excluded from standard bank funding.

"The Jews came to this country poor and were able to leverage that," said Jeffrey. "What we're trying to do is the same thing Jews have done so successfully: create an economic infrastructure."

So far, Campaign 5,000 has loaned a total of $15,000 to Session and three other Seattle business ventures: a restaurant, a grocery and a retail store.

Those involved in the project are aware that using the economic success of the Jewish community as a model for African Americans touches on historical sensitivities. Although the two groups have much in common and have often worked well together, they have a history of tension that has sometimes stereotyped both Jewish business owners and their black customers, said Larry Moffi, managing editor of "CommonQuest," a new national magazine of Black-Jewish relations. The hostility created by mistrust can erupt into violence, as was the case with the 1995 firebombing of Freddy's Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned store on Harlem's 125th Street.

Russell Adams, "CommonQuest" co-editor and chair of Howard University's Afro-American studies department, says it took a unique vision for Seattle's Coalition for Justice to turn the model of Jewish entrepreneurs into a bridge between Jewish and African-American communities.

"It's fresh, but it will happen increasingly. We have evolved to the point where blacks and Jews are sophisticated enough to be fair and equal partners in matters of money," Adams said.

The coalition's original goal, was to work for racial harmony said Merken. "We wanted to create a relationship, to really do something," he said. The idea of economic support as a means to this end came later.

When he first contacted Jeffrey in 1993, constructive relations between Jews and blacks nationwide were complicated by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, the 1993 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and a spate of black church burnings around the country. In Seattle, the communities were separated by "an abyss," Merken said.

To get to know one another better, the Coalition for Justice matched African Americans and Jews in individual and family pairs. According to Zachary Bruce, coalition co-chair, they began sharing their cultural, religious and ethnic similarities and differences in ceremony dinners and events -- any exchange that would increase understanding.

"The way you fight ignorance is education and the warm embrace of love," Bruce said.

The understanding that has evolved from the more than 25 pairs has created a partnership that can respond to a variety of community needs. If a hate crime occurs in Seattle, the coalition can muster 70 people in an afternoon to speak up for tolerance and social justice, Bruce said.

Pairs of coalition members are also regulars at Seattle School Board meetings. Issues they have raised include the low number of African Americans employed on school construction projects that were funded in 1995 by a voter-approved $35 million bond. In a district where 60 percent of the students are people of color, said Merken, less than 10 percent of the construction workers that they see involved in these projects are people of color.

"These children aren't seeing their relatives and neighbors getting the jobs. The message to them is, There's no hope," he said.

Under persistent pressure from the Coalition for Justice, the school board is now considering doubling its minority-hire quota to around 21 percent, said John Yasutake, the district affirmative action officer.

"The coalition is very outspoken and in the forefront of a lot of issues. The members are very visible. When they speak, everyone listens. And they don't let us forget their concerns," Yasutake said.

For Session, president and CEO of A. Session Hauling Co., Inc., the coalition's interest-free loan program means far more than the capital to launch the business of his dreams. The people who donated money to the revolving loan fund expect to see their investments at work in the taxes he pays and the jobs he creates -- four so far, he said.

In accepting the Campaign 5,000 loan, Session accepted a responsibility to give back to the community more than money, said Jeffrey, a past co-chairman of the group.

"This is not just about business. We're talking about forming a community in charge of its own future. It's the ultimate partnership," Jeffrey said.

Session recently completed training for Seattle's Big Brother program. Next he hopes to train inner-city youths for jobs with his company and others like it.

"Someone like me -- I started with seven dollars," he said. "People who invested ten, fifteen, or twenty-five dollars get a chance to see their money actually making a difference. I'm reinvesting it. That's the beauty of it: Everyone wins."

Posted May 20, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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