History repeating itself: Black contractors fight for equity and inclusion in city contracts

by Managing Editor Raynell Joseph

Small businesses contribute to the overall economic health of a community. Black Tulsans have a model in Greenwood, where African-Americans built wealth, re-invested it into the community, and lent money to aspiring entrepreneurs. When black-owned small businesses are supported, the racial wealth gap decreases, jobs are created, families are provided for, and generational wealth is created. Unfortunately, in Tulsa, many in the black community have been subjected to policies that have prevented them from benefiting from opportunities to pass on any accrued wealth. The City of Tulsa supports small businesses through the Small Business Enterprise Program (SBE). However, many are questioning if the SBE’s practices are inclusive and equitable for all of its participants.

According to the City of Tulsa’s website, the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity administers and maintains the SBE. The program allows the city to meet its aspirational goal of extending 10% of its contracts to small businesses. The goal of the program is to support the development and growth of small enterprises and to promote opportunities for those businesses to bid with the City of Tulsa. The qualifying standards consist of businesses having an adequate workforce with an average of gross receipts (or sales) less than $3 million or construction of less than $5 million. The business must be for-profit, independently owned, and utilize employees that have the expertise and ability to perform the work assigned. Qualifying businesses are placed on a preferred list to do business with the City of Tulsa.

The SBE program replaced Tulsa’s Building Resources in Developing and Growing Enterprises Program (BRIDGE), which had a focus on small businesses with a minority workforce. The BRIDGE program was suspended two years after State Question 759, also known as the Oklahoma Affirmative Action Ban Amendment, took effect. The measure banned affirmative action programs in the state and prohibited preferential treatment based on race or sex in public employment, education, and contracts, making the BRIDGE program’s focus on minority businesses essentially unlawful. The SBE states that it does not give preferential treatment to, or discriminate against, any individual or group who contracts with the City, on the basis of race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national orgin. Many feel this allows the City to play favorites and pick and choose who they want to extend contracts to. “It’s always less than 1% of African-American businesses being used,” stated Commissioner Thomas Boxley during an Greater Tulsa African-American Affairs Commission meeting in November of last year. The Commission was being addressed by Terri Gateward, a former city employee and owner of Quality Contracting Solutions Trucking, at the time. Gateward, for the past two years on multiple occasions, has requested that the City release its SBE utilization report. “On those reports, you will see who they are using and who they are not using. You will see they are not using African-Americans,” explained Gateward. According to Oklahoma’s Open Records Act, citizens have a right to request the monthly report.

Millions of tax dollars are spent on capital improvements, like roads, bridges, sanitary sewer improvements, flood control funding, and economic development needs identified by citizens, the Mayor’s office, and City Council. These developments have been voted on every few years under the Vision Tulsa, Fix Our Streets and Improve Our Tulsa funding packages. “Those are our tax dollars that are funding these projects. By right, we should have a right to be able to get contracts and have as equal of a shot as any other business at being awarded those contracts,” stated Boxley. Despite the disparities, Boxley is hopeful for the future of black-owned small businesses in Tulsa. “There’s infrastructure in place to deal with it. Twenty years ago, there were just one or two people crying in the dark with no support or representation. There was no functioning chamber of commerce that was looking out for the business interests of the collective body of professionals. There are councilors, state representatives, and a chamber in place now where individuals with businesses can pull their resources together to push the issues.” Over fifty black-owned small businesses are finding support and representation through the Black Contractors Association, an initiative of the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce. The association was launched in December 2019 at a District 1 town hall meeting facilitated by City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper. The Black Contractors Association was formed to promote inclusion and fair contracting across city, county, and state governments to ensure minority-owned businesses that have been historically excluded have an opportunity to participate in million dollar contracts across those entities. “I’ve been working for the last couple of years in addressing a fair share of city contracts. We need organization instead of every person out there fending for themselves,” says Hall-Harper. The councilor shared that she is looking to the example of other communities who were able to unite, raise awareness, and address similar issues.

The Black Contractors Association plan on building relationships with developers and reaching out to both city-funded projects and privately funded projects. This isn’t the first time Tulsa has seen an association advocating on behalf of Black contractors. In the late ‘80s, unfair conditions prompted Black businesses to unite in order to combat the city’s discriminatory practices, resulting in a lawsuit against the city. Gateward expressed her disappointment that the city, once again, is displaying these similar practices: “Over thirty years later and we’re still fighting the same fight.”

Photo Credit: Derico M. Green

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