Carl Maxey Center strengthens Black-owned businesses through Commerce partnership, community events
The spirit of civil rights activists are ever-present in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood, where the Carl Maxey Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center co-hosted this month’s Black Business Expo. During the Expo, Black-owned businesses and community partners gathered in the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center’s gymnasium to showcase new community businesses and foster relationships.
The Carl Maxey Center is part of the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Small Businesses Resiliency Network (SBRN). It’s one of 31 partners across Washington focused on supporting businesses owned by historically marginalized and underserved communities.
SBRN’s mission is connecting entrepreneurs and small businesses to community partners that provide culturally relevant assistance and support services at no cost.
“Part of the vision for the Small Business Resiliency Network is to help inform the Legislature on policy and support needed for small businesses in Washington,” said Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “Organizations like the Carl Maxey Center are supporting that effort by creating space for new entrepreneurs, establishing economic stability, and lifting up businesses to promote growth and expansion.”
According to Amos Atkinson, the Carl Maxey Center’s business and workforce development program coordinator, these events are important to highlight new entrepreneurs and attract attention to businesses that people in the community don’t know about.
“It opens up the door for others to see that they too can become business owners,” said Amos. “We want people to know we are working and if they need help in areas, come in and find out what resources we have to help them. We don’t know it all, but I believe we’ll be able to help get you where you need to go.”
Financial stability remains one of the biggest issues for Black business owners, Amos added, as funding is not readily available compared to how fast businesses are being created. Part of Amos’ role is to come up with ways to help business owners to promote growth and contribute to economic development in the greater Spokane area.
“We’re here to bring stability to the Black community,” he said. “We’re hoping the community really gets behind this push to uplift lives.”
It’s a sentiment shared by business owners participating at the Black Business Expo.
“We hope to not only inspire people to connect with others, but also show the beauty and blackness in Spokane,” said Stephanie Courtney, author of “Our Community: Black Leaders of Spokane” and executive director of The Learning Project Network. “People are doing a lot of amazing things that you wouldn’t typically see. We just want to be a part of the change that we want.”
There’s a lot of creativity and passion in the Black community. Vendors at the Black Business Expo ranged from brand new to established and regionally recognized.
Olyvia Babinski officially opened her business, Blessed & Beautiful Creative, on Feb. 1. Partnering with businesses in Spokane’s Garland District, she’s connecting with the community through her creative art and special events.
Creativity and business ownership is a family trait. Olyvia’s mother, Jarretta had a table showcasing her cards and crafts. Prosparetti Coleman, Olyvia’s sister, also turned lived medical experience into a passion project to become a health coach and educator.
The Black Business Expo was KeAnna Venzant’s first event as a business owner. Opening Blown off the Balloons in summer 2022, she found a way to express her creativity through balloon art for a variety of events, from birthdays to weddings and beyond.
Delena Mobley and Kim Blessing came together from different backgrounds to blend cultures to create Dom+Bomb, an inclusive fashion brand. Former communications project managers in the public health sector, they recognized a need for a clothing line that promotes community across sizes, genders and races.
Leaving corporate jobs to start the business in June 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve found purpose focusing on something positive and creative. Part of their mission is to show love to everyone, regardless of background.
“Spokane has a pretty small town feel,” said Delena. “There’s a lot of us here that don’t fit into the normal culture that has existed here. When you find yourself in a place like that, there are people just like you who are looking for a community. They want to be themselves, express themselves freely and still be loved. Not tolerated, but loved and enjoyed and embraced for their differences.”
Building generational wealth
Jacquelynne Sandoval is on a mission to help people invest in their future through homeownership. A real estate agent with J Sandoval Real Estate and Windermere, she regularly participates at events like the Black Business Expo to be present and share information.
“I think these events are important because I love it when people come in and go, ‘I didn’t know we had a Black realtor here,’” said Jacquelynne. “There’s actually a few of us, but every event I do, I’m hearing that all the time. … I didn’t know we have congresspeople and book writers and artists. It allows people to come to one place and get ideas.”
Her work is vital for the Black community to build wealth through home equity and equal access to achieve homeownership.
“What a lot of people don’t realize about Black homeownership is it wasn’t always something that was available to us,” Jacquelynne said.
A 2022 report released by Commerce’s Homeownership Disparities Work Group found Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) would need to buy more than 140,000 homes to reach parity with white homeowners in Washington.
“What I can help do is educate you and we can get out there and buy homes,” said Jacquelynne. “When you have a mortgage, you’re actually investing in your future. In your family’s future. That’s how you can help build a generational wealth.”
Movement and Black maternal health
The Step Team Alliance is a high school program rooted in African American dance culture. According to coach Stephanie Courtney, the goal is to encourage students to move and provide positive childhood experiences.
The Black Business Expo was an opportunity for two of the alliance’s 50 students to learn a little about entrepreneurship. They raised money to support the program through a bake sale and sold shoes to “encourage people to take a step in our shoes.”
“We don’t talk enough about how movement actually helps with depression and anxiety,” Stephanie said. “When we create cultural-based programs, we are giving students the opportunity to connect with themselves and others. If we introduce this to our students at an early age and help them understand how they can lead and be empowered, they’ll do amazing things in our community.”
Health equity is also important for encouraging and educating the parents, mentors and leaders of the next generation. Black maternal health is another of Stephanie’s passions, which she also presented with The Learning Project Network at the event.
“There is so much more to maternal health than giving birth or just being pregnant,” she said. “When we nurture the next generation, we are actually doing maternal health work.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black women are three times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related issues than white women, something Stephanie is focused on educating the community about.
One of the creative ways The Learning Project is raising awareness is a coloring book showing the joy and transformation of pregnant Black women, something not often highlighted.
Stephanie also hosts the podcast “Girl Get a Doula,” and has partnered with the Carl Maxey Center on the Black maternal art exhibit. The exhibit aims to share birth stories and humanize Black bodies in an effort to solve issues around health disparities.
“Data cannot be the only thing that drives us and creates change,” Stephanie said. “We have to listen to what people’s experiences are and believe them. When we do that, we will start to see solutions for everyone. If I can teach my students and the people I’m working with to bring awareness to our community about how we combat this together, I say let’s do it through art, conversation, policies and strategies.”
Amplifying Black voices
The Carl Maxey Center’s late founder Sandy Williams encouraged April Rivers Eberhard to start writing again. A decade ago, she self-published children’s books inspired by her own kids, but as a military spouse, had to switch gears while living abroad.
Now a part of the Spokane community, she’s seeing what others are doing through small businesses and entrepreneurship, and she’s getting involved.
April has written for The Black Lens, participates in events with the Carl Maxey Center and recently participated in the Black Voices Symposium. She also has two new children’s books ready to publish once illustrations are complete.
“I’m grateful for the Carl Maxey Center having a place to bring the community together, particularly for me, educating our young people and giving them exposure. Letting them see representation,” said April.
As a writer, English teacher and high school career counselor, April uses her platform to amplify her student’s creativity and voices. That includes hiring a young person of color as an illustrator for her new books, so they can grow their skill and build a portfolio for the future.
“I have learned doing the work I do in the high schools, we need to reframe what success looks like,” April said. “We need to reframe college being the only way for success and really teach people. This is the resilience of our people through the decades. We have skills. We can cook. We’re teachers, mathematicians. We’re learning to build that into a business of our own so we can change the economic structure.”