For three years, Cassandra Durant lived in her native Tallahassee on the fringes of existence and sanity. Public parks, shelters, behind a coffee shop on Railroad Ave; these were her residences after a work-related injury and resulting surgery wiped out her income, medical premiums, and unemployment, all while her physical conditioned prohibited her from keeping a stable job.
Today, Durant lives in a condominium in Tallahassee and drives a 1994 Ford Explorer that she describes as ‘beat-up, but so glad to have.’ She is the proprietor Gift Baskets by Cassandra, and says she will be the subject of a mini-documentary that will be produced this fall, detailing her struggles and successes.
Durant attributes much of her success to help she received from the Florida Small Business Development Center at Florida A&M University, one of many entrepreneurial development hubs at historically Black colleges and universities nationwide working to reduce poverty in African-American communities surrounding their institutions. While poverty nationwide has decreased nearly 10 percent since 1967, at a national average of 27 percent, African-American poverty is 11 percent higher than the national average.
And officials at HBCUs believe training and exposure to entrepreneurship is the way to reverse the trend.
Durant’s path to economic stability is more than a personal one. Months after injury forced her out of work, health problems forced her mother out of her home and into homelessness. Her mother died of congestive heart failure a short time later, and Durant says the displacement experience taught her about the stigma of homelessness.
“I came to found out that no matter who you are, what you’re doing, and what you believe in, once everything is taken away from you, people look at you totally differently. The stigma attached to homeless people and how they are tuned out, as if they are not there as if you don’t really matter.”
In 2010, a former co-worker introduced Durant to FAMU where she met Aundra’ McGlockton, director of FSBDC. He began working with Durant through the center’s program of workshops, mentoring and business idea development. A FAMU graduate, McGlockton says that the center’s goal is to provide assistance to anyone with a good idea, but assistance for lower income residents prevails in helping to make stories like Durant’s, possible.
“We’re here to assist any small business looking to grow their business or start one from scratch,” says McGlockton. “We provide a series of free services to individuals with good business ideas, and that does cover some persons who are challenged economically. We show them ways that they can bootstrap business, and some persons have, or are on the path to becoming successful entrepreneurs.”
Durant says that McGlockton helped in directing her to crowdfunding resources, and support in starting and maintaining her business.
“I was really blessed to be connected with Mr. McGlockton. He has been very diligent with trying to inform me on anything available, and he’s really been very concerned about me being self-sufficient. Mr. McGlockton gave me a lot of leads on places to lead to inquire about support for small businesses. He also helped set up my personal website so people could read about my story and donate funding.”
At Hampton University, a recent grant from the Social Security Administration is helping faculty and graduate researchers analyze the behaviors and social factors that contribute to poverty, in order to meet the problem of poverty at its roots. The grant funds workshops for low-income families in financial literacy, financial decision-making and retirement planning.
“When we consider that part of the grant, the focus is to provide literacy to low income communities,” says Dr. Ziette Hayes, assistant professor in the HU School of Business and director of the financial literacy program. “So we partnered with the Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority to provide workshops to clients, with a focus on those transitioning into the Section 8 housing program. We are encouraging them to learn how to save and budget.”
Dr. Hayes says that Hampton graduate students in the school will be able to research and present findings on the behaviors which lead to poverty or dependence on government programs. According to Dr. Hayes, understanding behaviors and motivations are a key factor in changing behavior for long term sustainability.
“The end result is to move our to thinking towards the future, instead of just surviving.”
Future planning has been a staple of economic development at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, where the institution last year introduced a work program to decrease student debt and create job readiness for students. The school earned national attention for its efforts to eliminate South Dallas’ food desert, while simultaneously organizing against the development of a public waste facility in the region, and has crafted its academic and social mission around around social entrepreneurship.
“HBCUs have to become the anchor institutions in the communities in sore need of development and advocacy,” says Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell. “There has to be a bridge between the needs of underrepresented and under-served people, and the solutions which will improve their conditions. Paul Quinn is growing to be that kind of institution, in the mold of what all HBCUs could and should be doing.”
While Durant says she is a long way from independent wealth, she is just as far from the harsh conditions of homelessness. She remembers back to the days where the theme from “The Jeffersons” played in her mind, pushing her towards a better future. Her advice for others in dire circumstances; unbridled faith.
“If I had to tell the truth, I would tell them to not give up hope and that if you have the faith of a mustard seed, it can move mountains. If you don’t have faith, you can’t have hope in starting a business. I maintained my sanity through Christ, and on many days I thought I would lose my mind, but I didn’t. It’s so awesome the things that are happening right in front of me.”