The Columbus African Council unites communities around shared challenges

The racial wealth gap in the United States has been top of mind in recent years. In 2017, the Federal Reserve released a report showing that white families had 10 times the net worth of black families. Given the effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws and subsequent institutional racism, Congress held a hearing on reparations in June 2019.

During the early 2020 Presidential campaign season, Democratic candidates have shared plans to improve the financial situations of African Americans.

“I think [wealth] is on the minds of so many young people, particularly as it relates to student debt,” said Dontavius L. Jarrells, president of Ohio Young Black Democrats. “I want to buy a house one day and I want to have kids. I want to get married. There are milestones I want to have, but, unfortunately, I did not inherit any sort of wealth.”

In an effort to start a dialogue on the definition of wealth, the barriers faced by African Americans and strategies for moving forward, Jarrells is co-organizing “The State of Black Wealth” at the Columbus Metropolitan Library Downtown on Wednesday, July 17.

Panelists, including county officials and entrepreneurs, will address attendees’ submitted questions. And reparations will be a topic of discussion.

“There may be panelists who absolutely disagree on this topic, and that's OK,” Jarrells said. “But I think it's important to have the conversation because what it does bring up is the fact that that there was free labor, and that this country was built on the backs of black women and black men. Individuals were broken. Families were destroyed.”

“The State of Black Wealth” is just one of many events hosted by the Columbus African Council, an organization Jarrells founded to unite communities of African descent in the city. Next month, the organization will tackle black education.

“People are now ripe and ready,” said Stenisha Newton, an entrepreneur and volunteer with the Columbus African Council.  “They want to belong to something. They want to connect with people.”

Describing their activity as a “movement,” Newton was impressed when she attended an event on “The State of Black Mental Health” in May.

“We talked about some things that are very controversial — that typically families only talk about in their homes,” Jarrells said. “But we wanted to bring it out because we have to change the conversation.”

Changing one’s personal story, especially as it pertains to wealth, means gaining access to individuals who can give advice on topics like building a business or repairing credit. The Columbus African Council provides this by bringing diverse groups of people, as well as vendors, together in one room.

“We help our attendees identify opportunities that they may not have thought of before,” Newton said. “We are living in a very unique time right now where we have a lot of options and we can position ourselves to gain wealth.”

“How do we invest across the diaspora?” Jarrells asked. “How do we buy black? Not just by somebody who has the same culture as me, but buying black in the Somali community, or in the Ghanaian community and vice versa.”

Relocating to Columbus from Cleveland, Jarrells said he noticed silos within both African and African American cultures. He said the Columbus African Council allows them to tackle issues that affect them all — and helps African Americans, specifically, in finding a missing “puzzle piece” in their lineage.

“I just feel like this is an opportunity for people to be a part of something that is collectively trying to bring us together,” he said. “If we can do that, can you imagine what our city will look like? If we’re able to actively do that and then mobilize around certain issues? Oh, my goodness.”