According to a study by NYU’s Furman Center, the share of Black Bedford-Stuyvesant residents in Brooklyn shrunk from 74.9% in 2000 to about 46% in 2018. Better known as Bed-Stuy, the neighborhood has seen a widening in the wealth disparity gap and increasing gentrification over the last two decades. With the pandemic still raging, the historically Black-led local community there has been disproportionately affected. Businesses have struggled or shuttered entirely and the vast majority of Black families are unable to cover the costs due to national wage inequality and systemic racism. According to the Census Bureau, Black millennials (meaning those between the ages of 21 and 36) had a homeownership rate of just 16% in 2017. This number is just less than one-third of the rate among white millennials.
Faced with these dire statistics, four women from Bed-Stuy are working to turn the tide with Building Black Bed-Stuy, a new fundraising organization providing financial support to Black residents of the neighborhood. Friends and founding members Rajni Jacques, creative director and fashion director at Allure, Kai Avent-deLeon, owner of Bed-Stuy concept store Sincerely, Tommy and boutique hostel and eatery S,T Eat X Stay, Nana Yaa Asare-Boaudu, a designer and performance artist, and Dana Yolanda, a designer and creative director, launched the initiative over the summer with a series of online fundraisers [https://www.gofundme.com/f/building-black-bed-stuy].Every Sunday, they also hosts an outdoor market place and block party in front of Sincerely, Tommy, showcasing local businesses and talent.
As the women explain it, “Bed-Stuy is the center of Black Brooklyn and for us, is the heart of this beautiful borough. It is also the fastest growing gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. Gentrification not only threatens the sustainability of this Black community but alongside Covid-19, the chances of survival are less and less. Businesses shutting down means empty real estate, which means a drop in pricing, which creates an open season for the neighborhood to be taken over by large developers and big box companies.”
Below, the Jacques, Avent-de Leon, Asare-Boaudu, and Yolanda discuss the transformative power of community organizing, the importance of preserving historical Black neighborhoods, and why “celebrating Blackness” is at the heart of their mission.
What were some of the initial conversations like when you first started talking about creating this organization?
Kai Avent-deLeon: My neighbor next to Sincerely, Tommy called me when he decided to sell his building and it felt like serendipitous timing. The idea of purchasing a property that could be donated to a Black organization would be a major feat amidst the rapidly changing demographic of what was once a majority African-American neighborhood. I reached out to some of my close friends Nana, Rajni, and Dana to gauge their interest. Shortly after we formed Building Black Bed-Stuy. The trajectory shifted though, as we realized we may not have enough time to purchase the building. The mission was to promote self-sufficiency and economic independence so we decided to raise funds for local Black-owned businesses and organizations that promoted that ideology.
Rajni Jacques: I am not an activist by any means. But I activate when I need to. I organize when it is necessary. I am about community-building within the Black community, especially communities where the Blackness is slowly leaving due to gentrification. The climate that we’ve been in, and not just during 2020, calls for us to organize. As Kai mentioned, it started with trying to buy a property that could be donated to a Black organization. That’s when we started talking and created BBB. But then we shifted and changed gears to support not just one but three organizations and initiatives within the community. BBB is just another extension of the ideals that we’ve always embodied.
Dana Yolanda: This pandemic and current administration have amplified all the current injustices and racial inequalities to the point where we literally watched death tolls rise, businesses close their doors, and people trying to survive with little to no help from the country they live in, not knowing how to navigate life anymore. Fear overshadowed life. Disproportionate numbers in deaths and the shutting of Black-owned businesses further amplify the fact that no communities are hit harder than Black communities. Past catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina show us that Black communities need to strengthen within. The only way to build is to gain economic independence.
How exactly has the fundraising worked thus far and how did you choose the local organizations you’re working with right now?
Jacques: We are working on round two. With all the Black businesses we have supported and want to support, it's imperative that they boost education, health and wellness, or community-building within the Black community. These are pillars to achieving liberation. We are also in the midst of applying for 501c status, so that we can get bigger donations to expand and deliver more to the community.
The fundraising is 100% community-based donations. The first round of funding went to three organizations that we felt represented the BBB mission: self-sufficiency and liberation. The Watoto Freeschool is an arts and cultural based learning space for young children. Mama Umi is so incredible, she has created her own curriculum focused on instilling an Afrikan-centered approach. The children learn everything from French and Swahili to yoga and agriculture. They even have ‘Freedom Fighter Friday’ where they celebrate a different Black freedom fighter each week.
Life Wellness is a holistic wellness space focused on healing. Khadijah A. Tudor runs the space with her partner Ade Collman. They offer massage therapy, reiki, meditation, herb therapy, and more. They’re also located on Tompkins Avenue, which has been coined as ‘Black Girl Magic Row.’
The Black Power Blueprint is actually based in St.Louis, but their work is so powerful we could not pass up the opportunity to help them. The organization is under the Afrikan People’s Socialist Party led by Omali Yeshitela one of the great Black leaders of our time. They’ve built a community from the ground up complete with a community center, furniture store, bakery, farm, and CSA. The community is completely run by the Black community.
Why are the Sunday block parties so important and what have the responses been like from the locals who have participated?
Jacques: The vibe is about celebrating Blackness. The response is positive because Marketplace, which is just an offshoot of the fundraising we do, brings foot traffic to the other businesses on the block. And a lot of those are Black businesses. And for these young Black entrepreneurs, they’ve been selling out of their goods allowing them to expand and create more. It’s also a safe place for Black people to be very Black unapologetically.
What makes you feel so connected to Bed-Stuy and why is it important for you to preserve its history and empower the Black community that lives there now?
Jacques: I’m connected to Bed-Stuy because of its Blackness. To live somewhere where you see people that look like you; to be somewhere where there is a sense of community and neighbors say hello to you; to raise Black children in a neighborhood where Blackness is appreciated and celebrated, is to be part of the fabric of Bed-Stuy. And preserving history is important because it is one of the last Black enclaves and it’s slowly being wiped away. There is so much heritage in these streets. So much culture in this area, from Weeksville to Bed-Stuy. And with the change there are so many negative things like calling the police on the culture. So we want to push the positive that has always been here, not the “positives” that are thought to be newly discovered. Personally for me, being in a space that is Black is a safe space. Bed-Stuy is my safe place, even through the change. So I will do all I can to preserve the neighborhood.
Avent-deLeon: I am a third generation Bed-Stuy native and this neighborhood has influenced me heavily. It’s why I chose to grow roots here and open my business here. My maternal grandmother came here in the 1980s and purchased her first brownstone when Bed-Stuy was still considered “dangerous.” She knew it was something special even when it was shunned by outsiders. Even as a youth, seeing Black families own their own homes with such pride gives you a different outlook. Ownership within the Black community is not something we see often. It’s helped shape my entrepreneurial spirit. Even through gentrification, I feel proud to say I am from here because of what it represents.
Yaa Asare-Boaudu: I grew up in North London, Kensal Green. My neighborhood was predominantly African, Jamaican, and Indian. It was so vibrant and community-led. Everybody knew each other and looked out for each other. When I moved to Bedstuy, I felt the same feeling of home that I did when I was a kid. I
loved the fact that walking down the street people would say hello and have a little chat, and there were Black families living in old beautiful brownstones that had been passed down. I know my neighbors and I feel safe. It’s changed so much over the years through relational gentrification. Are people moving in really trying to be a part of the social sphere of the existing community? This is why it’s so important for us to preserve the history of Black neighborhoods and protect Black-owned businesses and empower and educate the young to keep this cycle going.
Are there any plans to expand BBB to other neighborhoods in Brooklyn or the other boroughs?
Avent-deLeon: It would be wonderful if this could expand. We haven’t discussed expanding beyond Bed-Stuy yet. If anything the conversation around what Black liberation looks like is what I would personally like to promote. I think it’s misunderstood. We still put so much of our power into the hands of those who have oppressed us. I have no interest in equality or asking for rights or justice. When those things are given to us then we are never really free. I believe the conversation around Black liberation will be a great start towards the Black community organizing, understanding our power, and decolonizing our heritage and culture.
Jacques: Expanding is truly about pushing the notion of Black liberation and what that can really look like. Organizing and taking care of ourselves is the start to expanding Black communities and the liberation of our people. Expanding to other neighborhoods is good, but expanding the idea of our own solidarity and the notion that we can build, on our own, is greater.