There’s a simple rule about moving the Black community forward — lift as you rise — and you’ve probably been taught it, directly or indirectly. It’s been a tried and true mantra for folks going back generations and was foundational to the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement.
For those of us over 40, and definitely my parents’ generation, that meant “get an education” as the primary means of securing the future. However, is that basic framework enough in modern times? Have we dropped the ball on preparing young Black folks to evolve “lift as you rise” to fit 21st-century needs?
I was recently on a call with a couple of my fellow Word In Black publishers, and the topic came up. Folks wondered, are our young people helping each other create space for jobs and community development? It was a little difficult to put my finger on an answer.
Now a little of that is we ain’t that young, but also the J-O-B, as my ’90s kids will recall, was a signifier of security for Black folks in many ways. It showed some level of ambition, enough drive to maintain a wage that could (at the time at least) sustain a household, and of course, provide that good old-fashioned self-worth everyone is going to therapy for these days.
But is a job the right way to go these days?
When I look out into the market now, I see two prominent hustles capitalizing on this need for more money and security. The first is the entrepreneur hustle. You’ve probably seen some 30-something spilling the hidden secrets about LLCs and trusts like it’s the lost map to Atlantis — and the answers are only known by the podcaster you happen to be listening to.
The other is the “Be Better at Prepping Your Family With Financial Literacy” model. Sign up for my class and get wealthy!
Now both of these are necessary to understand for business and personal security, but like the “get a degree” advice from the past, they too seem to fall short of that community focus. Both are primarily an individualistic view of what is needed to be successful in life.
For example, I see young people excelling in personal success on social media as influencers, podcasters, and bloggers. But we may have missed the real point — the community needs to be lifted as individuals rise.
It should also be noted that the wealthy individual who happens to be Black can always be pointed to as the outcome of hard work. It’s pretty easy to say, “See, so-n-so made it. Why can’t you?”
Or even more direct: “So-n-so is rich. The only reason you aren’t is because you’re lazy or undeserving.”
It’s the same boot strap-pulling BS touted by right-wing talking heads as to why welfare and Black-on-Black crime are the real causes of Black inequity. It’s the “Black culture is just bad” rhetoric we hear so often (now more commonly in the same social media spaces as the success stories).
At the same time, it would be unfair to blame past generations for their ignorance about a changing world. Who knew we’d be here 20 years ago, and the social media tools used as much for upward mobility as distraction would have the ability to both hurt and help?
Those of us in the position to speak to this point, should.
The “lift as you rise” mantra needs to evolve just as society and culture have. The focus should now be on the community being lifted as the individual rises, specifically in the creation of opportunities by those who achieve individual success. An easier term for it is “Job Creation and Community Investment.”
I believe we can do this, and as my peers are having children, we are in a position to change the narrative. With great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility is now on us — the ’80s babies. As we guide our children to entrepreneurship, the second tier should be us asking a few questions: How will this help others? Who will benefit from this, and how will it make our community secure?
My growing up in the Black press is what really makes this make sense to me. By watching my father, former Dallas Weekly publisher and CEO James Washington, and the Black publishers nationwide that he worked alongside, I saw first-hand that the ecosystem is more important than the animal.
One can start a business, but, a business without community hires is just exporting resources. Being a social media influencer is cool, but influencers must support the community, not just gain personal fame and wealth.
Keep entrepreneurship, literacy, and education top of mind, but add service and support of the community.
Forgive the cliche, but “teamwork makes the dream work.” And as a group, we can make anything happen. The collective, community focus is what we’ve been lacking over the last decade, and definitely in the last generational shift.
Societal influence has polarized the generations — Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z, etc. are as strong an identity as Black or LBTQ these days, when really there has always been an elder-youth relationship within our community that allows for the transference of knowledge and legacy — even before the ancestors were brought to these shores.
We can’t lose that if we wish to obtain that economic, social, and political freedom we constantly talk about. For those of us who are a little older, we have to start acting like elders and imparting to the youth this understanding and the emotional and intellectual tools to make the community thrive.
And therein lies the rub: individualism is as American as capitalism. And it’s a seductive lure to focus on “securing the bag” for ourselves.
But if our past has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes, an individual can spark an idea that takes hold. With time, if enough of us center the community, we can make a shift happen.
So here’s to planning the work and working the plan. You can be that individual, and so can I, and we can be the catalyst for those who choose to “lift as We rise.” And by working collectively, we have the power to achieve true intergenerational economic justice.
Patrick Washington is the second-generation CEO and publisher of The Dallas Weekly, which has been serving the Black community of the 4th largest metroplex in the nation since 1954.