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City of Greensboro pushes to reduce racial and gender disparity in its contracts and purchases

GREENSBORO — When Dawayne Crite was searching five years ago for a city to open his own engineering firm, he looked at markets from Atlanta to Greensboro.

He chose Greensboro because the business community is diverse and he believed the city’s program to seek out and hire minority and women-owned businesses could help him get city contracts for the kind of engineering work he wanted to do.

“Greensboro is very unique,” Crite said. “Outside of Atlanta, we have the most (minority business enterprises) in a centralized region than any other place that I’ve seen in North Carolina.”

He attributes that, in part, to the many N.C. A&T graduates who have stayed and gone into business.

While evaluating cities, Crite watched their city council meetings and read minutes of the deliberations.

Greensboro, Crite said, talked about diversity in business and was beginning to find ways to include more companies outside the traditional white-male dominated economy.

“It told me as a potential business owner that this was a city that would support me in my path and my journey as a business owner,” he said.

He said that while his business has done well, that’s not the case with all businesses owned by women and minorities.

The city began a sweeping new program July 1 to try to correct that disparity with beefed-up budgets, more staff members and a citywide effort to review where every dollar goes so it can hire more businesses that may have been excluded in the past.

In 2017, Greensboro spent $300,000 to hire the Griffin & Strong law firm to prepare a “disparity study” to find out whether the city’s minority and women-owned businesses were getting a fair share of city business.

The study found that, whether through discrimination or faulty contracting procedures, those companies were getting a disproportionately low percentage of business from the city.

The study showed that the city spent $296 million in contracts from 2012 through 2016. Minority-owned businesses received about $10 million of that money, or 3.38%; non-minority female-owned companies received $24 million, or 8%.

It’s unclear how many minority and women-owned businesses there are because not all of them are certified through a complex process to be eligible for city contracts.

But the city government’s critics have long maintained that the percentage of such businesses is far higher than the value of contracts steered their way.

“At the end of the day, the sustainability and growth of African American business should be the No. 1 priority of the city of Greensboro,” said Earl Jones, a former City Council member and a founder of the Greensboro Business League, a group of black business owners who formed to eliminate discrimination in contracts for goods and services in city government.

Jones said African Americans pay 35% of city taxes but those tax dollars are not flowing back into the black business community. And the city is only making excuses when it says not enough businesses are certified through the process that requires various licenses and insurance, Jones said.

“Those are pretexts to justify systemic racial discrimination against African American businesses,” he said.

Jones’ group and an advisory committee of community members, including Crite, have been working with city leaders since the Griffin & Strong study came out in spring 2018.

City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower has, for much of that time, worked both behind the scenes and at council meetings to draw attention to a constant shortfall in city spending with minority and women-owned business enterprises, or MWBE.

At nearly every council meeting, Hightower highlights individual contracts to ask about their portion of MWBE participation.

Now, with broad council support, the city is beefing up its office that supervises MWBE contracts.

The group will soon have a bigger staff with a bigger budget — from $310,000 in the last budget year to $580,000 this year — and sweeping powers to supervise nearly every contract put out for bid by city departments.

The office reports to Assistant City Manager Kimberly Sowell, who recently told the City Council at a work session that several new powers and goals should have an effect on the amount of work the city does with “underutilized businesses,” as the Griffin & Strong study calls them:

  • The city can now contract with businesses from a marketplace that has expanded from 10 counties to 27 counties.
  • More minority groups have been added to the list of available businesses.
  • In addition to existing goals for doing business with subcontractors in construction businesses, the city can now set goals for doing business with professional-services firms.

Sowell said her office’s “aspirational goal” is that 46% of all money is spent with minority and women-owned businesses. But that is nearly impossible as it would likely require the city to do business with every eligible company in the area.

A more realistic number might be 20%, she told council.

She admits that building to that number is a big job and creating a stronger MWBE office in City Hall is like starting a new business.

Sowell is not only implementing new procedures, working with new employees and finding creative ways to handle issues; she is in charge of changing the culture of a half-billion dollar city government.

That means getting monthly MWBE reports from every department and teaching each of hundreds of employees that spending city money, whether through a small painting contract or a major sewer project, can have an effect on underused businesses. That also means no casual purchasing choices, no working with the same contractors over and over.

Jones, who has been pressing the city for years to do a better job, is mindful that a little patience is in order as the city pursues change.

He said he is cautiously optimistic the effort will work even while he cautions members of his group that 12-18 months is not a long time to wait for results.

“You’ve got to keep grinding it out and grinding it out,” he said.

The city MWBE office’s first step is to define what success means, Sowell said.

“We want to start measuring utilization month-by-month because we should start seeing the needle move, however small,” she said. “Once we start implementing the changes, if we move 1% in a month that’s success for us, but that doesn’t mean that you stop. ... If we get to 10% we’re going to be happy because that’s an improvement from where we were, but that’s not where we want to stop.”

Sondra Wright, the owner of JW Wright & Associates, a landscaping firm, said that while her company is successful, it’s still difficult to work with public contracts as a minority businessperson.

In one recent case, a primary contractor hired her company but put what Wright called onerous obligations in her contract that she said weren’t in the main contract with the city.

“It put too much of the weight of the contract on the small business and took too much of the weight off the prime business,” she said.

Wright went to the city for some support.

“Unfortunately, there was no support for me,” she said. “Do I turn this work down? That’s a tough situation to be in.”

For Wright, changes in the city’s MWBE program can’t come soon enough.

“When the results came out, the city had a responsibility and obligation to move swiftly and with a sense of urgency,” Wright said. “While I am pleased we’re moving in a positive direction, it could have and should have happened sooner, and there is a lot more that should be done.”

Carolina Kids Club offers movies and more

Keelii Wilson, 5, smiles as Nancy Revzen helps her play “Chopsticks” on a piano during Wednesday’s Carolina Kids Club gathering. Children were able to try out the violin or piano at the Music Academy of North Carolina’s musical petting zoo in the theater’s lobby. Revzen is a member of the academy’s piano faculty.

About 600 children attended Carolina Kids Club at the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro on Wednesday. Children got a chance to try out musical instruments and were treated to a snack, trivia, a science program and a movie. A new movie is shown each week. Cost is $5, but a grant from the Lincoln Financial Foundation has helped provide scholarship tickets for organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club.

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New home: O. Henry play series gets a new name and moves to the new Well-Spring Theatre. Page A3

Geneva Tisdale, a Woolworth cook, was one of the first African Americans to be served at its lunch counter after the 1960 sit-ins. She died July 15 at age 86.

GREENSBORO — Geneva Tisdale climbed atop a seat at the segregated F.W. Woolworth lunch counter 59 years ago today and nervously ate the egg sandwich she wished she could gobble down more quickly so she could get back to work.

The Woolworth cook didn’t want her front-row seat to history. Day in and day out, there had been demonstrations in front of the store protesting Jim Crow laws that separated people by race. But if the store was to integrate its lunch counter, the manager wanted his black employees to be the first to be served there.

“I was trying to get up from there before anything happened,” Tisdale told the Greensboro News & Record in 2010 of that moment on July 25, 1960.

The 86-year-old Tisdale, who died July 15, is being remembered as an “unsung hero” in a movement given impetus by the sit-in protest at the lunch counter, which is now part of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

“She had a job she had to do, but at the same time she had to go to work every day knowing that what Woolworth was doing every day was wrong,” said Guilford County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston, one of the museum’s co-founders.

“We may never know fully how hard she and the other African American employees were working behind the scenes.”

It had been months earlier, on Feb. 1, when four black N.C. A&T freshmen — Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan (formerly known as Ezell Blair Jr.) and the late David Richmond and Franklin McCain — sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and tried ordering, sparking sit-ins across the country. While black people could shop in the Woolworth’s, they could not sit down at the counter and order.

Tisdale’s few bites of that egg salad sandwich would make history.

“She represents an important moment,” Khazan, who had grown up in Greensboro, said by phone from his home in Bedford, Mass.

In recognition, Tisdale’s family will be presented with a resolution from the museum during a memorial service at noon Monday at St. Phillips AME Zion Church, 1330 Ashe St. Tisdale is survived by a son, Claimon Tisdale, and granddaughter, Sabrina Jones.

A South Carolina native, Tisdale lived much of her life until recent years in a small tidy home near Dudley High School. She worked at the downtown Woolworth — the last remaining worker from the sit-ins — until it closed in 1993 and later at the Woolworth at Friendly Center.

“We are honored, blessed, thankful and grateful of her place in history,” said Veronica Salters, a niece. “She was a woman of great strength.”

Until the polite yet persistent college boys began their daily visits to the segregated lunch counter where their orders were ignored, Tisdale had grown numb to the slights of segregation.

Growing up under a system that cast her as a second-class citizen at birth, the Woolworth cook didn’t dream of being able to eat alongside whoever else was hungry at the time, regardless of their race.

She just didn’t think about it.

Then the college students tried to order — to no avail. It forced Tisdale to confront a painful issue that also followed her to the back of the bus and shadowed her every time she drank from a “colored only” water fountain.

“I got to thinking about that, and I said that’s crazy,” said Tisdale, a quiet, dignified woman whose coping mechanism of “not thinking about it,” had — until then — not been unrealistic for black people under Jim Crow laws. “You shop in the store, why can’t you eat at the counter? Those boys had the right idea.”

Tisdale, who grew up on a farm in Kingstree, S.C., was 17 when she came to Greensboro and later found a job at Woolworth in 1951.

On a day destined for the history books, Tisdale was upstairs slicing meat and prepping food for the sandwich board and steam table when the young men first sat down. She heard the waitresses, who were all white, and other white store employees fuming. Tisdale wasn’t happy to see the students either — at first.

“Some of the white girls who were working in there asked why would they come in like that,” Tisdale recalled. “The black girls, we would say to each other, ‘They’re making it hard for us.’ ”

She didn’t make much of it. The counters had been for white customers since Woolworth moved into the art deco building at South Elm Street and what was then Sycamore Street (now February One Place) in the early 1930s.

“They weren’t the first,” Tisdale said. “Black people had tried asking before. But they always got up and left. (White) people sometimes came in with their maids, and the maids would walk around and look while they ate. Everybody knew the rules.”

Tisdale always heard conversations about people wanting to protest at the segregated lunch counters at the Woolworth and Kress stores downtown.

“I guess everybody was waiting for somebody to do it,” she said.

She remembered the four N.C. A&T students opening their books and settling into their seats.

“When the waitress walked by, they’d ask for something, and the waitress just kept walking by,” Tisdale recalled. “Every once in a while, someone would say, ‘We can’t serve you here.’ ”

Always the timid type, Tisdale concentrated on her work. As the number of protesters grew and a few Ku Klux Klan members came to heckle, a bomb threat was called into the store at the end of the first week. The eight-months pregnant Tisdale was forced to run outside to the sidewalk with other employees, customers and the mash of demonstrators until police could check the building.

The manager of the lunch counter, Rachel Holt, told Tisdale the situation had become too stressful and put her on paid leave until after the baby was born.

In the months to come, store manager Clarence “Curly” Harris, his resolve weakened by huge sales losses, coupled with ongoing negotiations with demonstrators, agreed to integrate the lunch counter. Only, Harris and Holt wanted to retain some control. Tisdale, back at work by then, and the other three black employees — Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones and Charles Best — had been told to bring dressy clothes to work on July 25 and wait for a signal to leave their jobs and go change.

At 2 p.m. that day, with few people in the store, the employees changed clothes, sat at the counter and ordered from the menu.