The African American community has become accustomed to a steady stream of politicians who seem to magically surface every election cycle expressing support and making promises to work to improve the plight of Black residents. Once elected, however, they tend to disappear as quickly as they materialized and rarely do those promises manifest. Four years later, as if by some form of sorcery, there they are again.
During his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Jared Polis made familiar statements of support as many community members looked on with skepticism and misgivings—and with good reason; we’ve been to this dance many times before.
Surprisingly, throughout his first year as Colorado governor, Polis has maintained high visibility in the Black community. Whether clapping and rocking to gospel music at Black churches, supporting scholarship initiatives at the annual Delta Eta Boule, marching in the annual [Martin Luther King Jr.] Marade, hosting Black History events at the Governor’s mansion, meeting with Black business leaders to discuss urgent concerns or speaking to community leaders at Black Roundtable events, Polis has remained true to his promise of active engagement.
Touting his “Colorado for All” initiative, the governor continues to encourage more participation from Black community members, urging them to engage in leadership positions on state boards and commissions. “While Polis committed to more diverse appointments in his administration, community advocate and Colorado Black Roundtable President, John Bailey, is awaiting the promised diversification.
Bailey, who heads the Colorado Black Roundtable, claimes that Polis has not gone far enough to be inclusive as only one member of his cabinet identifies as Black. Moreover, he asserts that two disparity studies, one on economic development and another on the Black family have yet to be completed.
Yet he remains encouraged.
“Not only has Governor Polis been active in our community, he actually seeks out opportunities to engage,” Bailey says.
Points of concern have been those two disparity studies focused on the black community. These studies would be central to providing the data that could potentially guide any new policy prescriptions aimed at addressing issues within the community.
“We are currently involved with the state disparity study that Senator Angela Williams and others have been working on for some time,” Polis says. “The work is being completed in order to provide hard data around contractors, subcontractors, and everybody who is involved including state departments such as transportation and others.”
Additionally, many community leaders are concerned with other issues, such as access to capital and sustainability. One the one hand, where can Black entrepreneurs find start up money and second, how can those lines of credit be sustained?
“We have a minority business export program currently working with the African Leadership Group, the Black Chamber, the Colorado Black Roundtable initiatives and the African Chamber,” Polis said. “While the state has a limited role in all of this, we are active in the areas where we can help. We can be useful in economic development and connecting the dots between those people who need the resources provided by African American firms, helping to bid on projects and access a bank.
Our Advance Colorado Procurement Expo has been successful in creating a marketplace where the focus is on minority, women, and veteran owned businesses. It is a perfect opportunity to connect buyers and sellers, not just for networking, but for training, networking and access to needed capital.”
The Advance Colorado Procurement Expo is slated for April 2020, and will have a direct focus on minority, women, and veteran-owned small businesses.
Disparity studies should shed more light on statistical inequities in contracting and sub-contracting opportunities and the need for set aside programs for minority and women- owned businesses.
“The studies are being conducted by an outside group and once they are completed we will have a better idea of how to proceed,” Polis said. “It will be central to helping to establish a set of aggressive actionable and measurable goals as we look at how to further engage the African American community.”
Solving the problems that continue to plague the Black community is not a one-sided coin. The Polis administration has been actively encouraging individuals to participate on the state’s board and commissions. With more than 300 available boards and commissions, our presence can make all the difference.
“Our Black community here in Colorado is quite diverse within itself,” the governor suggested. “We have many parts of the African Diaspora represented here. Citizens from many African nations, Europe, the Caribbean, as well as, African Americans make up the community. I want all those voices and perspectives represented.”
Among other pressing issues confronting the Black community are gun violence, criminal justice reform and education, among others—some of which was addressed during his recent State of the State address.
While Colorado is widely seen as the leader in the cannabis industry, many people of color continue to languish in jail for marijuana-related offenses. “I don’t believe that they should be in jail now. However, if they were found dealing illegally it is still against the law. While we are supportive of local law enforcement, my focus is on a dramatic reduction in recidivism. I want a thorough approach to expunge these records. It’s not an easy undertaking but we are moving forward one case at a time,” Polis says. “The process involves applying through the clemency commission but I am certainly open to legislation that would speed up this process.”
Polis also touts his legislative accomplishment of funding 5,100 slots for the early education of at-risk children in the Colorado Preschool Program; an initiaive welcomed in communities of color. This year’s budget will increase that number to 6,000 which brings coverage to half of all eligible kids in the state.
“Studies show that preschool is critical for a child’s development. As with kindergarten, it’s not that parents don’t want preschool — it’s that they can’t afford it,” he said.
While many community leaders are encouraged by the governor’s visibility and his pledge to continue identifying and addressing policies that suppress opportunities in the Black community, some say his efforts do not go far enough. Yet, when it comes to authentic engagement and willingness to listen and be present, Polis appears to receive high marks all around thus far.