The SF program proves the value of investing in the black community

A smiling Sheryl Davis waited 25 seconds of applause from a mostly black audience during last week’s board meeting in San Francisco before introducing a presentation on the city’s Dream Keeper Initiative, which has invested $60 million in the city’s black community since 2021.

“I want you to know that it’s for … dream keepers and not for me,” said Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which played a central role in developing the initiative.

Over the next few hours, it became clear why the applause was justified.

The Dream Keeper Initiative was created in 2021 by Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton to help black San Franciscans overcome decades of disparities in everything from housing to employment.

The Human Rights Commission hired independent researchers to evaluate the work of the initiative. While it’s natural to be wary of a report commissioned by those who stand to gain the most if the results are positive, the findings released Tuesday indicate that investing in Black San Francisco benefits all of San Francisco.

The initiative has trained more than 280 black entrepreneurs and helped the historically under-resourced group raise more than $2.7 million in seed capital; launched 201 businesses; and opened 34 new storefronts, including 17 businesses in the city’s Fillmore neighborhood, which city leaders have spent decades failing to revitalize, the report said.

As for black residents just looking for steady work, the initiative provided workforce training to hundreds, and more than 50% have found work, earning an average of $27.36 per hour, the report said. This is about $10 more than San Francisco’s current minimum wage.

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“It’s no short feat when it comes to contributing to the economy of this city,” said Saidah Leatutufu-Burch, who serves as director of the Dream Keeper Initiative.

That’s especially true when you consider that black San Franciscans, who now make up just 5.7% of the city’s population, have never been the engine or the beneficiary of the city’s economy.

According to city data, San Francisco’s gross domestic product was $250 billion last year. This was more than 25% of the entire Bay Area’s economic output. Still, the city’s 439 black-owned businesses represent just 1.3% of the 34,800 total businesses in the city, according to a 2021 study by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.

Latino residents deserve their own Dream Keeper initiative, as they are also woefully underrepresented in the San Francisco economy, making up 15.7% of the city’s population but only 1.4% of the city’s business owners.

The Dream Keeper Initiative also made homeownership more attainable for some black families. This is especially notable in a city where racist housing laws have pushed black residents out for decades, contributing to San Francisco’s homeless population being 40% black today.

An oversight meeting in San Francisco last week drew dozens of attendees who spoke in support of the Dream Keeper Initiative, urging city leaders to keep their promise to fund it.  The program is tasked with investing $120 million in San Francisco's Black community.

An oversight meeting in San Francisco last week drew dozens of attendees who spoke in support of the Dream Keeper Initiative, urging city leaders to keep their promise to fund it. The program is tasked with investing $120 million in San Francisco’s Black community.

Salgu Wissmath/The Chronicle

According to the independent report, the Dream Keeper Initiative has helped 22 black families buy homes in the city. While that may not seem like much, the numbers show that the initiative is doing something San Francisco’s more traditional programs can’t. As Leatutufu-Burch explained Tuesday, only five black families have taken advantage of San Francisco’s down payment assistance loan program for first-time buyers over a five-year period.

But with the initiative’s success comes increased scrutiny of the organizations it supports. As we’ve seen recently with the African American Art & Culture Complex, avoidable compliance issues can mar even the most admirable nonprofits and undermine the respectability of their programs.

The next challenging step will be persuading the city to maintain Dream Keeper’s funding.

In 2021, after saying she would fund Dream Keeper with $120 million in reallocated law enforcement funds, Breed instead used $60 million from both the police department and also the city’s general fund. The decision happened to come as Breed was criticized for being a “Defund the Police” mayor, and the national winds surrounding public safety were blowing more conservatively.

Breed allocated an additional $60 million to the initiative in 2022, which is notable, but stops short of protecting the robust program from being defunded or outright shut down by the city at a moment’s notice.

That truth, coupled with how the Dream Keeper funding source changed a year after its launch, was not lost on the dozens of black residents who asked the city Tuesday not to go back on funding pledges. They know San Francisco’s pattern of being hesitant to make long-term investments in the black community, and quick to downgrade such efforts if they are deemed unpopular.

“The Dream Keeper Initiative has improved critical services that support our children, youth as well as our seniors in San Francisco by amplifying black voices in our community and allowing us to make critically needed changes,” Greg Ledbetter, a 60 year resident of San Francisco, said at the meeting. “My question … is to keep the dream alive.”

A truly progressive San Francisco would do just that.

Reach Justin Phillips: [email protected]

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