During the civil rights era, Anthony W. Robinson learned from a powerful mentor that the second wave of the civil rights movement would be economic development. As the President and CEO of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund (MBELDEF) for the past 30 years, he has spent his impressive career advocating for better financial and political access for minority owned businesses. He talks to Groundswell about his path to advocacy, and his partnership with Empowerment Temple Pastor Jamal H. Bryant to drive economic development in their Baltimore community.

On how Maryland’s first black congressman led him to advocacy

My journey started as a student at Morgan State College. It was during the 60’s, when the civil rights and black power movements were at their peak, and I got convicted as a student to become an activist. And it started out with the man who became the first black congressman from the State of Maryland by the name of Congressman Parren J. Mitchell. He took me under his wing as a student and exposed me to not only the civil rights movement, but he was a proponent of the idea that the second phase of the civil rights movement was economic development. He went on to Congress and became Chairman of the Small Business Committee, and as chairman, from that perch, he was the author and cosponsor of most of the major minority business development legislation for the U.S. Congress.

Before he retired, he approached me -- I was a practicing civil rights attorney at the time and he was the one who really planted the seed for me to go to law school. He approached me in 1983, and asked that I join him in institutionalizing his advocacy for minority business and economic development. He had founded a public interest law firm, MBELDEF, that at the time was only marginally operational. He had formed MBELDEF several years before and asked if I would come to Washington and head it up. That’s what I have done for the past 30 years, is lead that organization.  

That was when minority business affirmative action was under persistent attack in the courts. And MBELDEF was on the front lines of defending that public policy before the U.S. Supreme Court and courts across this country. 

On Shark Tanks and other unique way Empowerment Church is approaching economic development for its members

The vision of Pastor Jamal Bryant was that he wanted one aspect of his ministry focused on economic development.  So we created a 501c3 organization, The Economic Empowerment Coalition (TEEC), in order to carry that particular pillar of his ministry. His central idea is that he wanted to empower the members of his congregation in business and entrepreneurship, and and that became the mission of TEEC. 

Most of what we’ve done over the past 10 years has been primarily in entrepreneurship development. We hold classes in entrepreneurship twice a year. Beyond that, we have held Shark Tanks where the church would give an award to the winner – I think it was $5,000 to assist that company in taking its business to the next level.  We’ve had a program called Parents on Wheels, where we identified parents in the church who did not have automobiles. This came about as the result of a study that we came across that says that if a person has a car, it increases exponentially their ability to get a better paying job. And so we worked with a used car dealership, Bermans, located in the same neighborhood as the church, to provide automobiles and financing for the identified parents. And we took those parents through an 8- to 12-week financial literacy program, and those that successfully completed the financial literacy program, the church provided a down payment on the car. What was exciting about the program was that two years after the program, those parents had gotten better paying jobs and had not missed a payment on their car note.

Another proud achievement was our assistance in helping graduates of our entrepreneurship program identify a crowdfunding vehicle that allowed them to take their companies to the next level.  In addition, we helped another business to double in size by expanding to BWI airport. 

On what’s next for Empowerment Temple’s economic development initiatives

The central theme of the pastor was he didn’t want the church to be in business, he wanted the members to be in business. Presently we are moving into affordable housing development, and we’re working on completing our first house. TEEC is on the brink of enabling the members of our congregation to be in the bottled water business. We’re teaching the members how to become developers not only of residential but also commercial development.

One of the things we’ve been discussing with Groundswell is training our members in solar panel installation. And then creating a pathway for those who want to be in the business of solar installation in residential homes to empower them to get into business by creating market opportunities among the members of the church to install solar panels on their homes.

On the toughest obstacle for minority-owned businesses

I’d say institutional racism.  And that’s reflected in many ways, particularly access to capital. In addition, two challenges in access to technology, and market and procurement opportunity that are indispensable to business growth and development. And when you have those resources skewed because of race, it makes the pathway to success much more difficult.

On what gives him the most hope

Probably one of the things that gives me hope is the current generation coming of age. These young people have been students of the civil rights movement, they understand where the mistakes were made.  They have exhibited an unwillingness to allow us as a community to go backwards. And they’re smart.

The other thing that’s been encouraging has been the diversity of the advocacy fighting injustice.  It’s not just been black folk. Some of the protests that I’ve seen around the murders of black men by police officers, I’ve been encouraged by the diversity of those demonstrators.  That has been encouraging.

Finally, I have been encouraged by the fact that technology has made the world a global village.  As a result, we no longer find ourselves to be a minority. We are a part of a global community.