I have been working with Black and Brown youth for over 20 years. First as a youth mentor, later as a youth pastor and senior pastor. Tragically, the all too familiar question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” often yields an all too familiar response—an athlete or an entertainer.
While there is inherently nothing wrong with wanting to be an athlete or entertainer, we as a people are capable of so much more! Statistically speaking, the chance of attaining fame and fortune in these fields is about as likely as winning the lottery or being struck by lightning. Let’s face it, we are the products of what we see and what we are exposed to. The hood superstars are the athletes, entertainers and “street pharmacists” because that’s what too many of our youth see as success.
I have lived, worked and preached in urban neighborhoods across this nation. In every city it is the same sad story of poverty, unemployment, underemployment and a visible despair on too many faces. I have racked my brain and exhausted myself to the point of tears trying to find a solution until the solution found me.
My journey in New York began in 2011 in Brownsville, Brooklyn as the senior pastor of Mt. Ollie Baptist Church. At the request of the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, I came uptown to the village of Harlem and the iconic Abyssinian Baptist Church. After arriving in March 2015, I was thrust into the position of CEO of the trail blazing, but faltering Abyssinian Development Corporation in September 2015. It was in this position that it all began to come together: real estate, development and construction could provide a golden avenue for Black and Brown people to finally attain the elusive “American Dream.”
This premise is based on three truths: first, real estate, development and construction are permanent economies. Simply put, people and organizations will always need a place to call home. The crumbling and outdated infrastructure will always need repair based on the sheer volume of use in New York City.
Second, these industries provide an entry point for every level of education, skill, aspiration and background. The white-collar opportunities for developers, architects, engineers, accountants, financiers, lawyers, brokers, insurance agents, managers, etc. are only limited by our ability to organize and push open doors historically barricaded by discrimination. Our communities have been the victims of poor public education and criminalization, resulting in a lack of opportunity. Construction is one of the only blue-collar opportunities where you can earn $80K a year with a high-school diploma and a criminal record.
Third, after years of divestment and shameful neglect, too many of our communities are experiencing massive displacement and gentrification. The preservation and prosperity of indigenous community members and the next generation who want to live in Black and Brown historic neighborhoods like Harlem, Bed-Stuy and the South Bronx is contingent upon full employment and economic opportunity to remain in the communities they have been faithful to and want to call home.
It was against this backdrop that a dream was birthed called The 400 Foundation, Inc. The 400 Foundation aims to change the current lexicon of career aspirations for Black and Brown children from athletes and entertainers to real estate, development and construction entrepreneurs and employees. This is a moral movement with an economic agenda that is engaging the community and legislative process. The mission is simple: after 400 years of discrimination and denial, from 1619-2019, it’s time to rise up and take our future into our own hands with an economic agenda that we control.
This Black History Month, I invite you to imagine the possibilities. Join us!
Reggie Bachus is associate pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church and founder of The 400 Foundation, Inc.