Teaching and Learning: Now, we must ACT

I remember when I was first introduced to the ACT House. My professor at the time, Bruce Manciagli, was helping me obtain an internship at Domi Station, Tallahassee’s local coworking space. While talking about the best way to pursue working there, he showed me a video of a different opportunity. It began with a bald, lean, debonair black man walking into a townhouse. It is a small, humble, honest house. There are pebbles where a small front garden would be. You go on to find out the man from before, the owner of the house, is actually at the beginning of a journey—a journey to amplify the footprint of minority entrepreneurs that will cultivate executives, communities, and businesses all at once.

I started to blush as I politely watched on. This isn’t for me, I am not black, This is a role for someone else. The video rolled on to a close, and as I tell Bruce I appreciated the sentiment and the mission, I did not think I could help. To be sure, the idea was brilliant, a truly elegant and comprehensive model that could help shift social, financial, and environmental power. I have often reflected on that feeling when the video played, the feeling of helplessness, the feeling that somehow this was not my battle to fight. What I have learned in the 18 months since watching that video, is that this is my fight. This is everyone’s fight. The idea of equity belongs to no one but everyone, and it is my duty to fight for this just as ferociously as anyone else. My privilege does not entitle me to a sense of complacency for the inequities of life. As much as I would hate to over-quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he wraps up my thoughts on the issue quite clearly:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

I have now been doing work for the ACT House for over a year. My internship at the coworking space led me to have a mentor by the name of Dominick Ard’is, the man from the video, who would offer me a job at The ACT House. I was the organization’s first non-executive team employee. Dominick, his co-founder Ido David, our Director of Operations Cathy St-Vil, and I made up our team of four; we would see ourselves expand to a team of nine in less than a year. During the time, I have changed roles with the seasons, which has allowed me to have my hands in everything we do, from acquiring houses to recruiting Fellows.

The model is simple. We place a team of students in a house and, with a year of programming under their belts, they leave the house with the experience of having developed products, services, and most importantly an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to be effective entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs going forward. The house is stylish, sleek, and innovative, in a sense reflecting the students it is shaping. The current ACT House in Tallahassee is emblazoned with “Trust The Process” in a mural over the kitchen table. While the students live in the house, we provide them facilitations on building a startups, from problem identification to customer acquisition. We have mentors and Entrepreneurs in Residence who guide them through both building a business as well as building their individual lives to create change in the world.

Our past, present, and future fellows are fantastic. They have drive and grit, they are equal parts diligent and creative, and they are hungry to prove themselves. Those qualities were never in question to me, because the reason only 1% of Venture Capital goes to black entrepreneurs, was never an issue of capacity. This is not about acumen, this is about access. Minority entrepreneurs have been statistically proven to have lesser access to capital, skill development, and networks, all of which are critical to a startup’s success. Each year, we see dozens upon dozens of students who have the skills to be an ACT Fellow, but we are at capacity for our ACT House, which means only one thing: build more houses.

As we invest our time in improving students, we invest our money in improving communities. We build houses in communities struggling with blight and neglect. Our theory of change posits that as the years pass and more and more teams graduate and black-owned startups launch, more and more black-owned business will blossom in the community. This provides economic relief to areas affected by disinvestment practices dating back to the days of redlining. Communities once depleted of hope and social standing could be brimming with influence and optimism, and not by putting a coffee shop or micro-brewery on the corner for college kids to hang. As time moves on, ACT House will expand to have multiple houses in multiple cities. Cities all along the Southeast, from New Orleans to Durham, can have ACT Houses dripping with black entrepreneurial talent, while also transforming areas of blight in places of plenty.

ACT House has helped me realize my agency and the ability to fight the good fight. What I didn’t know, was that I had the agency before ever joining the ACT House, and so does everyone else.  I would like to revisit MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail one more time, as a reminder that we cannot wait for someone else to step up:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.

The time for the pursuit of equity is not tomorrow, it is not your children’s or grandchildren’s fight, it is here and it is now. Now, we must ACT.

Sean Pfeiffer graduated this year from Florida State University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science (ISS). He was the first student to enroll in, and graduate with, COSSPP’s ISS Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Specialization.

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