On a Friday night in late January, AMF Kegler’s Lanes filled up with young professionals arriving from work to relax and network. They traded stories about the daily grind, complained about their love lives, and shared weekend plans. Business and civic leaders rubbed elbows with newcomers, political officials with members of the clergy, and people from the private sector came into contact with their counterparts in the nonprofit world. It was a typical scene in Charlottesville, except that it wasn’t, because they were all African-American.
The event was organized by the Young Black Professionals Network (YBPN), a group that formed last November under the guidance of a group of youthful leaders in the black community that include former City Council candidate and Albemarle High School teacher Wes Bellamy, local promoter and Paramount Theater board member Ty Cooper, Curry School graduate and Hollymead Elementary School teacher Whitney Hinnant, and Red Roof Inn General Manager Yolunda Armstrong, with the expressed purpose of providing a vehicle for organizing and networking. There are a variety of reasons for YBPN’s emergence as an organization over the past six months, but the most basic is that the Charlottesville-Albemarle area has always struggled to recruit and retain black professionals.
For instance, I asked Robert Scott, who works at the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), what Charlottesville had to offer him, besides his job. His reply? “Not much.” Scott’s sentiments are echoed widely among African-Americans in Charlottesville. At the inaugural YBPN general body meeting held in November at the First African Zion Union Baptist Church, one attendee expressed her fear that employment opportunities in the black community were getting worse. Another wanted to see more people of color in city leadership positions. But a common refrain, and one the formation of the group takes seriously, is that young black professionals need better networking opportunities. Somewhere between 50 and 100 people turn out consistently to Young Black Professionals Network’s first Friday events, and the group has co-hosted two charitable gatherings, a giveaway of over 170 turkeys at the Jefferson School last Thanksgiving and another redistributing several hundred coats and pairs of shoes at the First Baptist Church on West Main Street, both of which were covered by NBC29.
When I mentioned that I was writing an article about the network to its vice president, Quinton Harrell, he had this to say about local media: “The coverage by the media of the black community is often either negative, in terms of crime, or subtly negative, because it’s about money being given to poor people.” The coverage the group has received so far is not essentially a departure from the trend, but the group hasn’t shied from the attention, seeing it as part of its mission to get its message out. At the bowling event, I also ran into Pierceson Harris, a 21-year-old PVCC computer science student originally from Tennessee. He learned about the event from the NBC29 story and decided to check it out, because the immediate opportunities he was finding here were outstripped by his professional ambitions. In Charlottesville, Harris asserted, “You have to know people and have connections.”
Scientific research confirms Harris’ assertion about social networking. In interviews with hundreds of people, Nancy DiTomaso, a vice dean at the Rutgers Business School, found that, “All but a handful used the help of family and friends to find 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes; they all used personal networks and insider information if it was available to them.” In a New York Times article last year, DiTomaso concluded, “There’s no question that discrimination is still a problem in the American economy. But whites helping other whites is not the same as discrimination, and it is not illegal. Yet it may have a powerful effect on the access that African-Americans and other minorities have to good jobs, or even to the job market itself.”
The emergence of YBPN is a response to that dynamic locally, but it’s also a sign of a shifting generational attitude about what the struggle for black access and power means. For Bellamy, “The goal is improving the youth, building up the black middle class. To help some of those individuals who aren’t in the best situation, supporting each other in our endeavors, and empowering our people.” Since his arrival in Charlottesville, Bellamy has been a coach, teacher, nonprofit founder, former employee at NGIC. Last fall, he lost a primary race for a City Council seat by a single digit margin, although he is only 26 years old and not from here. But significantly, the local black vote split between him and Melvin Grady. It’s hard not to see YBPN as his latest attempt to build a power base, and that doesn’t bother him. “Running for Council gave me more credibility, and we’ve used those things as a platform,” Bellamy said. “Some people say it’s strategic, but it’s not a political ploy. The Council race showed me what it is to work together… I will not go into another race without our people working together.” YBPN is also an expression of the ambition of its founding members. “In five years, we can empower our people,” Bellamy said.