As the founder of Queens Company, a membership-based organization that empowers Boston's women of color, Jessicah Pierre is working today to change the status quo, lift others up, and transform Boston, both during the pandemic and after it ends.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, how was your life growing up?
Jessicah Pierre: Growing up in a Haitian household, you're always around family members that work really, really hard. My mom passed away when I was nine, so I grew up in a single-parent household. My dad raised me, my older sister, and my little brother, but my family is really big, so I was also blessed to be around my grandmother, my aunts, my uncles ... and everyone worked really hard. It was normal in my family for everyone to work multiple jobs. It would always be sad on Sundays, when people would have to leave family dinner to go to work their night shift after they'd already worked their day shift.
I knew that wasn't normal, that it couldn't be normal to have to work this hard just to survive. It inspired me to want to live a different lifestyle.
In Boston, African American households have a median net worth of just $8 compared to $247,500 for white households. How can Boston close that disparity?
JP: It makes me angry and it's just really unfair. I hope this statistic makes everybody angry because we should all be outraged at these disparities, this inequity. Two things that Boston can do, on a policy level and an implementation level, is to increase more ownership in the black community. This can happen through increasing resources and programs, allowing black families access to affordable housing—and not just rent, but affordable homeownership programs as well. Then to increase more resources, so that black families are able to create sustainable revenue and generate profitable businesses that can be passed down from generation to generation.
Are there any policies currently in place that are positively effecting change?
JP: One thing that has really helped black businesses is the legislation that was passed to increase access to liquor licenses for restaurants in Boston. This legislation was championed by Ayanna Pressley when she was a city councilor, and she worked with Boston's city council body to increase access to more liquor licenses. We saw more black-owned restaurants pop up in the neighborhood and in the city.
How are existing Boston programs falling short on their promises?
JP: The city focuses more on Band-Aid solutions and not really addressing systemic equities at the root of the problem. Like right now, with affordable housing, a lot of people are thinking about rent control, but that doesn't increase ownership. That just helps people have access to cheaper rent, which is important, but the actual solution to the problem is homeownership.
What are we doing to increase more affordable housing that can be sold at an affordable level for more families to have access to? We see that the market in Boston is doing great, but doing great for who?... It's doing great for those who already have access to an abundance of wealth.
How would you describe the wealth gap?
JP: The wealth gap is a product of systemic racism in the city of Boston. It's a true testament to how unequal we are as a city. We have this amazing Black history in Boston, for generations, but the numbers don't add up. That's because of systemic policies that have continued to leave black families shut out of wealth-building opportunities.
I think that investing more in Boston public schools and investing more in leadership and investing more in the autonomy of students would have a positive effect on the city. Why do we have the best universities here, and yet so many of us that come from Boston's public school system don't have access to those universities?
What inspired you to start Queens Company, and what do you believe it brings to Boston?
JP: As a first-generation college graduate trying to navigate the professional world, I didn't have much access to mentors to help guide my professional goals and ambitions. I would go to networking events, women's events, and be really frustrated that I couldn't find women who looked like me or could identify with me in any culturally competent type of way. I started Queens Company because what I did have was a great group of girlfriends who, we were all in the same position ... I was just thinking about how we could help each other. Women started to take note of what we were doing through our events. They started inquiring about how they could be involved. Things took off from there.
It definitely has been challenging, being an entrepreneur and starting a business when you don't have access to financial resources or you're trying to convince people to believe in you and your vision [while] creating something that you've never really seen in the city before. It's a mindset challenge. Understanding that you belong here and you deserve to create this space, even though you don't see a lot of people like you doing it. I think that the more we grow, the better it is for women of color in Boston.
Turning to COVID-19, are there any barriers that you've experienced as a minority business owner during this time?
JP: Absolutely. First of all, there's a lack of access to information, right? In Boston, there're tons of people for whom English is their second language, so they don't have access to any applications in their native language. Some of these programs are first come, first serve ... The solution to help our businesses, moving forward, is to specifically set aside some funding for minority-owned businesses, because they tend to have lack of access to resources. We're talking about the small business owner who owns a mom-and-pop shop, and then we're talking about these big corporations applying for the same funds. Who do you think is going to receive them? It's not going to be the minority small business owner.
What would you like people to know about people of color's experience during this pandemic?
JP: I think the scariest part of this pandemic is the fact that we're being infected at higher rates, so it's scary when somebody gets sick. I haven't been able to see my family members for the past two months because a lot of them have comorbidities and can't risk getting infected. And the reality is, a lot of people of color face these issues ... it's really, really scary. So having that stress and anxiety around your health in addition to having that stress and anxiety when it comes to your business and when it comes to your finances, it's a really tough toll to take.
And that's why this pandemic is really exacerbating a lot of the existing inequalities, and if we don't do anything to address not just the pandemic but the inequities that have existed for generations, it really won't be good for the health of this country overall.
What steps do Boston policymakers need to take in order to ensure that minority businesses make it through this pandemic?
JP: Policymakers in Boston need to be honest and upfront about the racial wealth gap in this city, because the only way that we're going to be able to create effective policies is to acknowledge and accept that people of color are the ones who always get the short end of the stick. If we don't recognize that, then we're going to pass policies that may not be able to help people of color or low-income people at all.
Now's the time for us to wake up and address inequities head-on, so if we don't have an equitable lens when it comes to passing policies, we may miss out on a huge opportunity to make Boston a more equitable city and a better place to live.
Queens Company empowers women of color to improve their lifestyles by promoting personal growth, professional development, wellness, and more. Learn more today.