A new effort is creating Maine's first Black Chamber of Commerce
The owner of a semi-professional basketball team in Lewiston is creating Maine's first Black Chamber of Commerce, with a focus on advocating and lobbying for Black business across the state.
But the effort is facing criticism from another organization that supports Black-owned businesses in the state.
Joshua Brister, the owner of the Lewiston-Auburn Maples basketball team, says that a roundtable earlier this year helped to spark the creation of the Black Chamber. The event featured Black business owners and Maine officials, and Brister said the conversation demonstrated the need for an organization that could provide ongoing support for Maine's Black businesses.
"We wanted to ensure that Black businesses that are here, that are looking to sustain and grow operations could find an organization that would help them do that," Brister said.
The idea of a Black Chamber of Commerce isn't new. According to the national group U.S. Black Chambers, nearly 150 similar organizations already exist across the country. Brister said the success of those groups highlights the need in Maine for advocacy on a local and statewide level.
"But nobody is advocating in rooms and halls at the State House. And the Blaine House. Local city council meetings, nobody is doing that," he said.
Although the Black Chamber is still in its early phases, it has received early support from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
But the effort is facing questions from another Maine Black business organization, Black Owned Maine.
"So I wouldn't say that we do all of the things that, like, a traditional Chamber of Commerce is seen as doing. But boy, I would definitely say that that's what many people already kind of refer to us as," said Rose Barboza, Black Owned Maine's founder and executive director.
Black Owned Maine was formed three years ago, in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd. And Barboza said the group has already created a large directory of hundreds of Black-owned businesses, with a goal of building community and awareness.
Barboza is concerned that Brister's organization could duplicate the work that her group and others are already doing, and that it might not fully represent the perspectives of Black business owners.
"I think it's really important that if there is a push, if there is an initiative to kind of take that further, and to form an organization — especially something that's really speaking on behalf of all the Black businesses — that you have the major players in the room that have already been pushing this forward," Barboza said. "And that we all come together and kind of appoint someone, as opposed to someone appointing themselves.
Brister pushed back on that criticism, and said that as a registered 501(c)(6) organization, the Maine Black Chamber will take on a lobbying and advocacy role that isn't being filled by anyone else.
"That's the only thing that is going to help carve out a strong Black business class here in the state of Maine," Brister said.
Brister said the group is also working to connect with local economic development officials and plans to hold its first roundtable in September to further explain its mission.