ITHACA, N.Y. –– Black Hands Universal, an Ithaca nonprofit started by Harry O. Smith, and Alternatives Federal Credit Union are working together to help Black, Brown and Indigenous people in the Ithaca community who are looking to start their own businesses and buy homes. This is on top of the numerous programs and initiatives that Smith has started as part of Black Hands Universal –– an organization aimed at supporting and bettering the lives of Black Ithacans –– since June 2020. 

Smith said the idea for the partnership on creating businesses came about because Black Hands Universal as an organization banks with AFCU and already had been working with them on the home ownership program. AFCU reached out to him to see if he would assist them in finding people for this additional program. To Smith, it seemed natural to partner with AFCU in both areas –– starting businesses and owning homes. 

“Everything that I’ve done has been collaborations with other organizations, community organizations and for the most part the community itself has been the biggest help through donations, volunteering,” he said. 

“I’m a fan of what Harry is trying to get started with Black Hands Universal, me personally but also the credit union. We see a void of opportunities in our community and Harry is someone who is looking at how to fill that void specifically for the BIPOC community. We’ve been talking to Harry now for a while to see how to best support him and Black Hands Universal because the work they’re doing is important in our community. It lines up with what we want to do at Alternatives Federal Credit Union,” Brendan Wilbur, AFCU Community Programs Manager, said. 

Smith and kids he serves through Black Hands Universal (Photo by BHU from Facebook)

Wilbur said AFCU has been intent on supporting those who are underserved and haven’t had the same opportunities for financial investment. He added that many in the BIPOC community in Tompkins County fall into this category. 

For business opportunities, “spending money to make money” isn’t always an option for the BIPOC community as the typical white family has eight times the wealth of a typical Black family and five time the wealth of a typical Hispanic family, according to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances performed by the Federal Reserve. 

AFCU received a significant award from the BIPOC Prosperity Fund of Tompkins County that has allowed them to offer help with starting businesses and buying a home

With the AFCU business help, grants will be awarded to individuals who make less than 68K for a household size of 1-2 and have a business idea. Part of this program involves a match savings account that involves different tiers. For example, if you put $250 in the savings account, AFCU will match that with $250 for a total of $500 in your account. Schedule a call to get more information about the BIPOC match savings here

“We want to help people develop a savings habit,” Wilbur said. 

Smith said the matching is extremely helpful because it gives people more money to be able to open their business, money that might have taken them months or years to build up. He especially likes that AFCU walks the individual through the whole process, they don’t just give money and walk away. 

Individuals will be provided with a business consultant for free who will come alongside them during the process. This help can look like help with obtaining permits, assistance in buying equipment, how to set up a vendor booth, etc. The business professionals will help people look at what they need to do and then help them get there step by step. 

If you’re someone who has already started a business but you’re stuck or need capital to move forward, you can still apply to this program. 

“It’s really trying to meet people where they’re at to help make their business a reality,” Wilbur said. 

Wilbur said AFCU wants to help BIPOC individuals build wealth and a crucial component to helping people build wealth is home ownership.

As for the housing program, AFCU and BHU are looking to apply some of the same principles as the business loan program –– giving BIPOC an opportunity themselves and their families may have been denied in the past. This assistance could mean the difference between buying a home or not, and passing on generational wealth through assets –– something that black mortgage applicants have not had the chance to do with the same ease as their white counterparts. According to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data from 2017, Black applicants are denied at 1.8 times the rate of white applicants for mortgages and for conventional loans (not backed by the government), Black applicants are denied at 2.2 times the rate of white applicants.

With home ownership assistance, eligible individuals will be awarded $20,000 (per family) to help with purchasing a home. To be eligible, individuals must make less than 68K a year for a household size of 1-2 people and buy a home in Tompkins County. Being able to qualify for a mortgage is an important part of this process as well. 

You can sign up for a 15 minute introductory phone call here with AFCU to find out if you’re eligible and how to get started. 

The $20,000 helps with down payments on homes as coming up with money for a down payment, another huge barrier. Research has shown that Black families are much less likely to get help from parents when buying a home, such as a down payment, according to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances performed by the Federal Reserve.

“We want to connect with as many people as possible, but this grant is going to be limited in how many people we can actually serve and give money to. But we want to make our impact much larger than just the people who are receiving funds. It’s really, ‘how can we lay out roadmaps toward asset ownership and wealth accumulation in the BIPOC community?’” Wilbur said. 

This is why AFCU partnered with Smith at Black Hands Universal and several other community organizations like CLOC (Community Leaders of Color), Southside Community Center, GIAC (Greater Ithaca Alliance Center), and BLOC (Business Leaders of Color) among others. 

In addition to partnerships with AFCU, Smith has been busy with other community programs. Since he started the nonprofit, they’ve held a Black Men’s March, hosted community movies at Lehman Alternative Community School, made and gave out power smoothies for free every morning on the Commons over the summer, handed out free masks and sanitizer, offered GED classes, started a Freedom Institute of Advancement of Art, held a winter coat drive, cleaned and redesigned the West Village Center, started a Zoom tutoring center for students during the pandemic, and started a book club at the Tompkins County jail. 

Renovation of the West Village Community Center room (Black Hands Universal/Facebook)

Smith said that everything they’ve done so far (all during a pandemic) has been done safely whether virtually or in person with masks, sanitizer available, and social distancing in place. All of these programs are just some of what Smith has led Black Hands Universal to accomplish with zero funding. 

“It’s just us, (money) coming out of our pockets and people coming to help,” he said. 

Smith is currently raising funds for two different projects. One of them is raising funds to buy a walk-in freezer to expand the smoothie program which will give jobs to more teens this summer. You can donate to the freezer fund here

The other is for creating a pre-apprenticeship program that is one of Black Hands Universal’s five goals and initiatives. Smith wants to help give disenfranchised people access to union jobs. 

“It will allow people to get the paperwork and some of the training they need in order to get into the apprenticeship programs with the local unions and Cornell,” Smith said. 
You can donate to help make this program a reality here.