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Flying all Flags: Celebrating the Impact of Caribbean Americans on the US Economy

Since 2006, June has been celebrated as Caribbean American Heritage month in the United States after diligent advocacy from Caribbean Americans including Dr. Claire Nelson, founder of the Institute of Caribbean Studies. The month celebrating immigrants from the 13 Caribbean countries and 17 dependent territories, was officially signed into law and announced in a proclamation by then President George W. Bush.



Some of those leaders are Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant economist; pop and beauty superstar and innovator Rihanna Fenty, who was born in Barbados; founding father Alexander Hamilton, born in St. Kitts and Nevis; and Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the descendant of Puerto-Rican born parents.


As of 2019 there were approximately 4.5 million Caribbean Americans residing in the United States, with nearly 90% of Caribbean immigrants hailing from one of four countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. Practitioners interested in understanding and serving the needs of the Black community- in particular black immigrants- must also consider that individuals of Caribbean descent comprise nearly half (46%) of the Black foreign born population in the U.S.



In recognition of Caribbean American Heritage Month, Fourth Economy team members Denique “Neeky” Dennis and Oshane Mcrae, both of Caribbean descent, acknowledge the history of economic disenfranchisement of the Caribbean American community, honor their economic ingenuity, and share calls to action for fostering their increased economic well being.


The Partner Plan: A Symbol of Caribbean-Born Economic Resilience and Innovation


One of the best ways to herald the economic resilience and ingenuity of the Caribbean and Caribbean American community is through an exploration of one of the key ways the economically-disenfranchised seek to circumvent their lack of access to conventional financial systems to achieve their financial goals. Insert the ‘partner plan’.


A partner plan, also known as ‘pardner’ or ‘pardna’, is a Jamaican trust-based short-term saving and lending venture. These ventures were originally designed to offer access to financial capital to individuals who have been historically excluded from traditional banking institutions. Most usually, in communities all across the Caribbean American diaspora, partner plans are created and led by women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds


Here’s how it works: Each member of the plan contributes a set amount of money, the act of which is called ‘throwing a hand’, into a joint pool managed by a trusted ‘banker’ on an established cadence. Once all members have thrown their hand(s), one person receives a ‘draw’ (the full pool of money) on a rotating basis until each contributor has gotten a ‘draw’. At this point the partner may end or restart. Partner plans are common in the Caribbean among friends, families, and neighbors. Our own mothers are an example of the importance of partner plans as a tool for socioeconomic mobility, often using their ‘draws’ to fund larger financial expenses including medical bills, entrepreneurial endeavors, and even their children’s tuition payments.


The Need for Equitable Approaches For Immigrant Communities


The partner plan is hardly unique in its approach. In fact, we would argue that one of the characteristics of more unconventional approaches to economic development within the Caribbean and its diaspora is that they fundamentally consider the inclusion and enfranchisement of individuals who have been historically excluded from conventional and more institutional avenues of wealth-building and socioeconomic advancement. 


Due to the prolonged ravaging of colonialism and neocolonialism, much of the populations and emigrants from small island developing states (SIDS) across the Caribbean continue to grapple with equitably integrating into economic institutions and/or legitimizing the many innovative ways that they have created their own informal economies that cater to their unique circumstances. This is only further compounded by the systemic exclusionary practices and policies that impede immigrants’ full participation in the American economy.


Therefore, while we celebrate the resilience that is embedded in Caribbean heritage and its ingenuity in circumventing systemic challenges, we recognize that it exposes the need for equitable access to capital for Caribbean American and other immigrant communities. As a result, social impact leaders have begun to apply this sensibility to equitable economic development, and many emerging examples may be found across the Caribbean and its diaspora. Here are a few ideas that we find most promising: 


Integrating Cultural Economic Practices Into Conventional Banking


In Jamaica, numerous banks and credit unions have begun offering the partner plan as a saving product, with the added benefit of theft and fraud protection, and even interest accrual. In some instances, members may even access loans they would otherwise not be eligible for by using their ‘hands’ as security.


Bridging Culture and Technology


Tech ventures such as Bloom Money Co. have created platforms to modernize and support traditional trust-based saving and lending practices like the partner plan. The platform is marketed to immigrant communities who wish to honor their cultural financial traditions within communities they know and trust.


Investing in the “Orange Economy” or the Creative Economy


In recent years, downtown Kingston, Jamaica has been reinvigorated by the contributions of local art and artists. Hailed for making a comeback as the cultural capital of the island, National Geographic celebrated Kingston for its diligent commitment to investing in the placemaking. Similarly, it’s important to remember artists of all kinds are small business owners, and so investing in artists is in fact investing in the small business infrastructure of a local economy.


Fostering Unconventional Entrepreneurial Endeavors


Street vending is a common occupation for immigrants. However, many street vendors are deemed illegal and are subject to harassment and punishment. They are increasingly subjected to regulations or permitting penalties that largely stifle the growth of a vibrant street vending economy. As such, many street vendor entrepreneurs are typically forced to operate in gray spaces - therefore aren’t eligible for loans, legal protections, tax benefits, or small business support. However, with targeted support, street vendor entrepreneurs could serve as vehicles for micro entrepreneurship, upward mobility and economic development, which is a fact that community responsive organizations like the LA Street Vendor Campaign, and the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project have recognized and encouraged.


Join the Momentum!


You can support Caribbean American and broader immigrant communities this month and beyond by:  


  1. Honoring Cultural Traditions: When developing economic development strategies, consider how you might include informal economies and honor existing cultural practices.

  2. Leading with Community-Centered Design: Recognize that economic development is not limited only to macro-level and institutional undertakings. It should be people-centered and mindful of how the average resident - the end-user- would experience the recommended interventions.

  3. Advocating for Policy Inclusion: Actively engage with policymakers to ensure that the needs and practices of Caribbean American communities are included in economic development policies. Advocacy can help alter or remove systemic barriers that limit the access of immigrant communities to financial services and business opportunities, promoting a more inclusive economic environment.

  4. Making Financial Capital More Accessible: Deploy flexible and accessible capital and financial resources to provide seed capital to Caribbean entrepreneurs, and support the growth and stabilization of small businesses embedded in local communities.

  5. Supporting Cultural Entrepreneurship: Invest in and support Caribbean cultural entrepreneurship that extends beyond the traditional business models. This can include backing initiatives in the creative and cultural sectors such as music, art, and food industries, which play significant roles in preserving and disseminating cultural heritage. Supporting these industries not only helps in economic development but also in ensuring continuity of Caribbean American culture.


 

At Fourth Economy, we are uniquely positioned to bridge gaps between traditional economic practices and modern economic development strategies. Check out the ways we can help and reach out to us at [email protected] to continue the conversation. 


Facilitate Partnerships: We can serve as a catalyst for partnerships between Caribbean American communities and financial institutions to explore the integration of traditional financial practices like the partner plan into mainstream financial products. These partnerships can help formalize and scale these practices, offering new models of financial products tailored to the needs of these communities.


Conduct Impact Studies: We can conduct and disseminate research on the impact of Caribbean economic practices on local economies. By highlighting successful models and practices, such as the partner plan, we provide a data-driven basis for expanding these practices into new markets and regions.


Strategy Development: We offer strategic planning services to organizations looking to engage with Caribbean American communities. By incorporating cultural competencies and economic understanding, we can help organizations develop more effective and inclusive economic development strategies that acknowledge and utilize the strengths of these communities.

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