In the hours after protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd dissolved into chaos in downtown Atlanta, C.J. Pearson was casually scrolling through his social media feeds.
Photo after photo of vandalized and smoldering businesses flashed across the screen.
Pearson, just 17, was stunned.
“It just hit close to home literally and figuratively,” he said. “I live just two hours from Atlanta. I recognized a lot of the places that had been torched, that had been vandalized.”
Black-owned businesses, in particular, were already suffering from the COVID-19 shutdown. This was like a double whammy.
A study at the University of California shows the number of Black businesses fell 41% between February and April, while white businesses fell only 17%.
In addition, many Black businesses didn’t qualify for coronavirus-related federal aid, for reasons including size, systemic lack of credit history or banking relationships.
This new damage struck Pearson as pure senselessness, but he was troubled, too, by all the talk, which to him amounted to a lot of empty words.
“Words really don’t mean anything if they aren’t backed by action,” he said. “It’s important to put your money where your mouth is.”
In other words, he said, quoting Scripture, “faith without works is dead.”
Pearson created a GoFundMe campaign to help Black entrepreneurs whose businesses had been damaged in the carnage. $30,000 was all he hoped for, enough perhaps to help defray insurance deductibles for a few hundred.
Just three hours later, people from across the country had fulfilled that goal, and they weren’t done. Three days later, Pearson had amassed $160,000 in donations.
When we talked last week, the fund had grown to more than $168,000, and Pearson had partnered with Thomas Dortch and the Georgia Association of Minority Entrepreneurs to establish the GAME Relief Fund to distribute grants to eligible businesses.
The first $10,000 went to Janice Wilbourn and her sister Carolyn, co-owners of Wilbourn Sisters Designs, an Atlanta institution.
Janice Wilbourn happened to be in the Peachtree Street shop as the protests were ending that night.
“I was in there working late, making masks,” she remembered. “People were coming in both directions, and all of a sudden, I heard a crash.”
Wilbourn fell to the floor. Somehow she made it to the back of the shop and down the stairs. She called 911. Then she prayed.
“I think that was the most fear I’d ever felt,” she said.
When she emerged, no one had entered the boutique, but all the windows had been broken and some of her inventory had been damaged by hurtling glass.
Wilbourn couldn’t believe her eyes, but she didn’t believe this was the work of protesters either.
“Just somebody going through destroying stuff,” she said.
Stuff she and her sister had spent a lifetime building. What would they do now? Would their insurance come through and would it be enough to help them start anew?
In the midst of the mayhem, Wilbourn caught the attention of news outlets. Pearson saw her story. He wanted to help and he did.
“He’s a lot younger than me, but he’s my mentor,” Wilbourn said the other day, laughing.
Pearson is indeed an old soul, raised in Augusta by grandparents who taught him the importance of hard work, of believing in oneself, and using your gifts to make a difference.
Those lessons are needed now more than ever, he said.
Those lessons have been guiding Pearson’s every move for a long while now, beginning when he was just 11 years old and signed on as a volunteer with Rick Allen’s congressional campaign and throughout his time as a budding conservative political activist and commentator. Last year, he founded Last Hope USA, a nonprofit aimed at promoting civic education and participation among America’s youth.
When he started in early June raising funds to help restore businesses damaged during protests, his biggest goal was to show others of his generation that they should care about the issues of the day enough to take a stand.
“If they don’t, they can’t complain when career politicians barter away our future for their short-term gains,” he said. “It’s time to step up in a big way. Instagram captions are great, but action is what’s going to bring about change.”
For Pearson, the GoFundMe campaign is just a first step, but it’s the first step in the right direction.
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