US & World

Why my coal mining grandfather's deathbed advice applies to minority Americans

Left to right: George Fermon (standing), Benjamin F. Fermon (seated, author's grandfather; father of children pictured), Jessie Fermon (standing, back row), Benjamin
Left to right: George Fermon (standing), Benjamin F. Fermon (seated, author's grandfather; father of children pictured), Jessie Fermon (standing, back row), Benjamin "Bizzy" Fermon (front row, white romper), Harold Fermon, (grey knee-britches suit), Jessie Amy Anderson Fermon (seated, author's grandmother; mother of children), Frances Fermon, (on Jessie Amy's lap) Gladys Fermon (standing)
Courtesy of Amy Alexander/Author

My grandfather worked in coal and copper mines for 26 years doing back-breaking, dirty work that allowed him to support a family of nine children, purchase several acres of land, and become a community leader. (For several years leading up to World War II, he was the head of the Republican Committee in Rock Springs, Wyoming.)

Eventually, all those years in the Union Pacific mines affected his health. On his deathbed, my grandfather encouraged his eldest children to forge out into the world beyond the high desert, and make their way in new industries that were springing up across the West.

Coming of age in San Francisco, I heard many stories from my Mom, my aunts, and uncles about what it was like for their father in the mines: stingy slivers of fresh air, clanking trolleys that workers had to fill at a brisk pace with rocky clumps or dusty shovels-full of ore; the camaraderie of miners who'd arrived there from distant U.S. territories and across the globe, including Poland and Italy.

My grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Fermon, had fled racist terrorism in his home state of Missouri. In the West, he relished the ability to move about freely — and to work for the same pay as white miners. He was up each day before the sun, then descended underground to darkness, carting a stout tin pail packed tightly with hearty lunches made by my grandmother, Jessie Amy.

After more than twenty years in the mines, as my grandfather lay dying from Black Lung disease, his eldest children did not question or doubt his advice to them: go out and get educations, and master newer ways of working.

Today, my family is among millions of US ethnic-minority families that collectively account for billions in spending power and have access to education and training that my grandfather only dreamed of. Our shared experiences with changing industries in the U.S. and globally give us an advantage. For instance, though typewriters sat atop desks when I first entered journalism studies in college during the 1980s, I didn't hesitate to learn networked computers, and later, decentralized digital production tools, and Internet and cloud-based systems as my industry, the news business, was dramatically disrupted over the ensuring years.

Our experiences with industrial adaptation also allow us to see that the push for a return to reliance on coal is a step backward for American workers — and certainly for the rising majority populations who will define the future of our country.

The US Census Bureau projects that the American population will become "majority-minority" during the next several decades, while U.S. Department of Energy research shows that renewables, or green industries, now employ far more workers than coal and fossil fuel sectors. What's more, the rapid pace of innovation in robotics, 3D printing, sensors, and automation means that certain industries will irrevocably change, and that those who fail to up- or re-skill in order to meet the needs of the altered workforce may be left behind. (Recent coverage of how "robots taking humans' jobs" and how self-driving vehicles may be especially detrimental to workers of color offer good primers.) If you're a minority living in the US, and are mindful of history, it's a better bet to realistically assess such changes.

Thanks to my grandfather's vision — and to his grit during decades of grueling work in hellish conditions — I experienced a middle-class upbringing, and a core understanding of the need for constant or at least intermittent reinvention. Recognizing the value of continual learning, and the ability to see industrial and technological progress not as threats, but as a means of expanding opportunities, is an American tradition most vividly expressed by generations of immigrant entrepreneurs, inventors and workers.

Of late, America's ethnic populations are starting businesses at a faster rate than whites, according to analysis of U.S. Small Business Association data by Michael S. Barr, director of the University of Michigan Center on Finance, Law, and Policy, and a former assistant secretary of financial institutions at the U.S. Department of Treasury. "From 1997 to 2007, the number of minority-owned small businesses, defined as any business with fewer than 500 employees and in which the majority of owners do not identify as white non-Hispanic, increased by more than 25 percent," Barr wrote in a 2015 report for The Hamilton Project at The Brookings Institution. By contrast, based on SBA and U.S. Census Bureau data from 2001 and 2007, the number of white-owned businesses grew by only 6 percent, Barr found.

Meanwhile, technological innovation is swiftly remaking global markets and occupational categories, and the World Economic Forum estimates that worldwide, nearly 65 percent of children currently in primary school will work in jobs that don't exist right now. These two trends — rapidly expanding business-ownership by minorities in the U.S., and rapid industrial transformation — combines to paint a portrait of America's economic future that will center "new majority" populations as key drivers of growth.

Right now, black and Latina women represent the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in the U.S., according to a National Women's Business Council analysis of 2012 Census Bureau data, with black women-owned businesses increasing by 67.5, and Hispanic women-owned operations growing by 87.5 percent in roughly a decade. The NWBC analysis found that across all ethnic groups, the number of women-owned firms is increasing faster than the number of male-owned businesses, a trend that is attributed in part to women's increasing gains in college-degree attainment.

At the same time, though, black women and Latina entrepreneurs don't yet have big footholds in high-growth industries, including in technology and STEM-related fields, a reality tied to stubborn barriers experienced by women entrepreneurs of all ethnicities in accessing capital, and business and social networks that historically have been the province of white men, according to Ross Baird, CEO and co-founder of Village Capital, a venture investment firm that focuses on start-ups with social-interest business models. Less than five percent of venture funding in the U.S. goes to women founders, and less than one percent is invested in companies started by ethnic minorities, an unsustainable imbalance, in light of population demographic projections, Baird argues.

Similarly, America's top economists, demographers, and even national security experts know that technological innovation and population diversity are essential to our nation's future prosperity. This month, the Atlantic Council released, "Keeping America's Innovation Edge," a report on the intersection of U.S. populations (in particular, the role of immigrants, American-born ethnic minorities, and residents in mid-sized cities including Madison, Wisc., and Boulder, CO); the two year-long study found that increased investments in higher education, and in technical training or "re-skilling" for current workers are acutely needed if the U.S. is to continue to prosper as a leader in technology and STEM-driven economic development.

"Though foreign-born residents of the United States represent only an eighth of the country's population, in STEM fields their numbers far outweigh this figure (for instance, roughly half of STEM PhDs are foreign-born residents)," wrote Mathew J. Burrows, a leader at the Atlantic Council. He continued:

"Skilled immigrants have an outsized role in America's innovation machine, often becoming the entrepreneurs behind new companies (one recent study says that more than half the US tech startups valued at $1 billion or more were created by foreign-born entrepreneurs) or filling the highly skilled technical positions in companies across the country. To put this situation another way, the United States benefits from the dynamism and creativity that skilled immigrants bring with them while compensating for its own shortcomings."

But, while Burrows and other researchers take a high-level view, examining existing and historic data, and extrapolating forward from there, those of us who grew up during the past few decades in ethnic communities or in cities and neighborhoods with a diverse array of income-levels and cultures, are intimately familiar with the kind of entrepreneurial and workforce-related "dynamism" that researchers are now seriously investigating for clues to the nation's economic outlook.

As Barr of the University of Michigan found in his March 2015 study, "Not only are minority and women business owners a growing segment of the entrepreneur population, but their businesses also tend to be relatively dynamic. From 1997 to 2007 total gross receipts — defined as sales, receipts, and values of shipments — from minority firms grew much faster than the total gross receipts of non-minority firms."

While tangible barriers do at present limit the ability of mass numbers of blacks and Latinos to dramatically remake high-growth sectors, I take an optimistic view. I look at the irrefutable data-sets and projection models covering the rise in tech-driven new industries, and the increase in ethnic populations, and combine them with my own family's story of adaptability, intellectual toughness, and creativity. Together, these factors tell me that coal is not our future, and that our role in shaping industries of the future will only grow in importance over time.

Amy Alexander, an award-winning writer and editor, is the author of four nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention.

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