BY LINDA BAKER
"I've always been disconnected. We are all disconnected. And the problem we see across the country is that this is not just the pattern, it's institutionally the way it is," says Mike Green.
// Photo by Jamie Lusch
Every weekday morning, Mike Green gets up at 6 a.m. to feed his 14-month-old son, Josiah, a banana. Then he hands his son off to his wife, Emily, and is on the computer by 7:30, at which point he starts making conference calls and Skyping. He begins with his East Coast contacts and works his way west as the day progresses.
By the afternoon, he’s moved on to Portland and Silicon Valley. He usually works until late at night and into the early morning hours. Sometimes he works through the night.
The 50-year-old Green, who has been following a version of the same routine for more than a year, has yet to earn much money for his 24/7 labors. He works out of his home office: the living room of a three-bedroom rented apartment in Medford that he shares with Emily, Josiah and 12-year-old daughter, Madison.
Green’s financial circumstances may be modest, but the task he is working on is ambitious and wide-ranging. A cofounder of the America21 Project, an Ohio-based national nonprofit launched 18 months ago, he aims to correct what he considers one of the critical problems facing this country: the disconnect between black America and today’s tech-driven economy. In the past decade, much of the new wealth creation and job growth in the United States has occurred in the startup technology sectors. “But those types of innovations and market disruptions are not happening across black America,” says Green, who is also a part-time blogger. The reasons “are systemic, historical and institutional, and someone has to address it.”
Programs that try to correct the economic inequities plaguing African-American communities are nothing new. But America21 is one of the first groups to target high-tech and Internet ventures, and to try and create a comprehensive solution focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, as well as access to risk capital and “high-growth” entrepreneurship.
In the past year, America21 has generated a remarkable amount of attention and excitement locally and nationally — from community leaders in cities around the country to White House policymakers. The group’s rapid ascension is due in no small part to Green’s ability to wrap together disparate phenomena, from the achievement gap in K-12 education to the dearth of black angel networks, into a sweeping aspirational narrative about 21st-century wealth building in America’s inner cities.
“No one in recent memory has come out with such articulate, explicit connections,” says Patrick Quinton, the executive director of the Portland Development Commission (PDC), who met Green this past winter at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast hosted by The Skanner newspaper at the Oregon Convention Center. Green, the keynote speaker, came to Portland after local business and community leader James Posey read what he described as a “very exciting” editorial that Green had written a few months earlier for The Oregonian. “There’s a synergy to this idea, a way of putting things together, that is unique,” Posey says.
America21 is a national organization with national objectives. But the America21 story is also a singular Oregon story, about a black man helping orchestrate a leading-edge urban economic development movement from a “cow patch,” as Chad Womack, Green’s Philadelphia-based America21 colleague, describes Medford. In the coming year, the team also hopes to launch one of the organization’s breakout initiatives — an “urban innovation roundtable” — in Portland, a city often described as one of the whitest metropolitan centers in the country.
Organizing a movement from a rural Oregon home office — or coffee shop — is no easy task, acknowledges Green, who moved from Houston to Medford in 2004 to be closer to his wife’s family. But his physical, demographic and economic isolation also spotlights the issues America21 seeks to resolve.