A community’s economic and social growth can be difficult to measure, but for the Black community in Hampton Roads, a collaboration with Virginia Tech students and the Center for Economic and Community Engagement is laying a foundation to make calculating progress easier.

Local nonprofit Black BRAND has been working to increase Black wealth in the region by promoting professional development and community empowerment.

“We decided to take a long-range view to have generational impact, and we came up with an idea of a 150-year plan,” said Blair Durham, the group’s co-founder and president. She said the 150-year plan is a shared vision for a thriving community that focuses on narrowing the wealth gap.

Durham, a 2005 Virginia Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, said although it was popular to support Black businesses on social media through the #BuyingBlack hashtag, the needle was not moving in regard to Black wealth.

“We wanted to gather data and have conversations with subject matter experts to strategize and improve conditions for the Black community. There are systemic and institutional challenges that exist, but there is a lot of resilience and talent in the Black community that can help us take the steps needed to resolve economic issues we currently experience,” Durham said.

She approached Mallory Tuttle, who as associate director of the Virginia Tech Newport News Center promotes partnerships throughout the Hampton Roads region, about a possible collaboration.

Tuttle and her colleague Afroze Mohammed, associate director of strategic alliances for the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, turned to the Data Science for the Public Good Summer Program, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to address current social issues locally and nationally.

The program is offered by the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and developed in partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia State University under the leadership of the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute.

During the summer of 2021, students in the program built a data dashboard that shows “the state of the Black community in the Hampton Roads region” and enables Black BRAND to better understand the factors that affect the economic and social progress of Black residents in the area.

Black BRAND’s long-range plan was adapted from Claud Anderson’s book “PowerNomics,” which identifies five institutions that underlay community development. Black BRAND’s adaption includes economics, media, people and values, education, and policy and justice. These areas form the basis of the data dashboard.

The team included graduate student Avi Seth and undergraduates Matthew Burkholder, Victor Mukora, and Christina Prisbe as well as Virginia State University undergraduate Kwabe Boateng.

“We wanted to make sure that the information was presented in a visually appealing way that our stakeholders would be able to understand,” said Mukora, who is studying computational modeling and data analytics and is set to graduate in 2023.

Chanit’a Holmes, assistant research professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Isabel Bradburn, research director for the Child Development Center for Learning and Research, served as faculty advisors for the project.

The students’ work was followed by two collaborations with seniors in the computational modeling and data analytics program in the College of Science’s Academy of Data Science.

Students Emily Mahr, Zhenming Wang, and Allison Woods spent the spring semester studying three factors that affect economic growth for Black residents in Hampton Roads: internet coverage, home ownership, and financial literacy.

“It’s necessary to perform this race-specific analysis when considering how historically Black Americans have been prevented from building wealth. This project enabled us to pinpoint some of the residual effects of that discrimination,” Mahr said.

The students found that redlining in the 1940s — the practice of refusing to offer mortgages in or near minority neighborhoods — continues to affect Black residents in Hampton Roads today, with those neighborhoods still experiencing lower home values. While these neighborhoods saw an increase in the number of high-quality internet providers from 2015-20, the numbers are still lower than those in surrounding regions.

“We’re creating a baseline of metrics that Black BRAND will be able to compare their progress to over the next 150 years. The dashboard will identify action items for Black BRAND as well as for the different organizations that view this dashboard,” Woods said. “The dashboard’s purpose is not to have you look at the state of the Black community and accept it as it is. Its purpose is to encourage and create action.”

The Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, has long had ties with the computational modeling and data analytics major, said Mohammed.

“Since the degree started, the center has been a vital supporter of our program, providing guidance to students, assisting with CMDA Club activities, and making important industry connections to the Aerospace Corporation, General Dynamics, and NTT Data,” Mark Embree, Hamlett Professor of the College of Science, said.

Black BRAND and the Center for Economic and Community Engagement plan to continue work on the project in the fall.

“We will work on aggregating the data that has been collected, present the findings to our legacy council members, and think through how we can implement strategies for a better future,” Durham said. “Over the course of our 150-year plan, we will reconvene every few years to discuss progress and update the data dashboard as we discover new questions and new answers. We view the data dashboard as a living document and plan for this to be an iterative process.”

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