aerial photo of South Seattle

Essential Southeast Seattle Collective Fights for Small Businesses in the South End

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Even before the pandemic, small BIPOC-owned businesses and restaurants in the South End faced systemic barriers to success, including lack of access or resources as well as the ever-looming threat of gentrification and displacement. The pandemic only magnified these barriers. The processes of applying for vital loans and grants and pivoting to a greater online presence, all while somehow trying to maintain business as usual, were overwhelming without help. That’s where the Essential Southeast Seattle collective (ESES) comes in.

ESES is a collective of five community-based organizations (CBO) in Southeast Seattle, representing eight neighborhoods from Beacon Hill to Rainier Beach. These five CBOs work together to connect businesses and nonprofits to essential relief, help them build or grow their online presence, and help retain BIPOC-owned businesses at risk of displacement.

Angela Castañeda, director of the Beacon Business Alliance, remembers the moment that inspired the collective last March. “Sarah Valenta [director of community & business development] from HomeSight sent out an email to all of us and said, ‘Hey, we gotta do something. We’ve got to pool our energies and resources to make sure that essential businesses that are open are seen,’” Castañeda said.

From that initial email, Beacon Business Alliance, Mt. Baker Hub Alliance, MLK Business Association, Rainier Avenue Business Coalition, and Rainier Beach Merchants Association worked together to promote South End businesses online, with HomeSight as a sponsor of the collective. Launching last May, the ESES website started as an easily-searchable directory of over 150 essential South Seattle businesses. When it became apparent that businesses’ survival hinged primarily on online commerce, ESES created the Digital Access Cohort for those struggling with creating or maintaining a virtual presence. The cohort was a supportive place to learn and explore questions like “How do you get in front of your customers and communicate to [them] during COVID?” Castañeda said. 

This year, the ESES website relaunched with an online marketplace component (built by woman-owned business DEI Creative), ideal for merchants with little to no prior internet presence. The ESES website aims to be a one-stop shop for local consumers and community members and to provide a business toolkit for those in need of support.

CBOs serve an important function as organizations with an “ear on the ground” in their neighborhoods and can help save BIPOC-owned businesses from displacement. Castañeda was a friend of Beacon Hill legacy businesses Baja Bistro and CheBogz and helped facilitate their future reopening at Colina Apartments. She helped secure the future site of Kumon Math and Reading Center of Seattle — Beacon Hill (it will reopen later in the year at the old Hello Bicycle spot at 3067 Beacon Avenue South), keeping them in the neighborhood since their 16th Avenue South location is slated for demolition. Castañeda also helped find a second location on Beacon Hill for Hillman City’s BIPOC-owned Renew Physical Therapy. 

ESES Collective members work with the Seattle Office of Economic Development and were a crucial connection in the early days of the pandemic. When the City rolled out their first waves of funding, including the Paycheck Protection Program, “We worked together to run a ‘call center’ and created a tracking system with the Community Liaisons … to track who was reaching who and who needed what type of help so nobody would fall through the cracks,” Castañeda said. 

ESES hosts virtual events called Business Resource Open House (BROH) along with the Seattle Public Library. These live-streamed events are open and free to all, feature representatives from CBOs and the City, and are a treasure trove of information and free resources. Participants are encouraged to take advantage of “face time” with knowledgeable experts to ask questions about resources, mentorships, and funding opportunities. The most recent BROH on Sept. 21 was hosted by Jenefeness Tucker, and included B.J. Stewart of Urban Impact, Cesar Garcia and Furno West of Lake City Collective, Ivette Aguilera and Victor Cerdeneta Serrato with El Centro de la Raza, Jennifer Tam, the food business advocate at the Seattle Office of Economic Development, and many more.

During the session, Stewart emphasized, “Relationships are so important. If you don’t have relationships, you won’t know how to get the resources you need.” He encouraged participants to reach out to the speakers from CBOs in their neighborhoods for help. Urban Impact is currently accepting applicants for their Thrive Business Accelerator, a program that helps entrepreneurs in the beginning stages of business. (Find out more and apply at the official Thrive web page.)  

Sheryl Wiser, director of outreach at Tilth Alliance, echoed a point brought up by others when she said, “consumers are looking for [your business] and they’re looking online.” Earlier this year, Tilth built the Eat Local First website as a tool to help consumers find and connect with local farmers through CSA boxes, farmers markets, and more.

ESES is working on compiling all the BROH events on a YouTube channel. Translations will be made available in Amharic, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Mandarin. The next BROH will be hosted online in December at a date-to-be-determined.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, ESES has grown with the challenges faced by South End businesses, and they’re committed to long-term support. During the recent BROH, Valenta brought up a future ESES project that shows the evolving nature of the collective. “One thing we’re working on right now is a nonprofit or a co-op model for a delivery service,” she said. “Tapping into the delivery drivers who are out there [already, and] not having some of the national brands get all the profit.”

Make sure to bookmark the ESES Collective website to stay up-to-date on future events and happenings, and check out the ESES-sponsored Seattle Restaurant Week from Oct. 24 to Nov. 6, and Plate of Nations (happening now through Sept. 26) sponsored by ESES members HomeSight and MLK Business Association.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured Image: The Essential Southeast Seattle Collective is made up of five community based organizations working to connect small businesses and restaurants to vital resources and fight displacement of BIPOC-owned businesses. (Photo: Pablo Castañeda Zilly)

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