“I have been in the community for 10 years, so I have built trust and credibility. I speak the language of my customers and have good relations with my community. Most of our clients are very happy with us and we focus more on service than profits. Money comes second.” - Mohammed Islam, owner of Digital Graphic Design Inc. in Jackson Heights, NY
Mohammed came to the United States from Bangladesh in 2004, working as a graphic designer for community newspapers serving New York’s Bengali community – Bangla Times and the Daily Bangla. He started his first business from home in 2007 and in 2009 opened his storefront in Jackson Heights. Mohammed’s digital printing business caters to the small printing needs of local residents and community-based businesses and organizations – including Chhaya CDC.
A small printing business may not immediately come to mind as a community anchor; however, that’s exactly what it is. Mohammed provides printing for local Bangladeshi and Nepali associations and clubs, trusted relationships formed from shared cultural, language and religious identities. According to Mohammed, several other local small printers in Jackson Heights started off working for him, branching off to become small business owners and entrepreneurs themselves.
“Here [at Bhanchha Ghar], I hold meetings for my societies… I invite them here, we eat here, we sit here, we discuss here…People who don’t have jobs, I get them a job. People who don’t have a place to sleep, I find them a place.”
“The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing issues. The two biggest things I hear from businesses is they don’t know how they’re going to pay rent, or pay their employees.”
Founded in 2000, Chhaya CDC works with New Yorkers of South Asian origin to advocate for and build economically stable, thriving communities. Their approach is holistic and combines direct services and community organizing, backed by critical research and policy advocacy. Chhaya focuses much of their work in Jackson Heights, Queens -one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation.
This neighborhood has a bustling commercial district with over 1,000 storefronts and over 100 street vendors. Over 80% of merchants have 5 or fewer employees and over 70% of street vendors live in Jackson Heights. When the pandemic hit, it disproportionately had negative impacts on local, small, immigrant-owned businesses. This led Chhaya to step in and step up its small business organizing efforts.
This model of small business organizing is not the same as technical assistance or direct services. It goes way beyond these limited, one-off services and instead serve as connectors, akin to case managers in some ways. Chhaya provides a holistic approach to supporting small businesses in identifying their needs and then connecting them to legal services or financial institutions through a more comprehensive and personal approach than just a cold referral.
During the pandemic in particular, one of Chhaya’s roles has been to keep small businesses informed of the fast-changing rules and regulations, connecting them with public and private resources, and assisting them with applications for small business loans, grants and technical assistance. Additionally, Chhaya works with small businesses to grow a unified voice, build connections to one another as small businesses and ultimately establish collective political power – for example, as members of the United for Small Business NRC Coalition and its Cancel Commercial Rent campaign.
Connect primarily South Asian small businesses in Jackson Heights to existing small business services + resources; to each other; and to the Jackson Heights neighborhood
Prevent the displacement of immigrant small businesses in Jackson Heights
Local business owners, who live and work in the neighborhood, who shop locally and use the local hospital and services, are invaluable to community cohesion and sustainability. These owners are invested in the neighborhood in ways that national chains and other non-local owners are not.
Small business organizing isn’t easy and there isn’t a long history of organizing small businesses like there is with resident organizing. They aren’t the same. Business owners often see themselves as making a personal choice to start and run a business, which can lead to more initial resistance to organizing and connecting with other business owners.
Jackson Heights isn’t just a South Asian community. We are very ethnically and linguistically diverse. There’s a lot of diversity in the capacities of our various business owners. We’ve had to focus our efforts on South Asian small businesses due to our own staff capacity and language fluency. As a result, there are other immigrant-owned small businesses that we aren’t able to help.