PITTSFIELD — It's hard to imagine a more qualified local candidate to lead the recently formed Berkshire Black Economic Council than Alfred "A.J." Enchill Jr.
The Pittsfield native's father, Alfred Enchill, runs Elegant Stitches, a small Black-owned business in Pittsfield that has been operating for over 20 years. Enchill and his three brothers grew up in the family-owned business and saw firsthand the obstacles that Black-owned businesses in the Berkshires face while trying to develop and sustain themselves.
But, there is more to Enchill than just economic development. The 28-year-old has served as a legislative aide to state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, for the past six years, volunteered for several local nonprofit organizations and flirted with the idea of becoming a professional lacrosse player after playing on two consecutive Division III national championship teams at Tufts University. Unlike many other homegrown members of his generation, Enchill also decided to return to Pittsfield at a young age to raise his family.
We touched on all these topics with Enchill during a recent interview.
Q: I looked at the goals and objectives for the Berkshire Black Economic Council on your website. Can you describe them to me in your own words?
A: We're focused on economic development in a very, very broad sense. It's so we can figure out where businesses are having trouble, and how do we act as the conduit to facilitate new partnerships. ... What we're trying to do is make sure that Black businesses know about things like pitch competitions and grants and money and funds and long-term agreements.
The greater Berkshire business community can also post job opportunities.
Let's say they're looking to fill a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) position or a coordinator. They could post that on the BBEC's website and find a Black person that they wanted to hire because they're trying to diversify their workforce. It's things like that. That's going to be our purpose.
Q: Why do you need a separate organization to do that in the Berkshires?
A: There's unique needs in the Black business community, and we felt that we have the aptitude and understanding, based on lived experiences, to speak, aid and advocate for economic development for the Berkshire Black business community.
Q: What are those unique needs?
A: There's access to capital. That's one.
Q: Somebody could argue that the Berkshires already have organizations that can help small businesses find access to capital, like 1Berkshire or the MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board, or even the Berkshire chapter of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center. So, why do you need a separate organization to help Black-owned businesses access those items?
A: It's about the existing modes for funding, and Black businesses don't necessarily fit into the criteria mold, I would say.
For example, if you have to prove that you have annual sales over $500,000, you've been in business five to 10 years, or you have x number of employees, that's not the formula for a lot of these Black businesses. For that reason, we need to collect separate pots of money so they can access those pockets of funds and improve their business models.
It's one thing to advocate for people's needs on a broader, regional approach. It's another thing to speak to the plight of Black businesses and their issues in finding resources or finding the ability to search for grants and to receive information about opportunities.
Black businesses, quite frankly, don't have the capacity to do that, because a lot of them are sole proprietors or are working under a roof with two or three employees, max. Then you have to spend time allocating your company's resources towards finding opportunities that are being presented to minority business enterprises. That isn't something that Berkshire Black businesses have the capacity to do.
So, we're here to figure out what their issues are as businesses, because they're not going to be the usual or typical reasons. They're actually going to be a little more complex, and for that reason we have to figure out how to craft language that can be used to bring funding to this area.
Q: How do problems accessing capital hamper the growth of Black businesses in the Berkshires?
A: If folks aren't deliberately spending at Black businesses, you can easily forget about them as a whole. You don't have to spend your money at a Black-owned business to get the things you need. ...
In times like COVID-19, when there's an economic crisis, they [Black-owned businesses] are going to be the first to be hit. A comparison that I would make is the way we sometimes treat the arts as an elective [in school]. You can't just see Black businesses as an elective where you spend money at other businesses. You almost have to be more intentional to spend money there so then they can continue to grow and get to achieve a place of sustainability for when an economic crisis hits like this and they have to weather the storm like everyone else.
Q: You've worked for Sen. Hinds for six years, and for U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark when you majored in American Studies at Tufts. Is your future in politics or in economic development?
A: I don't know; that's really hard to say. To be honest, I just like to help people and businesses, and right now, I'm using the skills that I've developed having worked for the congresswoman and the senator in constituent services in understanding how to break down complex issues in a way that's simple and digestible so then folks can feel like they're speaking to somebody with comfortability who can help them find the resources, someone who they can trust, because I and the majority of our board members have been in this community for 20 years, so we are connected to Black people up and down this county.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A: I hope to have my law degree by then [Enchill interned as a paralegal at a law firm in White Plains, N.Y., for three months during college].
Q: You want to go to law school?
A: I hope. I want to. It's just figuring out the timing of that.
Q: A lot of the members of your generation who grew up in Pittsfield went off to college and never came back. But, you came back at a young age and decided to raise a family here. Why?
A: I went to boarding school (The Governor's Academy in Byfield, where he captained the lacrosse team and first met his future wife, Grace). So, what happened is, when I came back to the Berkshires, I saw it for what it is and what it can be. I didn't know about these hidden things the Berkshires has, like arts and culture [facilities] like Mass MoCA and The Clark. ...
I'm a little bit older, and now I'm seeing this as a place where I want to spend my life. Also, I'm falling in love with my wife [the Enchills began dating when Grace, who is from Hingham, came to the Berkshires to teach French at Berkshire Country Day School in Stockbridge]. We just started hanging out. ... Now, we have a baby.
Q: Why did you go to boarding school?
A: I had a really close friend of mine who was playing lacrosse there. ... I went as a repeat sophomore. ... I wanted to play [lacrosse] at a very high level and use it to get into the best school I could get into and then the rest would figure itself out. I ended up at Tufts, and it was the best situation for me.
Q: Lots of former lacrosse players always seem to have a stick lying around the house somewhere, or like to toss a ball around once in a while. Do you?
A: Absolutely. I still shoot around. I have a mini-goal in my backyard. I still have my college sticks, both of them.