Why 540WMain decided to go virtual

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Several months ago, Calvin Eaton decided that his organization, 540WMain, could no longer keep investing in a property without ownership. When negotiations with the landlord didn’t go far enough, Eaton chose to take the antiracist education brand online.

“So often BIPOC creatives invest time, money, and resources into spaces that we do not own because decades of divestment and stealing sanctioned and condoned by all levels of government has left many of us with little to no generational wealth, land, or property,” notes Eaton, founder and director of 540WMain.

Launched four years ago, 540WMain offers online classes, events and multimedia content aimed at promoting justice for all. Though classes may vary in content, from arts to the environment, instruction is rooted in a social justice and antiracism framework.

The organization is funded mainly by memberships, donations and revenue from its offerings. Its new administrative office will be located within the Douglass Auditorium on King Street.

For Eaton, New York’s lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 underscored the fact that antiracism education is not contingent on a physical space.  

“The quantity and quality of the work that we were able to produce without the burden of managing space increased exponentially,” he says.

This year has been one of growth for 540WMain as communities around the globe stand up against systemic racism. The agency is a finalist for Causewave Community Partners’ 2020 Matchstick Prize. The award winner, scheduled to be announced this week, will receive $5,000 in cash and $25,000 media grant. 540WMain joins Dress for Success, the Avenue Blackbox Theatre, the Center for Teen Empowerment and the Junior League of Rochester as a finalist.

The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Eaton about the future of 540WMain and his decision to go online. His answers are below.

ROCHESTER BEACON: What factors did 540WMain weigh in its decision to become a virtual organization, in addition to the coronavirus outbreak?

Calvin Eaton

CALVIN EATON: As a Black social entrepreneur, it has always been clear that ownership is essential in our current system. So often BIPOC creatives invest time, money, and resources into spaces that we do not own because decades of divestment and stealing sanctioned and condoned by all levels of government have left many of us with little to no generational wealth, land, or property. It was becoming clear that 540WMain could no longer continue to invest into a property without full ownership. Since last year, the board and I had been in a robust contract negotiation process to purchase our founding building from the current owner with the support of local law firm Harter Secrest and Emery LLP. These negotiations carried on for many months and continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in the end we were unable to reach a fair and equitable agreement that was in the best interest of the organization and its future.

ROCHESTER BEACON: How did the New York lockdown impact operations at your organization? What did you learn? Were there benefits? Downsides?

EATON: Prior to COVID, 540 was probably 70 percent remote. This was intentional since my journey to entrepreneurship was born out my experience living as a disabled professional and needing to create a platform that would allow me to work remotely when necessary. Like so many other organizations, the pandemic changed the nature of how we carried out a large percentage of 540’s mission.

As soon as the state shut down, almost immediately we were pretty easily able to pivot our work to a 100 percent remote operation. The quantity and quality of the work that we were able to produce without the burden of managing space increased exponentially. We engaged in a record number of classes, our donations increased multifold, and our membership base increased exponentially. In addition to all of this we were connecting to people all over the world. The impact of COVID-19 taught me that this important work can happen anywhere and is not contingent on occupying any specific physical space.

ROCHESTER BEACON: 540WMain has been successful in raising funds this year and is a finalist for the 2020 Matchstick Prize presented by Causewave Community Partners. What do you attribute the success to? What do you hope to accomplish in the near future?

EATON: From the outset in 2016 I envisioned a digital-centric education brand that had a reach beyond Rochester and so this end goal influenced my leadership and direction. My background as a writer, blogger, and educator certainly laid the foundation, and as we have evolved this end goal never changed. I am also a people person and really focused during years two and three on networking, building community relationships, and seeking opportunities for my own leadership development. 

I read as much as possible about social entrepreneurship and the nonprofit sector in an effort to take the best of what I felt works in these systems and actively working to create a model for the modern (21st) century nonprofit. These experiences have all been invaluable as well as being honest, transparent, adaptable and an outside-the-box thinker. Of course, I could never take solo credit for 540’s success and growth. Over the years many community members, family, friends, and volunteers invested time and energy, financial resources into building a success organization. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: What role do you see your organization playing as Rochester attempts to address systemic racism? Is there enough community engagement on antiracism efforts? 

EATON: 540WMain is an education brand that focuses on antiracism, equity and justice. We provide learning and knowledge to help folks understand the connection between past and present and recommend strategies for taking personal and collective action. Understanding this mission and staying in this lane gives us a unique value to the local and national community since so much of the history and knowledge about systemic racism has been intentionally omitted and/or erased. Recent local and national conversations about the life and legacies of Nathaniel Rochester, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass alongside the New York Times’ 1619 Project have deconstructed what we’ve always been taught and called into question long-term, longstanding narratives that have always centered whiteness. The more we discuss and learn, the better we all can be in interrogating the status quo and hopefully not repeating harmful narratives. 

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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