After witnessing the phone footage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minnesota police officer in May, Riccardo Waites knew his days of being a couch-activist were over. Along with activism to bring attention to systemic racism, he’s bringing equity and equality to people of color by opening doors into businesses and work environments that often don’t include Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).

A Central Oregon resident for the last 20 years, Waites is a single father raising two daughters, a small business owner, and a U.S. Navy submarine service veteran. He appreciates the place where his daughters get to live but also misses a more diverse array of ethnicities in the area. With that lack of diversity often comes a lack of understanding about what it’s like to be Black in America, he believes.

With COVID-19 school closures, Waites divides his time between supporting his daughters’ at-home learning, running his business, and growing a nonprofit created to foster equality in the workplace.

“It’s very fulfilling,” he said from home.

Waites founded Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly (COBLA) to bring constructive change by matching BIPOC applicants with business internships. Waites knows that unpaid internships are usually not feasible for BIPOC and therefore don’t reflect a diverse group of interns.

COBLA is building a pool of applicants looking for business experience, and businesses who want to work with enthusiastic interns while supporting equality. He’s seeking applicants and participating businesses throughout Central Oregon, including in Sisters.

“The applicants will have an opportunity to work in a field they usually don’t have access to,” said Waites.

Prospective interns may be in school, or may have acquired knowledge through work experience.

“The goal,” said Waites, “is to provide a way for people of color to have a chance to build generational wealth. They’re signing up for equality, not an average internship.”

Applicants usually range in age from 18 to 45 and come with a background of all kinds of life experiences.

Last summer an intern was placed with a start-up business, Bend Sauce, for a 120-day, paid internship. He sold their product to the public and was in charge of their rolling store.

“He learned marketing, how to build a start-up company, banking and daily operations. Through COBLA, he was paid $15 per hour, plus commissions,” said Waites.

After working all summer, the intern, Maxwell Freedman, learned a lot and became the youngest board member with COBLA.

“Now, he’s vice president of our nonprofit,” said Waites. “Our organization builds leaders, but in Maxwell’s case he was already a natural leader and a good student. We’re lucky to have him in our organization.”

Waites is proud to say that 80 percent of the COBLA board is African American.

Providing work experience will help BIPOC to enter professional areas that are often inaccessible to them.

“Entering new workspaces instills a sense pride and ownership in their work. We want to move BIPOCs out of positions that can’t pay a living wage to support a family,” said Waites.

Waites says many Central Oregon businesses are aware of COBLA. He wants to establish relationships with more businesses throughout Central Oregon in several key industries: marketing, technology, hospitality, medical, law enforcement and food.

Waites wants to make sure the program works as simply as possible.

“It’s one less reason for a business to say no,” said Waites.

Matching businesses with applicants will begin next year. In the meantime, Waites invites interested businesspeople and applicants to get in touch, and fill out an application so the matching can begin. Waites’ motto is “Unification For You, For Me, For We.” He wants his efforts to initiate positive change in the area to create a win/win for all involved.

To learn more about COBLA visit mycobla.com. To submit an application contact Esther@mycobla.com or riccardo@mycobla.com.