Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Black History Month Action Item: Blacks Must Invest More In Their Own Communities

I love when people see a need in their communities and just go for it.  It's how entrepreneurs are born.  Best known for his recent work on the "The Wire", Wendell Pierce was my acting coach when I was a kid at Howard University Children's Theatre, so I have been watching his acting career with great pride. Recently he has decided to give back to his community in New Orleans by creating and funding a chain of grocery stores called Sterling Farms, named after his father.  He was inspired by Michelle Obama spotlighting food deserts in inner city communities and felt that instead of charity, he would fill a void in the community he grew up in.

Says Pierce:
"One of the richest countries in the history of the world having communities where people have to go over half an hour to get to fresh produce and food is unacceptable. And I feel as though the two can coexist, that you can actually be a successful business by filling that need. Classic Economy 101: fill the need, there is a demand, supply and demand."
Here's an excerpt from a recent profile on him in Mother Jones:
MJ: Speaking of encouraging fresh and local food consumption, I just saw a giant bus ad: "Chicken McNuggets, 20 for $4.99." That's 25 cents a pop. How do you compete with that? 
WP: You have to compete with it. Everybody says, "How are you going to compete with fast food, with all these low-cost choices?" There's nothing else competing with them! They have a monopoly in the community! So that's the challenge. You have to make it affordable…. We'll have the community actively participating in the store, and having access to those foods, and have chefs come in to show them how to prepare good, healthy meals, and at the same time have access to affordable, healthy choices. I'll compete with the nuggets.
Mother Jones, as part of their Black History Month coverage, also spotlighted journalist Maggie Anderson's attempt to "buy black" in her community.  What she found is something that I have found to be true myself: It's very difficult to find black owned and operated businesses in black communities.

Oh, the worst thing was what we learned about economies in black neighborhoods. We assumed, just like other little ethnic enclaves like Little Italy or Greek Town or Chinatown, that for predominantly black neighborhoods all the black businesses there would be owned by the local people. But easily over 90 percent of the businesses on the West Side{of chicago}—and it's the same way all over the country—are owned by people who are not black and do not live in that community. So it's not a "buy local" thing, because these folks set up shop in the black community, sell their wares, make their money, hardly ever employ the local people there—and they put the steel bar over the door, pack up at 6:30, get in their car, drive to their suburb, and take that money with them. And that was the whole reason that these communities suffer the way they do: The everyday exit of the wealth in those neighborhoods directly leads to social crises there. 
So I'm literally walking around and talking to people, "Is there a black-owned restaurant, or a black-owned dry cleaner?" and folks are looking at me like I'm insane. And if I didn't know this, I'm sure that folks outside the black community don't have this as part of their reality or part of their picture for black America. When we talk about black people, the black situation, problems in the black community, you know, we start with, "Black kids are least likely to graduate from school; black unemployment is four times higher than the national average," all these numbers. But why can't we include that over 90 percent of businesses in the black community are not owned by black people or local residents? If we were to add that to the conversation, maybe folks would say, "Oh, well no wonder things are so bad there," and start thinking about things in a different way instead of allowing those awful numbers to be a reflection of our propensities. Why is it that my people are just supposed to be the perpetual consumer class, and everyone else is supposed to benefit from our money?

She makes a very good point.  The reason many people feel hopeless in inner city America is because there is no job waiting for them.  If they can't rap, sing or dance, make beats, or do something athletic with a ball, many of them don't see a way out of their situations.  Businesses in their communities, by and large, not only tend not to hire people who look like them, but these businesses tend to hire FAMILY.  A lot of small businesses are family run, especially in the early stages.

More importantly, we do have a monied class in our community, and like Wendall Pierce, it needs to decide to create products and services that are needed in our community and not just buy a house with marble countertops and star in basketball housewives while driving an expensive set of cars.  

The entrepreneur that I look up to the most is Magic Johnson. I wish there were more Johnson's in the world, and not because my mom's maiden name is Johnson. He took his wealth from his career as an extraordinary basketball player and has created a business empire that resonates today in a great many communities.  He proved that black inner city residents want products and services too.  His creation of movie theater complexes in Watts, CA and Harlem, USA completely changed these areas. Creating an artistic anchor in the community paved the way for other big box stores to move in.  Countless other urban centers, like Newark and Washington, DC have used this same basic model to spark business in their communities by investing in arts centers to attract tourism and nighttime entertainment.  Harlem started to flourish because after people went to the movies, they wanted something to eat, or wanted to listen to some music at a club, or buy some clothes before hand, or go to a spa.  All of these types of businesses are flourishing in Harlem now. They employ people in the community and people from outside Harlem visit and spend money there regularly. 

So it's a two pronged approach: we need to create businesses at every level, and those with money in the black community need to diversify their business ideas, not just limiting their vision to a fashion or liquor line.  Then we as black people need to patronize those businesses because as my mother always used to say: We've got to support the business in our community because if we don't support us, who will?

It is high time for black people on all points of the wealth ladder to consciously decide that we will invest more within our communities. With more money going into those local businesses, they will hire more workers, hopefully lifting everyone up.

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