The year of Maggie and John Anderson’s “shopping black” experiment is now half-way through, and the Oak Park couple feels they’ve already made a difference in highlighting the struggles of many black businesses.
They changed the name of their project from the Ebony Experiment to the Empowerment Experiment to better reflect what they’re trying to accomplish. So far, they’ve spent more than $40,000 with black businesses and professionals. The Andersons also started the Empowerment Experiment Foundation to promote research into developing economic empowerment initiatives in underserved communities.
Since appearing in Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal newspaper, parent publication of Austin Weekly News, in January, the couple has experienced significant media exposure, locally and nationally. CNN, MSNBC, BET (Black Entertainment Television) and Time Magazine are a few of the media outlets that have sought the Andersons out.
In the process, they have attracted supporters and detractors.
Critics call them, and their experiment, racist. The Andersons say their effort to support black businesses is no different from any other ethnic group supporting their merchants. Naysayers accuse them of promoting segregation. The couple argues that they’re merely advocating “self-help” economics for black people. They’re also hoping to educate consumers about some of the problems black businesses and shoppers face in their communities.
“Buying black is not new, but we’re going about it in a unique way,” said John, a Detroit native and financial planner.
He and his wife Maggie, a lawyer and legal consultant originally from Miami, both grew up in poor black communities. They said their campaign is not only about shopping black, but addressing social ills. Too many black communities, for example, are considered “food deserts,” they point out – areas with scarce fresh food options, but plenty of greasy, fast food eateries. A 2006 study commissioned by LaSalle Bank found more than a half million Chicagoans are living in food deserts. Of those 630,000 residents, most were black, according to Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago.
On the Andersons’ Web site, www.eefortomorrow.com, they chronicle how much they spend, and also highlight quality businesses they’ve discovered. In Austin, they found Quench the Experience, a black-owned, healthy food restaurant in the midst of a typical food desert. Quench is part of the I Love Food Group franchise, founded by Quentin Love, a Southsider who was inspired to create healthy food restaurants in urban areas after growing up in food deserts. Austin’s Quench has become the Andersons’ Friday night eat-out spot.
But even with national fast food franchises, the Andersons were surprised to find no black-owned KFC or Wendy’s in the entire Chicago area.
“As much as [black people] eat fast food, that’s a bit disheartening,” said John.
Another social ill connected to black economic empowerment is the lack of diverse role models for black youth, Maggie noted. Too many kids identify more with black athletes and entertainers as opposed to black business people and professionals, she said. And it doesn’t help matters that most businesses in the kids’ neighborhoods, including on the West Side, are not owned by black people.
Earlier this spring, a news crew from the CBS Evening News did a segment on a day-in-the-life of the Andersons and their shop black campaign. To prove the point, Maggie took the crew to Austin along Madison and the string of businesses located on that strip.
“I told them to go into any of these stores and ask the people who’s the owner. I said don’t take my word for it, go in there and see for yourself. They were shocked. Yes, there are black people shopping and there are black people working behind the counter. But when they asked who’s the owner, it wasn’t a black person,” Maggie recalled. “You would have thought they were in Somalia or Beirut by the look on their faces. They couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘How can this be?’ People don’t believe us when we point this out, but this is what we’ve been living with all our lives.”
The Andersons also acknowledge those black businesses that contribute to the negative stereotypes – bad service, workers with nasty attitudes, low-quality products and so on. On their Web site, they tout quality businesses, in part to help inspire others to get their act together.
The couple also stresses that what they’re doing also involves educating people.
“When we really start educating the broader community about the dire structure of black businesses, most people from the outside are coming to support us,” said John.
Since starting their campaign, John and Maggie have added educators, authors, journalists and legal experts to their Empowerment Team, experts who have been studying black businesses and shopping habits for years. The campaign is also being tracked by researchers at Northwestern University for a study on the spending habits of black Americans.
“It’s about awareness,” said Maggie. “We’re not trying to push anyone down. We’re trying to learn something about what we can do.”