Author details family’s experiment
Oak Park author Maggie Anderson talks Nov. 18 at the Oak Park Public Library about her book "Our Black Year" detailing her family's quest to buy only from Chicago-area African American owned business for one year. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Read more of this interview online at www.oakpark.suntimes.com
Updated: December 30, 2012 6:09AM
OAK PARK — Growing up in a Cuban neighborhood of Miami, Maggie Anderson remembers her neighbors and friends supporting Cuban-American businesses.
It was similar, Anderson said, to the way Oak Parkers support local merchants and professionals, or the way Jewish, Asian or Hispanic people shop at businesses owned by those of their ethnic group.
But she noticed black people didn’t do the same.
Oak Park resident Anderson is the author of “Our Black Year,” published in February, which details her family’s quest to buy only from black-owned businesses for one year.
She spoke about the experiment and her nonprofit organization, The Empowerment Experiment Foundation, on Nov. 18 at the Oak Park Public Library.
Anderson, her husband, John, and their two children, Cara and Cori, found the experiment — which they decided to pursue as a way to give back to the community — eye-opening. They often traveled out of their way to support black businesses, which are a rarity, even in black neighborhoods.
Now, the family spends most of its money with black businesses. Many of the businesses the Andersons supported during the experiment have shut down, including a grocer and wine store. She urged others to buy from black businesses, to restore communal pride and create jobs for blacks.
Q: Your family embarked on this yearlong project on Jan. 1, 2009. What did it entail?
A: The basic premise was, middle-class black family with the wherewithal and desire to live off black businesses for one year. Can they do it? We defined a black business as a business that was at least 50 percent black owned. We included vendors and franchises. And we also wanted to convert any standing debt. And any new debt, we wanted to create that with a black-owned enterprise.
Q: What were some of the challenges?
A: It was very hard. It was basically a year of going without. Cori, that year, she was transitioning from diapers to Pull-Ups. We found one black grocery store and one black convenience store. Neither one of them had Pull-Ups. ... She just stayed in diapers longer than we needed her to. Fortunately, we were able to find basics — gas, a dry cleaner, a grocery store — just to make it.
When my grocery store closed, we did make it for four months without a grocery store. We ate lots of fast food, lots of restaurants and ate out of gas stations. We were able to find black-owned gas stations and, fortunately, those gas stations had your little mini mart, so we were eating beef jerky and Cheerios and stuff for dinner. It was awful.
But then, it was too hard on us for us not to have produce. For a while, we used black farmers. We were just going wherever we had to go to find a farmers market. But you can’t find a farm stand in November. ... We finally broke down and we went to the local Fair Share to buy strictly produce.
Q: Was there ever a time when you wondered if it was really worth it?
A: A lot of times, it got really, really hard, especially with the girls. There are a lot of black places that sell T-shirts. But to find little girls’ clothes, I mean undies, pajamas, socks, shoes — nothing. Here we are, coming into spring, and I have no new clothes for my kids. So yes, there were many days when I was like, John, I can’t do it. There were many days we wanted to give up, did not think it was worth it. And it wasn’t just that it was too hard to find stuff. We have this problem in the black community where we don’t love our businesses anymore. We’ll be the first to say, I don’t go to black businesses because they give poor service, or prices are too high, or they’re dirty. That made us want to give up. We’re like, well, why are we doing this then, if black people are just going to keep not supporting each other? It was not getting the level of enthusiasm that we thought we’d get from our own people.
Q: What about all of this was most frustrating to you?
A: It hurt when people called us racist. There were death threats, that kind of stuff. But the lackluster response from our own community, especially from top people, that’s what was real frustrating for us. We had a list (of prominent black figures), we emailed them every day, we called their offices, and it was just so hurtful that they would just be like, oh, well, that’s great, you keep it up. We’ve gotten some support from some really important people. That’s why we’re alive today. But that part during the experiment was very disheartening, very discouraging, and made us want to give up.
Q: How has the make-up of black neighborhoods changed over time, to where we now often see an abundance of currency exchanges and fried chicken restaurants in black areas?
A: From my talking to people, from research, the theory that makes the most sense is that we had a lot. We were at the cusp of having our own Hilton, our own Walmart, our BFGoodrich, our Jiffy Lube, everything little thing that you see. We were right there in terms of being the next big, American success story. And then integration killed it. The death knell for black businesses came with integration. Integration’s timing was very, very bad for us economically, because black consumers were very, very anxious to prove their equality in this economy by supporting businesses that did not welcome that support before.
Q: You’ve mentioned Oak Park is an anomaly in terms of black-owned businesses. Why is that?
A: It is. A lot of it has to do with just Oak Park’s spirit and the geography. We are surrounded by the West side and some black suburbs, Maywood and Broadview. It’s also the mindset here. If an Oak Parker were to walk into a business and see that it has a black owner, that doesn’t make them want to turn their head, that doesn’t make them think anything. If anything, in Oak Park, what we’ve noticed is that makes them say, Oh, great! A black business. Here’s an opportunity for me to do something different, because we like to do different things in Oak Park. I think that that’s why it’s just been beneficial for us here, because it gives us hope to think, OK, maybe there are folks outside the community who would be welcome to the premise of black economic empowerment.
Q: What’s the response to the book been like?
A: It’s been fertile ground for the growth of this experiment and this message, because there’s still so many people — even though we’ve done tons of press — that have not heard about the experiment. Folks who didn’t know about it last week love it and want to get involved. The community response has just been phenomenal. It’s just frustrating, too. At home, all day, I’m running this foundation. So I’m sending out proposals, I’m writing these powerful black people, asking them to help, I’m writing universities, asking them for help, for research, and we’re just getting poo-pooed on. It’s tough. My fuel is that response.
Q: The Empowerment Experiment Foundation was created as the experiment kicked off. What was behind the establishment of it?
A: We wanted for this to continue to be real research oriented, real policy driven. We wanted some infrastructure for this. We really thought that we were going to create some institution from this, so let’s create this foundation. I want the foundation to be there for that big check to come in, either from that celebrity, from those business owners, from a foundation or something. But we do have a 501(c)(3) that we maintain, that pays for the expenses of getting this message out, and pays for meals and trips, just operational expenses. That’s what the foundation does right now. Ultimately, when this becomes big, the foundation will be running the project.
Q: What do you hope to see the foundation accomplish in the future?
A: There’s three things we want the foundation to work on. (The first is) inspiring and facilitating conscious consumerism. Second piece is strategic entrepreneurship. We’re selling a lot of shea butter, a lot of fried chicken, and we’re in the funeral business. Black people can do a lot of other things. We need to diversify our business strength on the local level and in the corporate level. The third piece is supplier diversity. There is no one out there recording, monitoring how much money these corporations — especially the ones that live off the black consumer dollar — are spending with black business. Advocacy and accountability is the third arm of the foundation. We want to demand more support of our businesses, and we want to measure and really bear those numbers out.
Q: How has your family dealt with the attention from the experiment and the book?
A: We shield our girls very well. It was a little tough during the experiment, because there was a death threat made to the family. They didn’t know about it, but we were really scared for them. And it was really tough on them, because they couldn’t go to places they wanted to go, they didn’t have clothes, they didn’t have fresh food, so it was tough on them that way. Now that the experiment is over, that going without piece is over. But they also know that when I’m driving an extra two miles to go to the black-owned Burger King on North Avenue, they know why.