Our Black Year: Supporting Conscious Consumerism And Small Business

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Our Black YearI find it funny when people from all walks of life speak on how a business is run, but few thoroughly examine a business’ relationship with a community.  A family’s experiment shows the importance of that relationship more than any words could express.

Our Black Year, One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy, written by Maggie Anderson with Ted Gregory, is thoughtful journalism on being a conscious consumer — in this case, supporting businesses in traditional black communities.

We read about thought-provoking ideas in great books like Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh, but Anderson, a Chicago lawyer, lived the values behind her ideas. She and her husband John (they have two young daughters, Cara and Cori) purchased goods and services from Black-owned businesses operating in local economically depressed neighborhoods.  It was a year-long “conscious consumerism” project.  I contacted the publisher for a review copy after seeing Anderson speak on C-Span about her experience during the study, because I thought the book would be of interest to small business owners.

New Century Approach To A Long Standing Problem

Discussions on supporting black businesses are not new. Our Black Year places a new more proactive twist on that notion, approaching its topic the way Hollowing Out The Middle, a book on the economic drain of rural America, did.

Anderson shares illuminating data and historic perspective on how businesses in under-served communities start at a disadvantage — from lending discrimination that still plagues Black and Hispanic business owners, to the degree to which economic spending flees a community, such as the studies quoted below:

“One of the first things I uncovered was a report from a 2004 showing that for every $100 flowing into an average underserved Black community, about $95 leaves ….  Just as illuminating was a radio piece produced in 2009 by WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s National Public Radio outlet, that examined retail leakage in thirty Chicago neighborhoods. Its findings: “Thirty neighborhoods have more than 50 percent retail leakage. Of those, 20 are on the South Side. Almost all are majority-Black neighborhoods. In 2007 residents in these neighborhoods spent a collective $3.8 billion outside of their own South Side communities.”

Historic views of the African American community ranging from Talented Tenth to the Black Wall Street in Tulsa heighten the points raised.

Making A Difference While Overcoming Obstacles

Anderson’s story perspective enhances the impact of family decisions, more than any white paper exercise could. Moreover, the retelling shows what a customer may undergo in becoming a “conscious consumer.”  I was particularly touched by Anderson’s worry about selecting clothes for Cara to attend a christening while meeting the study criteria:

“Cara was going to wear an informal dress with spaghetti-straps and open-toed sandals. No sweater. It was barely acceptable attire….  I kept wondering whether I had forsaken my sweet babies for a purpose.…  But someday, I kept telling myself maybe my daughters will understand that taking a stand often creates collateral damage.”

Family reactions are notable, particularly at the start of the project as Mima, Anderson’s mother, discovers she has pancreatic cancer.  The trials have thoughtful literary-quality honesty and add humanity with each point Anderson makes.

Anderson also shared the not-ready-for-PC reader commentary from a Chicago SunTimes feature article. These critics who felt the project emphasized racial differences harmfully.  Anderson felt disappointment from being told to “move on to Africa” among other more sharp mentions. Fun fact: Ann Coulter even weighed in (I won’t give away that nugget! Read the book!).

The text speaks sharply to the post civil-rights African American middle class.  Anderson shares how gentrification overlooks the voices of community residents, via comments from Michelle Boyd, an associate professor of African American studies and political science at University of Illinois-Chicago:

“One reason poorer residents do not present sustained opposition is that they are filtered out of the community development process.”

The book sounds militant in some passages, but that tone demonstrates eloquent arguments meant to establish an urgent proactive stance, as well as to address the harsh responses encountered.

Our Black Year highlights a quintessential concern among business owners – the thin line between activities that will keep the doors open versus being an active steward within a community.  Highlighting long ignored economic structures in traditionally Black neighborhoods is an example of how far some segments of the United States have been derailed.

Here are some rich takeaways that can serve small businesses with a “conscious consumer” audience:

  • How treating customers well can engender support, be a gateway for customer loyalty, and a form of “brand” identity without trying so hard to creating it through marketing tactics
  • Sometimes good marketing tactics can not save a business if used too late (another nugget, read the book)
  • If your business is looking for new opportunities, consider basic goods not offered conveniently rather than that “radical new health juice.”  Anderson noted an absence when seeking family needs.  “Among the businesses we had trouble finding were Black-owned shoe stores and other outlets with children’s clothes.”

The appendices contain terrific data and sources.  They complement the ideas raised in Locavesting, another book on supporting local businesses. Combining the listed financial resources like Local Investment Opportunity Network with the resources in Our Black Year is a powerhouse move for those practicing conscious consumerism.

One nitpick: Andersons’ tips for shopping consciously should be a chapter on its own, but I write that with uplifting respect.  It’s an excellent thoughtful list that should be highlighted.

Our Black Year will fascinate people who have an interest in community development.  Place it in your business library. It is a treasure for how ideas should be enacted and funded with discipline and compassion.

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Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.