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Shelf Life

‘Our Black Year’: One couple’s challenge to shop black-owned businesses

Kai Ryssdal Feb 14, 2012
Shelf Life

‘Our Black Year’: One couple’s challenge to shop black-owned businesses

Kai Ryssdal Feb 14, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: John and Maggie Anderson live in Oak Park, Ill.; it’s an upscale suburb just outside of Chicago. It’s right up against the west side of the city, which is not upscale.

The west side of Chicago is mostly poor, and mostly black. And for a year, it was at the center of an experiment the Andersons ran on themselves — and on us, too, I guess: To find and shop only at black-owned businesses. They called it “The Empowerment Experiment,” and it’s detailed in her new book, “Our Black Year.” Good to have you both with us.

Maggie Anderson: Hi there, thank you for having us.

John Anderson: Hello Kai, how are you?

Ryssdal: Maggie, I want to start, actually, at the very beginning of the book. And I’m just going to read you your first sentence, and it’s dated Jan. 2nd, 2009. And you say, “The closer we got to Jay’s Fresh Meats, the more my stomach hurt. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Tell us about that. This was your first real outing, right, to find a black-owned business?

Maggie Anderson: For us, the real beginning may have been where were conceiving the experiment, we were thinking about exciting it would be. And then that changed when we actually had to get in a car and go to the west side of Chicago. Folks like John and myself don’t do that ever. We live in a pretty affluent suburb of Oak Park.

Ryssdal: Even, we should say, black folks, right? It’s, you know, you don’t go there.

Maggie Anderson: Oh yeah. So we were literally just going through the phone book and looking for addresses on the west side of Chicago, and calling, “Hi, I’m Maggie Anderson. I’m trying to find a black-owned business — are you black-owned?” So we put Jay’s Fresh Meats on our list. That’s all we knew about Jay’s Fresh Meats. It was basically a convenient store, and it was filthy. No one was in there shopping. It was tiny. The owner was not very welcoming. And then when she heard me talk, you know, she was like, yeah, she felt I was an Oak Parker — not another sister. And the whole point of my coming to her store was to show her that we are the same and I want to support her.

Ryssdal: Well it was interesting, because you confess in your book that you changed the way you spoke to her a little bit, once you got into that environment.

Maggie Anderson: If you have this conversation with more middle-class African-Americans, you’re going to see that we do that all the time.

Ryssdal: Well this is the thing that’s going to get us emails calling me a horrible person, but you don’t sound black over the phone, right?

John Anderson: Well, we’re using our phone and radio voices.

Maggie Anderson: No, this is how we talk to each other, and our friends.

John Anderson: Yeah, we used to call it ‘lapsing into the dialect.’

Maggie Anderson: Yes. But when we want to make sure we’re connecting, we do lapse every once in a while.

Ryssdal: Right. John, tell me the happy story. You go through many, many, many iterations of walking in, finding a very depressing black-owned business, and then finally you walk in to this place that is clean and well-stocked and has good employees. Tell us about Farmer’s Best Market.

John Anderson: To set this up, it’s kind of sad that we were so surprised that it fit the criteria. Karriem Beyah was the owner of the store. He was a well-educated businessman who set up shop in a food desert area, which was a part of town that typically has residents that don’t have access to fresh food. But it was fairly empty.

Maggie Anderson: So this wasn’t just ‘don’t be Jay’s, be Karriem’s Farmer’s Best.’ It wasn’t just that. It’s just that once we even have those top-quality businesses with everything right, our own people won’t make that extra step to just support them.

Ryssdal: You actually say at a couple of points, and you’ve got the statistics to back it up, that just spending money in black-owned businesses isn’t enough, right? And what are you supposed to do if just spending money’s not enough?

Maggie Anderson: Of course you want everybody to support the mom-and-pops. You should have a black dry cleaner. You should try to go to black restaurants twice a week. But we need the corporations to do a lot better with doing business with our businesses. That’s the bigger part of the story. And think about the fact that in the top 500 privately held companies, none of those are black. It can’t just be Oprah and Jay-Z. We can grow the South Coast Papers of the world — that’s where I get my paper; they’re sold in OfficeMax. But if we can make South Coast Paper one of the biggest paper companies in the world, and help them — they’re now at 70 employees — why can’t they be 500 employees? Think about what we can do just by buying paper.

Ryssdal: Maggie Anderson. Her book is called “Our Black Year.” Maggie and John, thanks a lot.

Maggie Anderson: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure.

John Anderson: Thanks for having us.

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