In a social and economic experiment as bold as it was challenging, Maggie and John Anderson pledged to spend a year buying only from black-owned businesses in their hometown of Chicago. In Our Black Year, Maggie and co-author Ted Gregory chronicle the results of the couple’s experience, balancing the harsh realities of the business world with an inspiring story of a couple’s real investment in their community.
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We talked to Maggie Anderson about her year, but readers can visit EEforTomorrow.com for more information on this modest, game-changing proposal.
What was the initial rationale behind the Empowerment Experiment?
It was our wholehearted belief that nothing was going to change in the African-American community—in terms of countering the social crises that disproportionately impact us—unless there was a concerted push to focus on our economic empowerment. We knew economic empowerment could not come about until more Americans, especially African-Americans with money, like John and I, do more to seek and support our businesses. We wanted to get that message out in a way that was smart, scientific and therefore irrefutable.
We felt a need to inspire a sense of activism and unity, which we felt was lost within our community, especially among the middle and upper-class folks—the highly educated, the professionals and suburbanites. While we would never claim to be Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, we did want to do something that reminded our people of the importance and value of taking a stand.
How does Our Black Year show that self-help economics improves the African-American community?
The study that resulted from our experiment proves that the community would improve if more consumers were to just make a small, incremental increase in the money they spend with our businesses. Phenomenal job growth, less poverty, enhanced tax bases would result in poor neighborhoods, which leads to better-funded schools. That would be a huge improvement!
The experiment was meant to be inspirational, something that makes people think about things, like where their money goes and what it can do to help struggling communities. The study actually proves what can happen—in terms of job creation, entrepreneurship growth and successful businesses—when we do just a little bit of what my family did.
What qualities did you find in the men and women who own the businesses you frequented?
They were all different. Most were humble and hopeful. All were hard-working, of course, and very intelligent. All of them feel like being a business owner is an honor and duty, not just a career. They felt like if they failed, they would let all of us down.
Most of them were pretty frustrated by the inequities they experience. They were tired of having to jump through hoops to get the meetings that their white and Asian counterparts got so easily. They were furious about how they could not depend on their own people to support and promote them—the way Jewish and Hispanic business owners could.
Another sentiment I sensed from many was shame. They were proud to be black business owners, but they knew that in America, that was not something to be proud of. It is something to be pitied.
The book shows that self empowerment isn’t always easy. What were some of the harder days you experienced during this year?
There weren’t many easy days. But the worst days were those days looking for businesses on the West Side. It’s tough, seeing the awful stereotypes and horrific statistics played out and up close. Being there was so depressing and maddening, most times, it did not inspire me to keep the fight alive.
What was it like having this experience in the media spotlight?
The media was wonderful because it helped us touch millions with our story. It made everyday folks proud, to see a professional, articulate, young family taking a stand in honor of those communities and small businesses that no one seems to care about. Seeing a normal black family, doing something positive just to help people gave a lot of people hope.What was the most important idea for you to communicate through Our Black Year?
It’s the fact that we already have everything we need to make our communities better – we just have to believe in and support each other. We did it before and we can do it again. There are so many fantastic businesses—black and not —that could radically change the path of the African-American community and truly benefit society as a whole.
Things can be so different, if we just try.
How can readers continue supporting the Empowerment Experiment?
This book is the key to EE’s future, funding the project and maintaining the message in the media and the academic community. It keeps the conversation alive. We need people to register on our website, as business owners and as consumers, and tell their friends to do the same.
Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.