For years, John and Maggie Anderson of Oak Park, Illinois, talked about the factors that disproportionately affect the African-American community and how they could help. Then it came to them—a social experiment where they would patronize Black-owned businesses exclusively for one year. ESSENCE.com caught up with the couple, now three months into the “The Empowerment Experiment,” to find out how they’ve facilitated the project through this difficult economic climate, being deemed racists, and exactly what they’re trying to prove.
ESSENCE.COM: Why do you think the idea of buying only from Black-owned companies is so controversial?
JOHN ANDERSON: There are some misconceptions about the project. The broader community may not understand that this is not about exclusion. This is a call to action for African-Americans to take ownership of an issue that is affecting our community. Encouraging other African-Americans to buy Black is not necessarily saying stop patronizing other business. But in our opinion, there is a higher sense of duty to reinvest in Black communities that are underserved.
MAGGIE ANDERSON: I know it’s harder for someone who really hasn’t lived, seen or been directly impacted by the social ills that our community faces. You have to live through that pain first, then you start caring about it and then you try to find a way to resolve it. We believe that our problems are largely economic and that if we can get our economic game together, having the highest unemployment rates, the highest incarceration rates and all those other things that test us will go away.
ESSENCE.COM: How has this affected your everyday life?
MAGGIE: The biggest thing is that now I drive about 18 miles to get to the store for things like diapers when there is a Walmart less than a mile away. I can see where people might say, “well that’s crazy,” but we’ve gotten used to it. All the places I go now, I know the people I’m buying from and I know that my money is going back into a community that needs it. It may seem like a sacrifice to others, but it’s actually a completely loved-filled, empowering feeling for me.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s been the hardest part of the experiment?
MAGGIE: Actually it has been finding Black-owned businesses. We had to go to the Chicago Urban League to help us find some places. People also assume, well here is this middle-class family that now has to shop in the hood, settle for lesser quality products and bad service but none of that has happened. These are entrepreneurs who are just trying to do the right thing and have their piece of the American dream.
ESSENCE.COM: Did you think about the recession when you started the project?
JOHN: We couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen to the economy when we decided to do this last August, but we could have launched this project during any time of the economic cycle. The end game is still the same—to address the gaps in unemployment, wealth creation, and entrepreneurship for African-Americans, which persists in good times or bad.
ESSENCE.COM: So do you find yourselves spending more or less nowadays?
MAGGIE: We’ve saved because we can’t just run out to Friday’s or Kmart and buy on impulse anymore. A lot of stuff has to be planned. I try to go to grocery store once or twice a week but if I forget the cream cheese, then I know we’ll have to do without it until next time.
ESSENCE.COM: Some people have commented that what you’re doing is racist.
JOHN: This is a social experiment. We are testing whether or not self-help economics can eventually solve the crisis in our communities and understand why it hasn’t worked thus far. We certainly welcome input because a thriving African-American community benefits society as a whole. But we do face a unique set of circumstances in this country. We’re at the bottom as it relates to ownership and entrepreneurship. So this problem requires some creative solutions.
ESSENCE.COM: So, what exactly are you trying to prove?
MAGGIE: The fact that I can’t shop at a large Black grocery chain anywhere in the United States is disappointing but I don’t accept that this is the way it’s supposed to be. We want people to see what we’re doing and just think about trying to do something similar. People can keep checking our Web site eefortomorrow.com because we’re going to have a space for them to make their own challenge and keep a record of what they’re doing. We want to say look what our community did! We invested millions of dollars back into struggling Black communities just by making small changes in how we shop every day.
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