At his Rally 4 Peace concert in Baltimore, during the wake of protests for Freddie Gray’s death, Prince ended his concert with a promise to the African American community, “Next time I come to Baltimore, I want to stay at a hotel owned by one of you. I want to get out of the airport in a car service owned by one of you. I want to play in an arena owned by one of you.”
What if we all did this as part of our own activism against the racial inequalities that exist in our society?
Would it be as straightforward as it sounds? Not quite, according to Joy Katz and Cynthia Croot, the two Pittsburgh-based artists behind OneLarge.
Katz and Croot launched OneLarge—a participatory art project—during the Open Engagement Conference at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year. The conference, attended by artists from all over the world, aims to provide a platform to support socially engaged art.
The pair took a $1000 grant they received from The Sprout Fund and gave $10 to 100 artists with only one instruction: they must spend it at a black-owned business.
The project was inspired by the book, Our Black Year. Written by African American author Maggie Anderson, the book chronicles her family’s quest to patronize only black-owned businesses for a year. Katz read the book and was inspired to begin her own advocacy. “I was struck by how incredibly difficult it was to do—especially for basic needs, like diapers.”
According to Katz, black businesses lag behind businesses of all other racial groups in every measure of success. Even within black communities, most of the businesses are owned by outsiders. And what happens is a phenomenon called leakage.
According to the OneLarge website, black consumers in the U.S. spend a trillion dollars a year. Yet nearly all of that money, $95 out of every $100, leaves black communities within hours, flowing mainly to white business owners (or businesses owned by people of other races and ethnicities) who do not live in or reinvest in those communities. Meanwhile, scant money spent by people of other races flows to black-owned businesses.
Anderson’s book provides these statistics: “In the Asian community, a dollar circulates among local shop owners, banks and business professionals for up to 28 days. In the Jewish community, a dollar circulates for 19 days. In the African American community, a dollar is gone within six hours.”
While $10 won’t change the tide, the artists’ intent is to raise awareness, first with the individuals who participate in the project and second with a wider audience as they share the individual stories.
As Croot says, “The strength of the piece is in the conversations, rumination and reflection that results from participation. The power of the piece is NOT in its potential to repair inequity with respect to the black economy. It is a modest piece about one person making one purchase. The project creates 100 engagements with communities; it allows 100 real-time experiences for 100 people.”
The project underscores that there are relatively few black-owned businesses in most cities, and in some areas and some whole states none at all.
Katz adds, “Many were surprised by how difficult it was just to find a black-owned business. This in itself became an object lesson. Two thirds of our participants had to travel at least one mile from their home in order to accomplish the task – and about 1/6th traveled farther than five miles. Some had to go to an entirely different city.”
“While many respondents were matter-of-fact about the experience and knew immediately where they planned to spend the money—in many cases participants who identified as black already knew of at least several black-owned businesses—for several people the task had a profound emotional impact, a moving exchange,” says Croot.
Participant Vivian Appler, who is Caucasian, wanted to use her $10 to start the process of finding a florist for her wedding. She found Posy, a florist in Polish Hill owned by Paulette. Appler shared the OneLarge story, which surprised the business owner. “I didn’t think that people knew about how hard it is to be a black business owner. I didn’t think anybody cared,” she said.
“Ownership is rarely discussed in papers and articles about helping the economics of black communities in cities like Pittsburgh, Ferguson, Baltimore,” Katz concludes.
“When a young black man is shot by police, we gather, we march, we sign petitions—all actions that are important and necessary. Another thing we can do is discover black-owned businesses in our communities and educate ourselves about the black economy by reading Maggie Anderson’s book Our Black Year. We can turn in our dry cleaning at a black-owned business. It’s not a “change the world” plan, but neither is it merely a gesture. It’s a modest but real way of changing your life a little. It’s a way of engaging in the community that is modest, but has a meaning.”