by Camisha Jones
At the end of every year, Kwanzaa provides time to reflect on seven principles that have been a source of strength for Black communities. One of these principles is Ujamaa, meaning cooperative economics. A local grassroots initiative is building a network of business-minded people committed to making the principle of Ujamaa a year-round practice.
Iman Shabazz, director of the Richmond Ujamaa Kollective, says the Kollective’s vision is “to build legitimate (self-sufficient) community amidst the Afrikan Diaspora residing in Richmond,…to create a base of wealth shared by the community and used to meet the community’s needs,..[and] to redirect our labor, capital and expertise to move our communities toward their fullest potential.” He elaborates stating Ujamaa “essentially means building our own businesses, controlling the economics of our own communities and sharing in all its work and wealth.”
This concept is not foreign to Black communities. Right here in Richmond, Jackson Ward was once boasted as “Black Wall Street.” In the early 20th century, the self-sustaining community included 5 black-owned banks, restaurants, theaters, the city’s first black-owned jewelry store, barber shops, the nation’s first black-owned insurance company, and medical practices. Jackson Ward’s social venues attracted performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Robinson, and Duke Ellington. Despite the ugliness of segregation all around them, the people of this neighborhood worked cooperatively to ensure their own self-sufficiency. Despite much of the community being leveled by the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (now I-95), the example of Jackson Ward shows clearly the entrepreneurial and cooperative spirit that is an integral part of the African American legacy.
Much has happened since the heyday of Jackson Ward. Today, Black people not only have the right to shop and attain services wherever they choose but they also have, as a community, a financial standing about which their ancestors could only dream. Black America has an estimated national buying power of $957 billion and Virginia has the 10th largest share of the total Black buying power according to the University of Georgia Selig Center for Economic Report “The Multicultural Economy 2010.” With that much purchasing potential, many believe that how Black America chooses to spend its money has a powerful influence over its own economic well-being.
Virginia’s market is also noteworthy in terms of opportunity for impactful spending. The state is ranked 9th in the top ten states with the largest African American markets. The U.S. Census describes Virginia’s market in its “2007 Survey of Business Owners” as having 63,363 Black-owned businesses. The Richmond region, including the Petersburg tri-cities, has 19. 03% of the states Black-owned businesses, totaling 12,037.
Oliver Singleton, President and CEO of the Metropolitan Business League (MBL) which supports small, minority and women owned businesses, points out that Black-owned businesses, in some ways, are no different from other businesses. “The performance of the majority of minority businesses in Richmond is linked to the performance of the overall economy and that’s not that great,” he says. He further adds that small businesses — regardless of the owners’ ethnicity — often encounter similar struggles with issues like capital formation, slow paying customers, and bad debt. A steady flow of customers seems like it could counter some of the difficulty of starting a business.
When asked about the benefits of Black customers patronizing Black-owned businesses more often, Shabazz says it only makes a difference if those businesses are “an intentional part of a cooperative network that supports the community in which it provides service.” He says these kinds of businesses “can help vitalize and empower the communities they serve by providing a means to put control of economies back into the hands of community members.” He believes building a network of these types of businesses can decrease persistent poverty in neighborhoods and allow communities to reach their fullest potential.
Henry Johnson, owner of Johnson Office Products, Inc. which has served the Richmond area for 31 years, believes creating more Black-owned manufacturing businesses will help address the alarming rates of unemployment and homelessness within the Black community. He also feels as a business owner he has a role in bolstering the overall American economy, stating, “We all have a part to play in the development of a better and well tomorrow. We cannot grow apart. [Businesses should] support each other. Larger businesses must truly look beyond the bottom line and create partnerships. That is one way to build a strong American economy.”
So, what do Black consumers think about this issue? In a poll implemented by Urban Views Weekly, 100% of respondents indicated that it is “Very Important” or “Somewhat Important” to do business with Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs. All respondents also felt doing business with Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs to be beneficial to the entire Richmond community. The most popular reason (69%) people who took the survey said they “buy Black” is because of product and service quality. Other reasons that were also ranked highly include customer service, convenient location and to be of support. The top reason (44.8%) given for why people do not patronize Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs more often is the lack of awareness of such businesses from which to make purchases. Inconvenient locations and poor customer service round out the top 3 reasons that were reported. Of the 29 respondents who took the survey, 28 identify as “Black/African/Caribbean.”
If this small sampling of responses is reflective of the larger picture of the attitude of Black customers towards Black businesses, two things stand out: 1) Black customers believe it is important to buy from Black businesses; and 2) Black customers do not know how to locate Black businesses.
Iman Shabazz advises those who want to locate Black owned businesses to talk to people in their neighborhood and within their social circles. He also suggests asking Black business owners about who they go to for resources and goods. Shabazz emphasizes the importance of networking and states that there is a need for an “accessible, comprehensive directory of Black businesses.”
One available directory can be found on the City of Richmond’s Office of Minority Business Development website at http://eservices.ci.richmond.va.us/applications/MBEBusinessDirectory/. Another resource is the newly developed website created by Urban Views Weekly at: www.ShopBlackBusiness.com. The site was developed to help customers find Black-owned businesses and to provide a resource to Black-owned businesses seeking to publicize their goods and services.
At the 2005 State of the Black Union convened by Tavis Smiley, George C. Fraser declared, “The next movement must be, the next unifying purpose must be economic development, wealth creation, the closing of the income and wealth gap…We must become an entrepreneurial culture. We must create work and jobs for our people.” Perhaps a movement in which Black buying power is invested more often into Black community-minded businesses is just what’s needed to secure the financial stability of future generations.
If you’d like to be more involved in developing a cooperative economics network in Richmond, contact the Ujamaa Kollective at RICUjamaaKollective@gmail.com.