Sunday, April 26, 2009

Luisa's daughter came home to Atlanta.

In any given year, we spend most of our 'vacation' time with family. Unfortunately, most of our family is far away... in Washington, DC, Detroit, and Atlanta. Fortunately, for The Empowerment Experiment, most of our family is in Washington, DC, Detroit, and Atlanta - three of the most powerful Black business centers in America. What a coincidence! The year we dedicate to buying Black and trying to elevate the issues facing Black business; the economic, corporate, and commercial disparities we accept as a community; the stereotypes and systems that keep all that going... the year we commit to creating an honest and empowering dialogue between ourselves, the struggling and the successful, the rich and the poor, the hoodie and the suburbanite... that's the year my mother decides to beat pancreatic cancer.

She and my Papa live in Austell, a suburb of Atlanta. Everything I am or ever will be springs from her wisdom, guidance, courage and indominatable character and dignity. All those degrees don't mean a damn thang! I am Luisa's daughter. That's who I am. That's where EE comes from. Luisa, my mother, was supposed to die many times last year. She hangs on for us. She hangs on for EE. She knows we need her. And this is her dream too.

So as you can imagine, this year, the year of EE, I am spending a lot more time in Atlanta. It's my second home. And that means it's EE's second home.

My trips to Atlanta are very emotional now. Mima is frail. It saddens me. Mima is still here. That makes me happy and grateful. But now the trips are even more emotional because I've been talking to Atlanta about EE. I've been on the radio there, done some interviews, and met hundreds. EE hosted events at two Black-owned wine shoppes. People from all over the city came, just to meet me, just to talk about EE. All they know is that I am a woman who has pledged to support Black businesses. That's all. But you know what? For some folks, those who are starving for change, who are suffocated by the status quo, who are stifled and stranded by the hopelessness they fear is infinite... those folks think that anyone who would make that kind of commitment must be a superstar.

Who is this hero? Who is this brave soldier who would dare make small efforts to find and support quality Black businesses and then go out of her way to promote them? Is she a politician, a radical? Who is this heaven-sent champion spending her time, money, heart and mind on trying to prove and tell anyone who would listen that it is beautiful to buy Black? Who is paying her? Why would she do this? "Will you come back to Atlanta and run for Mayor or Governor of Georgia?" asked Frank of the famous "Frank and Wanda Morning Show."

They flooded our events contemplating these questions. They stood in line and on tippy-toes just to hear me speak or shake my hand or hug my neck. One man was ready to fight another man just for thinking he could disagree with the words coming out of my mouth. "We love you." "We got your back." "Thank you." "Thank you for doing this." "Thank you for standing up." Can you help me?" Could you talk to my son?" "Will you speak at my church?" "Keep going sister. We will help you." "Thank you."

Thank you.

Who me?

What are you thanking me for? I'm just visiting my Mima! I'm just buying bananas and coffee. I'm just going out to eat. I'm just getting my nails done! I'm just talking about how proud I am to be Black and be able to support the wonderful talent coming out of my community. What the hell are you standing in line to talk to me for?!! I'm no hero.


Look, I'm just like all of you. I am a mother who worries about her babies, looking for more chances and ways to protect and love them. I am a wifey who takes good care of her husband, is proud when I look good for him, and lives for his smiles and kisses. I am a daughter who strives to represent all the strength, principles and wisdom my parents instilled in me. That's all I am.

I'm you. Just as you are me.

I went to Atlanta to see Mima. Before I left we had started our first EE affiliate chapter - The Empowerment Experiment of Atlanta. I went to sip on some fine African wines and I left with a movement at my back.

But I aint nobody special. You may feel that way. That's only because I got you thinking about a new kind of future for us. That's what's special. That's what's powerful. Those possibilities, that chance to taste the apple-pie, picket-fence dreams that so many Americans take for granted. That's the feel-good stuff that has your eyes welling...that new quality of life for a people that has suffered so much and given so much to America. And in return we ask for pies and fences. Pies and fences. PIES AND FENCES!!

So think about that. Not me. I'm just Luisa's daughter. Luisa. The Cuban immigrant who, regardless of her virtually white-skin, never abandoned, diminished, or negated her Blackness, her Africanness. The mother of three, who gave up everything she had, including the wedding ring she refuses to replace, so her family can have a better life in the land of opportunity. The laborer whose vacations were defined by her children's and grandchildren's weddings and graduations... who managed to send all of her children from the gang-infested streets of Liberty City to college and their individual success stories. That's me. I'm her daughter. That's all I ever will or ever want to be.

So think about the pies and fences. Think about all the Luisas who fight for us.

And don't think about me. I'm just Luisa's daughter.

Think about us. Think about what we all can do together.

Then who will the real hero be?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To be or not to be...

I bet you all think I spend my days shopping, taking care of my family and doing interviews all day. Not true. EE is tougher than that, better than that, realer than that.

You need to know that while I enjoy doing this... love doing this... could not breathe without doing this, I endure some very painful moments along this journey. The pain comes from talking to entrepreneurs and discovering that in many ways, my people, Black people, business people - the ones who believe in the American ideal of hard work paying off, and who thus actually try to succeed as entrepreneurs - are helplessly stuck in a Jim Crow version of the business world.

More pain comes from then having to accept that some of us are stuck with Jim Crow minds. That hurt comes from listening to my people bash our businesses, even as they realize that not supporting them sends a chilling effect throughout our community... that not even trying to find a Black business to meet our needs tells our children that we are not good enough to create, distribute and sell quality goods... that it makes the world believe that that kind of thing, you know, having a successful business, should be left to Whites and other ethnic groups, and we should stick to hooping and rapping... that their negative impression came from an isolated experience and had that same kind of incident happened with a White business they would not even consider castigating that damaging view upon all White businesses. The torture stems from walking around the South Side of Chicago and asking a kid whether they knew if a certain business I was considering going into was Black-owned, and seeing in his face a look of heart-attack surprise, immediately followed by a sigh and low-hanging, slow head shake. I know that look. It's the "Are you insane? Black-owned?" face, followed by the "We'll never own anything like that," sadness.

That's a lot of pain.

Now, you should also know that I am free to use that pain as an excuse to cut 'n' run, or violate our pledge, or give up on all of you and shut this down... no website, no blog, no foundation trying to raise money for a national campaign where all of us our doing a little bit everyday and posting/showcasing to the world our Black dollars online. I could easily do that.

Fortunately, in a weird, twisted, wicked way, those anguish-filled episodes are the essence of my enlightenment, the source of my strength, and the fuel for my fire.

John and I received a note from John Clark, the owner of Reggio's Pizza. His enterprise is extremely successful. His brand is a household name in the Black community. He has been recognized time and time again for his leadership in the industry and the excellence his operation demonstrates. He is a role model, a true pillar of hope and integrity in Chicago for all people, regardless of color... for anyone who believes that hard work, education, and principles are the keys to success in America.

So why is it that I can only find his pizza in the Black Walgreens? Are Black people the only people who like pizza? I understand certain 'ethnic' hair care products - we use products that most others do not. But why is it that he has to beg, blackmail, bully and bribe to get a major retailer to carry his product, and then when he lands the deal, they relegate him to 'urban' markets? Would that happen if it was the same pizza, been around for the same 35 years, had the same tens of millions in annual revenue, but was owned by a White family instead?

Don't waste your time on that one. We already know the answer. Now here's a real tough question for you. Would he have made it that far if he hadn't announced and proclaimed his minority-ness? I wish I could say yes. I want to boast, as I chomp on this unbelievably scrumptious pizza, made with that awesome, one-of-a-kind butter crust, "Of course! John Clark is an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary plan, who has the work ethic and quality product required to guarantee success!" Y'all know I want to shout that from the mountain top!


wait a minute. I just have to finish this slice. Damn, it's good!

OK. I'm back.

But I really don't know. I don't know how it happened for him. Half the time, I hear successful entrepreneurs say they had to, or chose to, hide that the business is Black-owned. They knew the product and everything else was tight. They knew they had a shot at the American Dream. Why ruin it by letting your customers know you are Black? Why risk losing customers who have never dealt with a Black business, and 1) fear that you don't have the skills and resources to last over the longterm, 2) just don't really like Black people, unless they are on TV singing, dancing, or throwing a ball? Why risk losing Black customers who will intentionally pass you by just because they accept and hold dear negative stereotypes about Black business OR the ones who prove they've 'made it' by relishing in the fact that they don't have to live off of Black businesses because their lush suburb does not have any? Why would you do that? Are you stupid??!!

But then if you don't wear that big, Black "B" on your chest, you might be missing out on those precious 'Minority Set-Asides' or 'Diversity Allocations' or 'Diversity Targets'... or possibly forego taking up a big chunk of the laudable 'Social Responsibility' or 'Corporate Citizenship' budget. How dare you miss out on that chance to show up at the press conference and be on the website to represent all 38 million of us? Seriously though, you are new, small, and Black? Why should you even try to compete based on merit? Brotha, you better get that certification. Sistah, you better show them that you are the gateway to the growing Black market. You better smile, be humble, be grateful, beg, settle and take whatever scraps they give you, because one contract is better than none. And you better hurry up because they have only set aside .08 percent of their budget for all minorities, and no way is it even conceivable that they might exceed that??!!

I know it kinda sucks. That's the new millennium Jim Crow paradox. But don't worry. I know you just want a chance to demonstrate your value based on your brains, plans, goods and services. I know, I know. I know and you know your heart. So it's alright. You gotta do whatcha gotta do... right?

To be to not to be?

To be Black or not to be Black?

John Clark, self-made millionaire, entrepreneur extraordinaire, proud Black man, and patriotic American did a little of both. His plan was to travel down set-aside street for a while, and then take that to allocation alley... then maybe, just maybe he could one day step out onto justice junction and cruise down the fairness fairway.

Didn't work out that way. We spent a day with John Clark at his production facility. It was amazing. Huge. State of the art everything. Friendly, knowledgeable, loyal employees all over the place. And y'all know how I feel about the end product. He talked about how difficult it is to just get the chance to make it. He has already proven himself. The pizza speaks for itself. So why does his race even matter? Why is placement of his product based on the race? But here's the problem, he has to play up his race, or he won't even get in the door. They are gonna notice. And when they do, he'll be reduced to what he is. A Black pizza man. Black pizza man. Pizza for Black people. Pizza in Black stores. Doesn't matter that he is the largest Black-owned frozen pizza company in the world.

But John Clark did not complain about that. His problem is that WE know that this is happening and WE do nothing about it. We demand nothing of these retailers and distributors. We don't even know or care about how many Black vendors they do business with or whether they even care about that sort of thing. We give them all our money and allegiance, and for all we know, they have never even considered giving a Black company a contract. That was his pain.

Now it's mine. That's my pain this week. That's the pain that will take me into another week of EE. EE is committed to advocating the issues of the Black manufacturers and distributors. They have the plants. They have the multi-location operations. That means they have the jobs. You know I have love for the three-man dry cleaning operation, or the mom-and-pop coffee shop. But EE is about us being smart and seeing the big picture. We have to think about the John Clark's and the Reggio's Pizzas out there.

We don't think about them. And that's why things don't change for us. That's why we are stuck in the Jim Crow business world. It's due to our Jim Crow minds. Imagine if we started paying attention. What if we started spending our money only with those retailers and distributors who respected our talent and businesses?

Do you see?

Do you want to see?

To see or not to see? That is a painful question.

To be or not to be? That is a difficult question.

To EE or not to EE? That is the question.

And the answer.