By: SMSBF writer, Monica Plawecki
The past few weeks have been marked by an incredible amount of unrest throughout our country. Both peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests, calls for racial justice and police defunding, and #BlackLivesMatter sentiments echoing from every corner of social media have come in response to the senseless killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis. Demonstrations to protest police brutality and decades of racial injustice have taken place in every single state in the U.S., and closer to home, it’s no exception; crowds have gathered in protest in our larger cities like Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids, but also in smaller cities and towns, proving that the anger and demand for justice is far-reaching.
Instead of offering advice and messages of consolation, which feel increasingly like empty words in these more and more frequent moments of national mourning and strife, we are being urged to take action–donate, join a protest, write to our legislators, sign a petition, or all of the above. It’s become clear that enacting police reform legislation, implementing anti-bias training, and making changes at the municipal level to prevent future injustices are paramount, but as the protests are beginning to dwindle, we’re all asking ourselves, “What can we do? And how can we ensure sustainable change gets made?”
We believe we can begin to address the question of how we can “ensure change gets made” by focusing on what we can do right here in our region. More specifically, we can aim to spend our dollars at black-owned businesses and support Detroit’s growing cooperative movement, whereby we can promote economic justice, ensure the growth of the black community, and honor their contributions within the business community and our community overall.
“Voting with Your Dollar” by Supporting Black-Owned Businesses
One of the easiest ways we can support the black community and people of color is by patronizing their businesses. In doing so, we spend money to support the livelihood of a community that has historically been excluded from the American Dream. In addition to showing appreciation and solidarity in a meaningful way by patronizing black-owned businesses, this also allows us to play our part in the intentional effort to tear down long-standing barriers to economic justice and equality with our own dollars (hence, “vote with your dollar”).
One black-owned business in Detroit, Ilera Apothecary, is taking a stand against racial injustice by pledging to donate all proceeds from online purchases in the month of June to the Black Lives Matter Cause. Chinonye Akunne, co-founder and CEO, stated that her company “fully supports protests that are happening around the world” and empathizes with the protestors of racial injustice “as a Black-owned company [that has] had [its] own fair share of abuse, verbal abuse.” Akunne suggested that those who do not support the Black Lives Matter cause should take their dollars elsewhere. (Ilera Apothecary Website – Mindfulness Week Seven: The Art of Saying No to Racism)
The company, which was founded in 2015, sells plant-based, ethically sourced skincare products and is committed to providing “a diverse, inclusive space for in-person wellness events, curated pop-up shops, and community building.” The company has also stated its commitment to sustainability and partners with the Global Shea Alliance “to improve the livelihoods of rural African women who process shea through preserving land, instating fair labor practices, and eliminating trade barriers.” (Ilera Apothecary Website – Our Story)
As a black-owned business, Akunne has stated that she believes “enough is enough” when it comes to racial injustice. The company website now provides a list of resources, including a list of bail funds accepting donations and Black Lives Matter-sponsored resources on how to help. Additionally, they have pledged to send store gift cards to anyone who makes a donation to any of the causes listed. (Ilera Apothecary Website)
Another black-owned business with a similar commitment to socially just ideals, Yum Village, serves up Afro-Caribbean dishes and is committed to paying livable wages and cultivating new opportunities for employees. Chef Godwin Ihentuge launched his business as a food truck in 2012, and today runs a brick-and-mortar restaurant, a colorful fast-casual dining space in New Center.
Ihentuge has stated that he believes in “economic justice for all,” and supports abandoning the tipped minimum wage for restaurant employees. His business also offers paid time off, paid sick leave, and health benefits to employees, and uses an open-book management model wherein weekly meetings are held for all employees to discuss the “economics of the restaurant.” Because of this, Ihentuge has said that they’re “not really treating this like a normal kitchen,” because employees are not viewed as holding just a “sales position.” (Eater Detroit)
According to Yum Village’s Instagram page, in response to the recent protests, the restaurant also teamed up We Are Culture Creators, a Detroit-based artist relief project, and Detroit is the New Black, a retail store in downtown Detroit, to provide free lunches to anyone participating in the Black Lives Matter protests. (Yum Village via Instagram)
Of course, Ilera Apothecary and Yum Village are just two of the many black-owned businesses in Detroit we can support. A more comprehensive list of black-owned businesses is available here, while a recent list of black-owned restaurants can be found here; patronizing any or all of them can help support the growth of the black community here at home.
Supporting Black-Owned Cooperatives & Detroit’s Growing Co-op Movement
We can also support people of color by becoming involved in the growing cooperative movement in Detroit, which champions worker autonomy, advances workplace democratization through collective ownership, and promotes economic justice.
Malik Yakini, the founder of the Detroit Food Commons and Detroit People’s Food Co-op, aims to do just that, all while providing access to healthy produce to those in the community. Yakini views “controlling food retail and production as important aspects of black self-determination” and believes access to healthy food resources for all fights back against a “system that concentrates wealth in the hands of the few.” (City Lab)
Based in a historical tradition of African-American business cooperatives that arose during Reconstruction and allowed former slaves to farm for a living in a “segregated and exploitative system,” co-ops have long been championed for promoting equality and pushing back against a corrupt capitalist system that systematically disenfranchises minorities. A black-owned co-op, Detroit People’s Food Co-op embraces these ideals, and, as a jointly-owned enterprise, prioritizes meeting collective needs rather than turning profits. (City Lab)
How exactly do co-ops push back in an “exploitative system?” Simply put, co-ops are democratically governed. Because employees share in ownership of the co-op, each owner, or employee, is theoretically allowed “one vote” in making decisions that affect the co-op. Rather than working to meet the goals of an executive, employees act as “part-boss, part-owner” and make decisions to benefit each other and their customers, ultimately sharing in the profits. In this way, the co-op model fosters workplace democratization and worker autonomy by allowing members to actively and equally participate in decision-making affecting the co-op. (Model D)
In addition to embracing collective ownership, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op also aims to create employment opportunities for those who are “most difficult to employ” and management positions for black people who have struggled to find employment in Detroit-area grocery stores. By offering a “space where democracy and ownership are inherent,” co-ops, like the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, provide employment alternatives to those in temporary, low-wage jobs in the private sector and aim to reduce poverty, which disproportionately affects people of color. (City Lab, Model D)
By joining and shopping at co-ops, we help the black community in a number of ways. Our dollars, of course, ensure the continued functioning of co-ops and employment of black of workers. In turn, employees are afforded greater autonomy and opportunities for equal part-ownership, instead of working in a system that concentrates wealth in the hands of the privileged few. By becoming a member or purchasing from a co-op, we also support an alternative employment model that provides paths to sustainable, long-term employment for those at the greatest disadvantage–particularly, people of color–promoting economic justice for a population that has historically suffered the worst effects of poverty and economic inequality.
Certainly, given that the complexity and deeply-rooted nature of systemic racism don’t allow for straightforward prescriptive advice or easy answers to any of the issues that have come to light over the past few weeks, there is a daunting task ahead of us. That being said, we can start now to address some of these issues in our own region by supporting local black-owned businesses and co-ops. Further, we can look to the growing cooperative movement as a means to economic justice, where co-ops, like the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, act as a stepping stone to employment and autonomy for those most disenfranchised by our capitalist system–most often, people of color. All in all, in addressing the questions of what “we can we do” and “how can we ensure sustainable change gets made,” the answers are closer to home than we think.