When Jailaih Gowdy celebrated her birthday last year on June 2 – Blackout Tuesday – she wished for a business: A market with nutrition and education in mind, meant to serve the New Orleans community via a network of Black business owners. Less than a year later, that dream was not only realized, but has grown into something even bigger.
“For Us, By Us” Market in New Orleans, Louisiana, is somewhat akin to a farmers’ market. Operating on the last Saturday of each month, vendors include Black farmers and Black-owned businesses. Speakers such as local political candidates come to make their case. Family activities abound, including a mobile petting zoo. The market offers robust brunch options featuring vegan items sure to delight even the most persnickety carnivore. A Black-owned urgent care center sets up shop as well.
“Everything about each market is curated by us,” Alexis Smith, Gowdy’s business partner, told CBS News. “…We put so much thought into it and so much love into it. And when people come and receive it, they pour into it even more. So it’s just like this whole Black love movement.”
The ethos of “For Us, By Us” is a concept that isn’t necessarily unique to Gowdy and Smith. It’s been adopted nationwide by Black businesses looking to uplift those around them during a pandemic that has devastated the Black community.
According to research from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research released last June, between February and April of 2020 an estimated 41% of Black businesses had shuttered due to the pandemic, compared with 17% of White-owned businesses.
Milestones meant to be celebrated by businesses like “For Us, By Us” Market have been tinged with loss due to the pandemic. One day after “For Us, By Us” Market held its inaugural event in September, Louisiana logged a grim milestone, surpassing 5,000 COVID-19 deaths.
One Black women-owned coffee shop in San Jose, California, chose to process those moments with radical transparency. The women behind Nirvana Soul secured their small business administration loan as shelter-in-place orders were first taking effect. Owners and sisters Be’Anka Ashaolu and Jeronica Macey documented the lengthy process of finding a space in downtown San Jose and making it grand opening-ready on Instagram in the face of not just a pandemic, but the skepticism of others.
“When shelter-in-place first hit… I definitely had people like, ‘You’re not going to open a shop, are you?'” Macey said, admitting she thought COVID-19 “would go away” due to the minimal impact other viruses, such as SARS and H1N1, have had on the U.S. in the past.
“It makes me want to work harder to make sure this is a happy place for people to come into and to have this community and sense of belonging despite everything that’s going on,” Macey added.
Nirvana Soul opened six months into shelter-in-place, its windowed facade welcoming not just customers, but local artists whose works hang on the walls for free. All proceeds from any painting sold goes towards the artist. Ashaolu and Macey said the curating process has been minimal, as they’ve been overwhelmed with responses from painters and illustrators.
Customer enthusiasm has been similar. Some had been following the business’ journey long before Nirvana Soul’s opening, when Macey was handing out cards for the yet-to-open coffee shop while driving for Lyft on the side.
“To know that they kept that business card, they believed in what we’re doing, they followed us from the very beginning… It’s amazing,” Macey marveled.
The coffee community is close-knit, and Nirvana Soul is separated by just a few degrees from Portrait Coffee in Atlanta, Georgia. Nirvana Soul’s latest featured coffee comes from Cxffeeblack, a Black-owned roaster out of Memphis, Tennessee, that also happens to be close with the Portrait team.
It was something Portrait Coffee’s founders said to Cxffeeblack’s Bartholomew Jones that really stood out and may have even influenced Jones’ business model, according to a profile in The Hill: “Coffee only grows where Black and Brown people do.”
“Black and Brown people are prominent on the farming side,” Portrait Coffee co-founder Marcus Hollinger told CBS News. “But when it comes to where a lot of the revenue is flying around and the economic surplus that’s happening in coffee, Black and Brown people are kind of cropped out of the picture. And that’s kind of the same thing that’s happening here in Atlanta, particularly in our neighborhood.”
Portrait is located on the West End of Atlanta in the historic Lottie Watkins building, named for the civil rights activist who became the first Black woman in Atlanta to acquire a real estate license. Co-founder Aaron Fender praised the Watkins family as “people of integrity” who regularly check in with the Portrait team.
“It’s so exciting and energizing for us to be welcomed in by true community stakeholders of the West End, to have their support and have their backing and have the neighborhood behind us,” Fender said.
The community has been incredibly supportive, and Portrait’s signature coffees named for Black luminaries like Barry Jenkins and Stacey Abrams regularly sell out. Jenkins even found a way to get some of his namesake coffee and made sure to praise the business in an Instagram post.
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Forty Acres Fresh Market found its way into the Black community through a surprising avenue — public transit. Founder Elizabeth Abunaw ended up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago after a bus ride took her to an unfamiliar part of the city in 2016 while she was running errands. She needed cash but found no banks nearby, and was struck by the complete lack of grocery stores. Inspiration struck for Abunaw, who created Forty Acres Fresh Market as a combination grocery pop-up and delivery service meant to address what she refers to as “food apartheid.”
“There was nobody accountable for this situation of why neighborhoods don’t have affordable food,” Abunaw explained. She deliberately chooses not to use the phrase “food desert” because, as Abunaw explains, deserts imply a naturally occurring phenomenon whereas apartheid points to man-made systemic issues plaguing underserved communities.
“For so long, I feel as though the solutions to a lack of food in our neighborhoods was to assume that nobody could afford food. So,… we’re just going to food drive it and food pantry it up. And that’s going to be your food source,” Abunaw said. “And that’s not cool… It is not a direct substitute [for grocery stores].”
Forty Acres Fresh Market partnered with Westside Health Authority to address that inadequacy, acquiring a building at 5713 W. Chicago Ave. that will serve as a grocery store for the Austin neighborhood as early as 11 months from now.
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Across the country in Kingston, New York, a similar marketplace has made an impact. Seasoned Delicious started in 2016 and, along with its Seasoned Gives initiatives meant to give back to the community, has developed a loyal following ever since.
“Last year, during COVID, we partnered up with Project Resilience and we were delivering thousands of meals to those in need in the community,” president and CEO Tamika Dunkley told CBS News. “And we got calls, probably six to 10 times a week, asking us where our storefront was.”
Positive community feedback made opening up a brick and mortar location the next logical choice. Dunkley and her husband deliberately chose an underserved neighborhood in the center of Midtown Kingston near a school.
“We wanted it to be a representation for other people of color, and especially the kids… We want it to be an inspiration for other people to be able to know that it is possible to own something and to be able to create an atmosphere in the community where it’s a hub,” Dunkley explained. “People can feel comfortable and be themselves and enjoy good food, good music and great people.”
Big things are in store for all five businesses well beyond the pandemic, with “For Us, By Us” Market looking to eventually expand into a nonprofit and take its pop-up on the road. Likewise, Portrait Coffee and Forty Acres Fresh Market can’t wait to be fully operational. But perhaps the most enduring marker of success these businesses carry with them is the community support that inspired them in the first place, which they in turn hope inspires a new generation of entrepreneurs.
“More occasions for us to support each other should be the motive for all Black people,” “For Us, By Us” Market’s Smith said. “I’m not just saying the only motive, but right now we’re in February. It’s a shame that we only celebrate Black History once a month. Black History should be every day… I mean, we are creating history every day.”
Smith continued: “It’s so rewarding to be a part of your community in a strong way… So do it, full throttle, and reach out to us. We’d love to support.”
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