Game Changers: Black Americans go digital to back black-owned stores

PHOENIX — The African-American Barbie dolls were lined up in a neat row, each still in its hot-pink box, never ripped open by a little one’s hands.

The dolls stood there, arms at their sides, all dressed up in tiny, crisp outfits.

They seemed to be waiting there at Mitchell’s, a beauty supply store in Phoenix that stocks hair care and other items catering to people of color.

Now, Melissa Cox, the store’s third-generation owner, has found a potent marketing combination to move the dolls and other merchandise off the shelves and into the hands of customers. She employed a Facebook Live as a high-tech marketing tool and found a receptive group of new customers from a campaign aimed at bolstering African American-owned businesses called Buy Black Phoenix.

On Facebook Live’s streaming video, Cox showed off the dolls, along with a collection of “hats for church on Sunday,” greeting cards with messages geared toward African-American communities and her hair care products.

A friend of a friend had told Cox about the effort launched in August by the Phoenix chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. The women came up with an idea that has taken shape in different forms over the past few years in cities across America.

The premise: The more that African-Americans show their spending power, the more sway they’ll have when it comes to influencing social, political and economic change. It isn’t just happening in Phoenix, but other big cities as well:

•Kansas City. “Blackout Monday” is a movement organized in response to civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo. The day is designated as an event for people to head to a black-owned business and do their part for the “Buy Black Empowerment Initiative.”

•Atlanta. There’s the “Bank Black” campaign. It started with an Instagram post and hashtags (#blackdollarsmatter, #blackeconomics, #IfYoureNotBlackThatsCoolToo) encouraging people to open an account with Citizens Trust Bank, an African American-owned savings institution.

Mike Render, a rapper and activist better known by his stage name Killer Mike, called for the action in February as part of Black History Month. It attracted Georgia residents, who committed to driving miles to patronize the bank, and was backed by star power the likes of Usher, Jermaine Dupri and Solange Knowles.

•Chicago. Perhaps the most famous movement started with one Chicago family. Maggie Anderson wrote about the 360 days she and her family spent in 2009 making good on a promise to consume all their goods and services from black-owned businesses. After releasing her 2012 book, Our Black Year, she traveled the nation promoting the campaign through social media, in TED talks and on speaking tours.

It took longer for the economic campaign to take shape in Phoenix.

Cox says her hometown, the sixth largest city in the nation, is different from other big cities building on African-Americans’ buying power.

“We have a pretty small black community here,” said Cox, who was born and raised in Phoenix and now runs the shop founded by her grandparents in 1958. “But we’re here. We’ve been here.”

Black people make up about 6.5% of the Phoenix population, according to the U.S. census 2010 estimate. Compare that with other large cities like Atlanta where black people account for about 54% of the population, and it could be easy to feel like African-Americans calling for a collective effort in Phoenix are facing a David-Goliath battle.

Donna Williams, a Goodyear, Ariz., attorney and member of the local National Coalition of 100 Black Women, knows it can be tough to unite any community around a single issue, especially a relatively small community that has historically been disenfranchised.

So Williams and her fellow coalition members talked about setting realistic goals. They would ask people to pledge to spend 15% of their disposable income with local black-owned businesses.

“We’re not Atlanta. We’re not LA. We’re not New York,” she said. “So it wouldn’t be reasonable to ask for that 100% level of spending — that would discourage people.”

Williams said the initiatives are rooted in a fatigue over economic, social, educational, income and political disparities in America. It’s not that different from the same sort of fatigue that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.

“There is kind of this sentiment that, ‘We’ve had enough, we’re going to have to find solutions to what ails our community and we’re going to have to start from within,’ ” she said.

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