John and Maggie Anderson are hoping to start a movement. On New Year’s Day 2009, they pledged that for the entire calendar year, the money they would spend on food, gas, clothing, and all other purchases would be limited to products and services of black-owned companies. Through their Website, the suburban Chicago couple has, so far, convinced some 7,000 consumers and businesses nationwide to join in the Empowerment Experiment (formerly the Ebony Experiment; www.eefortomorrow.com).
The Andersons are out to prove a point: African Americans can help their communities by spending their money with black businesses and on black-made products. The idea is that such consumer activism boosts employment and diminishes some consequences of joblessness, such as incarceration and recidivism. They also want to dispel some of the stereotypes held by black people about black-owned businesses—such as that black products and services are low quality. The Andersons believe this mindset has helped to erode the black community’s economic potential.
“We think a campaign can be started in our community to really reinvest in our own and strategically allocate our own resources so that we can be economically empowered,” says Maggie. Formerly a freelance strategy consultant, the stay-at-home mother has a law degree and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. The couple enlisted Steven Rogers, a professor of entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, as one of four executive advisers to assist with reviewing data and troubleshooting. Renowned author and Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson will help the Andersons write a book based on the findings of their experiment at the end of the year. The couple says they will continue to buy black when the experiment is over except in cases where they need a product or service that is not provided by a black business. They will also return to some restaurants they had visited before the experiment.
By no means is the Empowerment Experiment an easy undertaking. To buy gas, the Andersons mail checks to the closest black-owned gas station—83 miles away—in Rockford, Illinois. In turn, the station sends the couple gas cards that they use at other service stations. And for groceries, the Andersons travel some 20 to 30 minutes to Chicago’s South Side to Farmers Best Market.
Maggie says 60% to 65% of their budget now goes toward black businesses, products, and talent, but even after these exhaustive attempts, the Andersons haven’t been able to completely toe the line. Despite having switched to black-owned Covenant Bank for everyday checking and savings, the recent financial crisis has made it difficult for them to transfer their mortgage and other major expenses such as student loans to a black-owned bank.
Still, the benefits of the experiment are clear. According to John the couple spends approximately 5% less each month on routine items as compared with last year’s expenditures because they must plan their purchases. The Andersons have also made some great new discoveries along the way. For instance, they found Jordan’s Closets, a resale clothing boutique for girls and women (their daughters Cara, 4, and Cori, 2, are pictured in dresses from the store).