NEW BEDFORD — Some Black business owners reported a surge in business over the summer — a time that saw nationwide protests in response to the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police. It was a period that became a sort of awakening for many white people to educate themselves and support Black members of their community both morally and monetarily.
Months later with protests fewer and farther between, some New Bedford business owners feel this boon to Black businesses is here to stay, thanks in part to a strong community.
“Buy Black is a movement that helps Black-owned businesses amid COVID-19. It’s definitely more than a trend, it’s a movement, one that is going to continue for a long time,” said Celia Brito, a Black Cape Verdean woman who owns Celia’s Boutique in downtown New Bedford with her daughter, Tanya Alves.
In addition to the summer of protests, Brito credits a local directory, “Buy Black NB,” for helping these businesses survive. The online platform created in June by Justina Perry, a New Bedford physical therapist, highlights Black-owned businesses on the SouthCoast.
On social media, Perry spotlights various business owners and their products or services, and on her website, she curates a store directory organized by category.
Brito and Alves said the site has brought them new customers.
“We’ve had Cape Verdean non-English speakers come in here and because of that directory, we’re told ‘you speak Cape Verdean,’” Brito said, adding they might just need directions, but it’s a way to build a relationship with potential customers.
Alves said it also helps connect business owners with one another so they can share advice or provide moral support, “It’s been able to open up a dialogue on how to build the business community and come together.”
Having a network is key to having a sustainable business, said Samia Walker, the SouthCoast program manager for E for All, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs build and sustain their new businesses.
“Whether [buying Black] would be a trend or ongoing, in terms of E for All, what we focus on in our program is building those relationships and networking,” Walker said. “Yes, a lot of the outside activities are encouraging people to buy Black, but I also believe with the relationships they’ve learned to build, they are also maintaining these customers.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and racial minority populations in not only how many have contracted or died from the disease, but also in how many have had to shutter the doors of their small businesses due to lessened foot traffic and financial strain.
One study found just over 40 percent of Black-owned small businesses closed as of April in connection with the pandemic. White-owned small businesses dropped by 17 percent, according to the study.
Getting federal loans was a significant obstacle, according to a report published in October by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. The subcommittee found that banks preferred existing customers to receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans — which put women and minority-owned businesses at a disadvantage, according to the report — and processed loans for wealthy customers at twice the speed of loans for small business owners in greater need.
“Smaller businesses across the board did not get the [loans] as much as they should have. The money didn’t really go where the intention was,” said Julie Smith, the director of marketing at E for All. According to a USA Today report, the federal government issued about $1.3 billion in loans, bookmarked for small businesses, to large, publicly traded companies.
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Smith said the existence of and process of applying for this federal forgivable loan was not as accessible for some small business owners.
“[It’s a] lack of funding, lack of resources, not knowing what opportunities are out there… we encounter that a lot on the SouthCoast,” said Walker when asked why Black and minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. “There’s a large immigrant population as well. English is not their first language, so they’re really struggling with navigating these resources.”
E for All is focused on helping these underserved populations with free mentorship and educational programs, said Smith. About 74 percent of their program graduates are women and 58 percent are people of color. Two of their graduates, Kevin Rose Jr. and Neenah Cruz, opened their businesses in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Rose Jr., who is Black, opened his self-care business, Unplugged Essentials, which sells hemp-infused bath salts. Cruz, who identifies as Black and Hispanic, opened the New Bedford Performing Arts Center, which offers dance, theater and music classes.
Cruz, 30, noticed a bump in business this summer when she reopened for in-person classes. She said part of it was due to the greater social movement, with some people reaching out saying they wanted to support her, but she also feels it was parents and kids wanting to get out of their homes and be social again.
Since the summer, she thinks the sentiment to “Buy Black” has waned a bit, she said.
“When something happens in the nation and people start rioting or try to have their voices heard, I feel like everyone is kind of in there at that moment trying to figure out what they can do to help,” Cruz said. “But when that chaos is not going on, it goes down a bit.”
More: In clamor to reopen businesses, many Black people feel overlooked
Rose Jr. also noticed an uptick in business over the summer and like Cruz, he said he believes a few factors were at play, including but not limited to the social movement.
For them, the constant factor that has kept their businesses alive is a support system comprised of both the community and its resources, such as programs like E for All or the Buy Black NB directory.
“In this time, with the craziness and Black-owned business being adversely affected, we’re trying to collaborate with other Black-owned brands that have a similar mission and goal, rather than trying to fight this battle on our own,” said Rose Jr., wearing a hat with embroidering, “MAKE BLACK BUSINESS GREAT AGAIN.”
For example, his business is releasing a limited-edition self-care box for the holidays with a Black-owned tea company in Seattle, which he hopes will grow awareness on both coasts.
Peter Walker, who opened a multi-purpose community space and art gallery in downtown New Bedford in January, said he thinks people in his community have been galvanized by the events in recent months to make lasting change in their habits to “buy Black.”
“[New Bedford residents] are pitching in and putting in the work,” Peter Walker, who is married to Samia Walker, said. “I haven’t seen anyone falter… I don’t see it being trendy. Everyone I’ve seen and worked with has stayed active.”
For example, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, three restaurants held a fundraiser for his business with a portion of proceeds going to the Communal Space.
Peter Walker said he’s been able to break even on his space, which was meant to provide a service the pandemic has put a hard stop to: live events. Most events will be virtual until things return to “normal,” but he is hopeful he and other local Black and minority business owners will get through it.
“When I first moved here eight years ago, I always wondered, ‘How do I find out about more businesses of color in the area?’ and I’d have to search on my own” he said. “This directory makes it easier for people to access that information and immediately make a difference and help keep equity alive in our small businesses.”
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