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How (and why) to support Michigan's Black-owned businesses this holiday shopping season

South East Market
courtesy South East Market
Alita Kelly along with co-founder Khara Dewit, at the grand opening of South East Market in Grand Rapids earlier this year.

The businesses are still here, and they’re still looking for local support.

A year after nationwide protests drove a wave of support for Black-owned businesses, many of those businesses in Michigan are headed into the 2021 holiday season with more challenges than ever.

“Awareness is up,” says Jamiel Robinson, founder and CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses. “But it’s still challenging when access to capital, access to networks and access to markets are still an overall impediment to growth and success.”

Robinson acknowledges that there have been more efforts over the past year to try to address, or at least talk about, some of the historic disadvantages facing Black entrepreneurs. But those efforts so far haven’t evened the playing field. And the ongoing pandemic has created new pressures that have affected Black-owned businesses more than others.

It's going to take the intentionality of consumers to come to our stores, shop our products to make sure that we have a thriving, diverse business ecosystem on the other side of this."
Alita Kelly, co-founder of South East Market in Grand Rapids

A study released in 2020 estimated that 41% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. were forced to close in the early days of the pandemic, the largest percentage loss of any racial or ethnic group.

Locally in West Michigan, many businesses have managed to hang on, but support from local shoppers this holiday season could be key.

“It’s going to take the intentionality of consumers to come to our stores, shop our products to make sure that we have a thriving, diverse business ecosystem on the other side of this,” says Alita Kelly, co-founder of South East Market in Grand Rapids.

The market opened during the pandemic, with the goal of offering affordable and healthy food on the South side of Grand Rapids. Kelly says the market has a different approach, and a different impact than the larger chain stores where many consumers spend their holiday dollars.

“Because we’re not just a store,” Kelly says. “We have a children’s enrichment program. We’re building out right now the plan for an urban farm that will act as an incubator for growers of color in the city.”

The market recently received a grant along with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council to support the plans for the farm.

Robinson says shoppers who want to support their communities, and support Black owned businesses, have lots of options to choose from in Grand Rapids. His organization GRABB, hosts a directory of Black-owned businesses in the city. Shoppers looking for clothes can find Basic Bee or Mel Styles. Book lovers can shop at We Are LIT. Food lovers can choose gift cards from Malamiah Juice Bar, The Chez Olga, Forty Acres, The Candied Yam, or buy popcorn from Mosby’s.

Outside of Grand Rapids, the Metro-Detroit Black Business Alliance hosts a directory of more than 900 businesses to shop from, and there’s also this listing from Michigan Women Forward.

And Robinson says shoppers who choose to support locally-owned Black businesses during their holiday shopping won’t just be giving back to their community. In many cases, he says, they’ll also have a better chance of actually getting what they ordered. With supply-chain issues creating disruptions for many of the bigger retail chains, locally-sourced and locally-made gifts by Black-owned businesses have a greater chance of showing up in time to make it under the tree, Robinson says.

“It’s a perfect time for people to pivot to more local businesses,” Robinson says. “There’s no better time to give Black businesses an opportunity this holiday season and make them a part of your everyday, every week, every month spend.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.