Adding up family’s year buying black

January 12, 2010  |  

It’s been a year since John and Maggie Anderson embarked on a controversial adventure in empowerment to spend their money exclusively with African-American businesses in 2009.

They’ve learned a few things, not the least of which was that they were a little naive.

“It was more difficult, to be honest,” Maggie Anderson said as the year concluded. “We went out all starry-eyed.”

As with most wisdom, the more meaningful lessons emerge from the more demanding struggles. So it was with the “Empowerment Experiment,” said the Andersons, of Oak Park.

“There were certainly some challenges,” John Anderson said. “But at the same time, the relationships we have cultivated — not only with the business owners but also in mobilizing so many people across the nation who have embraced the message — that’s been the biggest blessing of this whole year. It has been a wonderful year.”

The most discouraging challenge came in August, when the black-owned, full-service grocery store they would drive 14 miles to patronize closed. The couple also had to face jaded perspectives from other African-Americans who told the Andersons that black-owned businesses were inferior to white-owned enterprises and that the couple’s over-arching goal of creating robust black businesses would never work.

And facing them at almost every turn was the insistence from some whites that the Andersons’ experiment was an exercise in racism, a charge they reject.

The effort, particularly in the last three months, generated a great deal of momentum, the Andersons said. Maggie Anderson received an overwhelming response when she spoke at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. She also was the opening speaker at the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce meeting in September.

A week later, she spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual convention in Washington, D.C. Northwestern University‘s Kellogg Black Alumni Club honored the Andersons in November. Overall, John Anderson said, about 75 percent of the reaction the couple received was encouraging. The remainder was critical.

“There was a feeling that now we have really created a vehicle to force ourselves to look into the mirror and address some of the issues we don’t want to talk about,” John Anderson said.

Most notable among those issues, he said, was the belief among middle-class blacks that disassociation from African-American businesses is a sign of success.

“We’re having those discussions much more often now,” he said.

The Andersons have achieved academic and economic success after rising from modest beginnings. He’s a financial adviser with degrees from Harvard and Northwestern; she’s a business consultant who works from home and has a law degree and MBA from the University of Chicago.

They said they came up with the “Empowerment Experiment” to help solve persistent ills surrounding “underserved communities.”

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