Joy Katz and Cindy Croot were giving away money in April.
There was only one catch.
The 100 people who received $10 from these two white artists had to promise to spend the funds in black-owned businesses in Pittsburgh or beyond within two weeks. The group was comprised of attendees of Open Engagement, a platform for socially engaged art, and soon became a formal piece of Katz’ newly premiered project, One Large.
“One Large interrupts spending habits, creates new relationships in communities [and can] create discomfort,” Katz said of the Sprout Fund backed project. “And the emotionally complex stories of the participants stand as evidence of both the difficulty of talking about race and money and of the role business ownership might play in reshaping cities including Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Ferguson.”
Participants returned to Katz and Croot a questionnaire with the name and location of the business, the distance of the business from their home, their own race and/or ethnicity if they chose to identify it, an image of their purchase and any thoughts they wanted to share about the project, states the project’s directives. Participants agreed to document where the bills were spent and post text, photos and videos on a website Katz and Croot set up for the project.
According to data from the site, onelarge.org, most participants spent the funds in Pennsylvania, and more than half of the participants spending the money self-identified as white.
One participant who identified herself as white and Jewish said she spent the $10 at the Heinz Endowment-supported Boom Concepts, a creative space in Garfield with an arts, education and community focus.
What the data on the site doesn’t show is how participants choose the business to patronize and whether participants know if the business is owned by people who identify as black.
Clearly, though, the data “reveals the lack of diversity in the city,” said Darrell Kinsel, co-founder of Boom Concepts, pointing out how many of the same businesses were recipients of the $10. “It was an unspoken challenge by not providing a listing [of black owned businesses] or a map,” he said. “You may find pockets of black-owned businesses, but it forced people to use the Internet and/or black friends.”
At Dream Cream Ice Cream in downtown Pittsburgh, Thomas Anthony Jamison, 30, was behind the counter when the participants came to the store.
“People just [saw] me standing behind the counter, came in and asked if it was black owned.” He wasted no time in answering them: “Yes, it’s black owned. I started the company.”
That’s just the sort of pride Katz wants to instill in her child.
“I have been trying to create a more diverse life in order to be a better parent to my son, whom I adopted as an infant in Vietnam,” Katz said, adding that
her friends who are adult adoptees of color, raised by white parents, struggled when their families didn’t acknowledge or support their racial identities.
“I hoped for my son not to have that particular struggle.”
In hopes of tapping into her own racial context, she began looking around and noticing that she was often in a room surrounded only by other white people.
“My life, I saw, had been so white: I was raised by liberal people who believed in civil rights, yet I could literally replay memories from every family gathering, party, graduation, every workplace in my life, my college and graduate school and see how few people of color were there,” Katz said. “I imagined my son in those situations, wondering what it would feel like to be him, [and] I started to learn about white privilege and white supremacy and to try to make changes in my life.”
Choosing the path of business, as it relates to racial relationships, stemmed from her own family’s background in business, and her connection to “tzedeka, the Jewish practice of taking a stand against poverty, and the Jewish tradition of social justice.”
“Several of my family members own or owned small businesses — a restaurant, a luggage shop; ownership is not extraordinary in Jewish circles; in fact, it’s fairly common,” Katz said. She then applied to the ways that sub-economies connect to the larger economy — pointing specifically to Maggie Anderson’s book, “Our Black Year,” which Katz said tells the story of Anderson trying to spend money only at black-owned businesses for a year.
“I was stunned; it made me want to find the black-owned businesses in my neighborhood,” she said. “It made me think about barriers to entrepreneurship.”
In Jewish communities, Katz said a dollar circulates for 19 days. In Asian communities, she said a dollar circulates for more than three weeks. In black communities, Katz said a dollar is gone within hours.
“Why does this leakage happen? And why should it be taboo to talk about? Why, in my city, is it so hard to find a black cabinetmaker, locksmith, landscaper?” Katz questioned, adding, “It ought to be ordinary to talk about every aspect of business, including the problem of leakage.”
One way to curb this problem is to continue to invest in a diverse range of businesses, Kinsel said. To find those businesses, she recommends a black business directory called Pittsburgh Black Directory.com. She also approves of the long-standing tradition in Pittsburgh known as cash mobs, which bring a group of people into a business to spend money in a flash-mob style of showing up in numbers to make a change.
“If two businesses are selling the same product, what conscious choices are you making to shake it up — which one do you go to, and why?”
Bee Schindler can be reached at email@example.com.