Protect This Black Business.

Interview by Eugene Kan
Photos courtesy of Protect Black Business

Interview by Eugene Kan
Photos courtesy of Protect Black Business

On May 25, 2020, America began another dark chapter in its contentious relationship with race. The death of George Floyd ignited worldwide movements that called into question the treatment and inequality of people of color and minorities globally. It seems little has changed since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. Yet there have been pockets of positivity that have risen up from these unfortunate circumstances.

Protect Black Business is an initiative that seeks to not only protect Black-owned businesses from immediate physical destruction originally brought on by looting, but also ensure their economic survival. The collective of founders are working towards an ecosystem that connects businesses, consumers, capital, and other resources to redefine the next generation of Black neighborhoods and entrepreneurship.

We recently spoke with three of its members Jordan Riggs, Sean Valentine, and Elijah Craig via everyone’s favorite, Zoom. Together, they and their team that includes Brooke Hinton, Josh Davis, and Justin Jenkins bring together a diverse skill set in design, filmmaking, photography, finance and entrepreneurship to spark a movement that’s come out of the gates in full stride.

In times of uncertainty, we may question the power of creativity and content, but if there’s anything that we’ve learned, creators have an uncanny ability to understand the complexities of the world and how to formulate a powerful message and create a movement worth joining.

The Protect Black Business team during a meeting, from left-to-right and top-to-bottom: Josh Davis, Jordan Riggs, Brooke Hinton, Justin Jenkins, Sean Valentine, Elijah Craig.

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.

Eugene: For the person that’s coming across Protect This Black Business, how would you describe it?

Jordan: I think the name itself says it all. We’re trying to protect businesses and Black businesses. While the uprising was happening, their businesses were being looted and destroyed by people that didn’t have the same interests as the people that were in the street. When you saw these businesses, you knew that these were places that were staples in the community. It’s grown into protecting businesses and the idea of adding resources, connecting businesses together, and being able to plug A into B so that businesses are able to thrive.

Sean: One of the main words is “solidarity.” It’s about using symbols to create a common understanding and also a call to action. The ability to unify and create that solidarity is extremely important for us in our mission and our overall goal of bringing visibility to businesses that oftentimes lack just that.

Eugene: If you could maybe expand upon that, what was the business community before everything happened? This movement could have easily existed, “pre-everything,” but this is the right time now. But what did the Black entrepreneurship community look like?

Sean: Black businesses, in particular, face a variety of uphill battles when it comes to entrepreneurship and they lack the resources that it takes to be a successful business owner.

One thing that we always talk about is how many iterations you go through as a business owner before you get it right.  That safety net doesn’t necessarily exist and we’re looking to create that. Some businesses make mistakes a few times before ultimately getting it right. And it’s our duty to make sure that Black entrepreneurs can try again and ultimately succeed.

So, to answer your question, it was every person for themselves and, it’s still the way it is, but we see the paradigm-shifting towards solidarity and a more collective effort in the community.

Elijah: What transpired, ignited the community immediately to look around and realize that we already were doing the work. We just weren’t acknowledging each other. I think that’s one of the main things is the awareness of each other’s work and acknowledging that we have to support one another through crisis going forward.

Latasha Powell – Appetite For Change. Minneapolis, MN

Byron – One 21 4 East Barber Shop. Minneapolis, MN

Jordan: I would say with anything “new,” it’s not that the problem is new. It’s that you’re seeing the problem because there is a new obstacle that emerged. I think that with seeing the uprising, it was clear that Black businesses in particular, who were staples in these communities, needed protection. But once we came to that solution, we all realize this is a problem and has been a problem. Now we’re in a place to step in and fill that gap. That’s where we are now and, I don’t want to say that it was “every person for themselves,” because I do think that there are communities that have come together over time and grouped up to make things happen.

But America, in general, has had a history of finding those groups and separating them. But we have a chance to be the glue that prevents something from coming in and separating businesses.

Eugene: In terms of the whole movement, in many ways “community” is the sort of catch-all term for a lot of things. But on a more granular level, what are you guys aiming to do? Obviously the thing that’s most probably visible is the signage and that’s the jumping-off point, but underneath all of that, what are you guys looking to achieve?

Jordan: Something that we talked about recently was the idea that we’re going where we’re most needed. The signs provided to businesses are where we’re most needed, but in the future, it may be that we’re needed in helping businesses find capital or that we’re needed in helping find brick and mortar spaces. We’re on this journey to be a support system for businesses and unify the community of Black businesses.

Sean: It’s super important to use the word “unity.” That’s ultimately what we’re trying to move towards. It’s symbols and initiatives that use our energy in different ways that seek to unite. One thing I love about our team and our community more broadly is that we’re very solution-oriented.

When we see a problem, we take the time to understand the problem and understand it within the context of our skills. What can we do to step into the problem with a solution that’s new and creative? We can bring fresh energy to that problem and bring solutions that match the times.

An animated version of the sign from the Protect Black Business website.

Eugene: How would you guys separate your respective roles? Is it more like a group of thinkers or are there more deliberate, actionable things that each person’s responsible for?

Jordan: One thing that’s interesting about our team is that we’re all multidisciplinary. Everybody wears more than one hat. Everybody understands where their skills are and sees it as a marathon and passing the baton when they know something is outside of their skillset.

And being able to trust that the next person is willing, ready, and able to step into that role is one of the main advantages of our community. It’s the movement we’re looking to build.

There are places where people would say all the time that “I know this and I know every aspect of it” or, “I know the ins and outs, so don’t question me.” Inside of our group, we’re very aware that we’re all learning and providing understanding to the community. “We’re all able to watch each other’s six,” is how Sean would describe it. We’re finding out that as a group of thinkers, we work better than just a business forum hierarchy.

Eugene: I touched upon this earlier in terms of the complexity of American race relations. There’s a lot of nuances there that myself, as someone on the outside looking in is, is both fascinated by and also interested to know how those within the community look at it. As you mentioned, you guys are all multidisciplinary, but business was the pillar that you decided to go after first. Some movements were around supporting a Black designer or photographer. Why was supporting black businesses where you gravitated towards?

Jordan: When you hear “protect Black business,” you know exactly what we’re talking about. You know that if you own a business and you’re Black, whether it’s nonprofit or for-profit, or you have a pizza shop or you have a skateboard shop, we’re here to support you.

I think that that message is hard to get misconstrued. I also think that when you support business — and we know that African Americans have the lowest ownership of business in America — when you support the most overlooked portion of Americans, you’re able to ensure that all Americans are equal.

If they get to a point where they are now in the mix and they’re supported the same way everyone else is supported, then we know that the economy, in general, is thriving. It seems like the most ideal situation. Being Black, another thing that we say all the time is racism isn’t going away tomorrow.

This is something that we’ve been in, we’ve endured, we’ve seen day-to-day and we know how other people are feeling. Our experiences along with the statistics aligned with the idea that we want to support Black people, and we know that when Black people are supported, then that means that everyone must be doing well because we are the most overlooked.

What transpired, ignited the community immediately to look around and realize that we already were doing the work. We just weren't acknowledging each other. I think that's one of the main things is the awareness of each other's work and acknowledging that we have to support one another through crisis going forward.

— Elijah Craig

Elijah: There are other movements that have their own importance. But business was something that we could act on. Storefronts were being destroyed, windows were being broken and people needed to know that, “look, you probably don’t want to break this window.”

You probably want to make sure that this business stays in the community because it’s an important staple. But then when we zoomed out and looked more broadly, we noticed that Black businesses, to Jordan’s point, are the largest overlooked segment. When you think about what economic empowerment brings and how the buying power of the Black community, it is said to be $1.2 to $1.3 trillion, that’s significant.

And if we can do something that turns those resources inward, we start to really start to strengthen our position. We understand that it’s not the end-all, be all. We understand that capitalism in and of itself thrives on the sort of “haves and have-nots” models. And we’ve been tagged to be “have-nots” in the American context, but we’re determined to change that narrative through simple things like visibility.

Because when people know something, they’re able to make a more conscious decision about how they spend their resources whether it’s time, money, and energy. Once you know better you have the opportunity to do better.

The Black dollar on average, really only lasts 24 to 36 hours whereas we’re encouraging people to reinvest that money into the community and hopefully stretch that beyond weeks and months.

Eugene: Could you elaborate on that “24 to 36 hours” statement? So currently, a dollar earned would redistribute itself back into the larger economy and outside of the confines of the Black community?

Elijah: What I mean is the hope is for money that’s earned in a Black business to a Black business owner, can in turn reinvest that money into another Black business owner and continue that circulation.

Sean: When I go to the grocery store, the options I have to spend my $10 on three products. There’s a good likelihood that those three products are all from places outside of our community: spend $2 on rice, where did that rice come from? When you think about it at that granular of a level, you understand that the dollars just leave the community quickly because we don’t necessarily have the infrastructure of ownership.

Jordan: I don’t want to harp on it too long, but something Brooke would say is that part of the visibility role is education. What if the next generation knows that they can provide rice or cereal to a grocery store? They then have the ability to do that and I think that some of what systemic racism does in America is that it doesn’t even allow you to see that as an option. It blindsides you to how people are actually making money.

General Mills is a company that is making a lot of money by selling grains, and I don’t know that a lot of Black children understand that they can enter that space. That then goes back to their own communities and I think that our hope is that we can show the next generation that grocery stores can actually be filled with Black products.

We are ready, willing, and able to do all of these things and we are capable of doing it.

Mussie Tsegia – Go Get It Tobacco Shop. St. Paul, MN

Taffy – Shega Foods Grocery. Minneapolis, MN

Eugene: That’s a really interesting explanation because as you guys were running through that answer, one thing that crossed my mind was, in America, what role do you think money plays in your ability to influence?

Let’s say hypothetically if in 10 years, that wealth gap between Black and White families decrease, does wealth itself provide more — I don’t want to really mince the words — then are more people willing to listen to the Black voice? That’s the one thing that I’ve tried to come to terms with, money talks. This is the reason why other socioeconomic groups, like the model minorities such as Asian groups, have a little bit more of a say because maybe there’s affluence there. It’s a messed up way of looking at things but the reality.

Jordan: That’s a really great point. In America’s crossroads, we’re also talking about socialism versus capitalism. A lot of people are realizing that if you’re going to live in a capitalist society, in order to have a voice you have to have money. But the reason that people are questioning capitalism, in general, is because there are tons of voices that make up America as a whole and we believe that all of these voices should be heard.

So I don’t want to say make a debate about capitalism or socialism, but I do think that the inherent problem that people are having is that they’re feeling unheard because their dollar is speaking for them in a way that doesn’t reflect how they’re actually being affected by what’s happening to them.

I think that Black people are at the bottom of that totem pole in terms of capitalism. We know Black people offer a lot culturally. We know that Black people offer a lot financially. But we also know that the dollar doesn’t go as far in the Black community and so Black people are hurt.

And you can see it by the over-policing in communities. You can see it by redlining, you can see it in American culture that the dollar speaks and that the people with the least amount of money are heard least.

Sean: I agree with that. A 100%. I think that another thing that’s on top of money itself is the concept of ownership. What does it mean to own? What does it mean to own media? Because if you own media, you own so many other things, you get to influence — it’s not just the money itself, it’s the structures. You influence policy and how that’s written, you influence the narrative of how certain people are portrayed.

And so as Black people, we understand the tail end of this and the uglier side of it. So one thing that I always encourage is the concept of ownership.

General Mills is a company that is making a lot of money by selling grains, and I don't know that a lot of Black children understand that they can enter that space. That then goes back to their own communities and I think that our hope is that we can show the next generation that grocery stores can actually be filled with Black products.

— Jordan Riggs

Eugene: Was there a catalyst for you guys to kickstart this whole thing? Because obviously you guys have a lot of very passionate thoughts about it, so it’s not something that was seemingly developed overnight. Was there a moment where it was like “hey, this is it, let’s get this going.”

Sean: I feel like we’ve always had these conversations. We’ve always wanted to come together and do something to ignite some sort of social change. But we realized what was happening and a few business owners were looted and they were Black-owned businesses. They were already in a lower economic class. All of us collectively felt the energy shifting and we realized that it was a really good time for us to execute our idea or continue.

Jordan: I’m a filmmaker, so I’m seeing it from a certain perspective, but there’s a backdrop that has been set in 2020 of a global pandemic that is actually ripping through America. And at the same time that people are losing their jobs and dying at a historic rate.

We’re watching privileged Americans upset that they are inconvenienced by the pandemic while Black people are dealing first-hand with a pandemic. They’re at a higher risk of contracting the disease. They are also losing their jobs. Then they have to watch people that look like their aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, dying on the Internet.

From that perspective as a Black person, it’s a fire that’s set inside of you. You think, how can I help? Because there is a feeling in America where it’s comfortable here. I can’t lie about it. You can go to the store and get whatever you want.

There is a fire that was set and George Floyd isn’t the first person, but just the backdrop ignited something in me to say, “I’m here. I’m doing this. I’m in America and I need to stand on the shoulders of the heroes and heroines that came before me, and set the precedent for this generation.” And if this is the gap to fill and we’re the ones to fill it I’m happy to take on that small role.

Elijah: Powerful words, for sure.

Jordan: And it’s true, man. I see it in everybody’s activity and the way they take on the project. So, I’m super excited.

Jordan: “Something Justin (Jenkins) said yesterday that really stuck out to me was that we’re trying to ‘tether legacies.’ And I think that’s key to how he designed. I think it’s also key to how stuff like the video comes about or how we move forward in the future that there are legacies behind these businesses whether they started yesterday or they’ve been open for 60 years, the goal of a business is to keep it going for as long as humanly possible and to build a legacy, something that you can pass on.” A graphic from the PBB website.

Sean: One thing I would add though, one of the secret sauces is the idea of introspection. You can tell the paradigm shifted in a significant way because people had to stay home and people had to really sit within themselves and say, “man, like things, are really messed up.” You’re asking yourself questions that you’ve never had to ask yourself.

At such a large societal scale, there is a certain range of performative solidarity. But you could also tell that there were a good amount of people who knew that there was no going back to “normal” as we knew it. But we saw that and we also understood that in that vacuum, there is an opportunity to create and design a new normal, and we decided to step in and say, “let’s infuse all the things that we’ve always dreamed of: solidarity, love, and unity.”

And not to sound like a hippie, but these are the things that we want society to have and to embody. We saw the opportunity to become that and we put that into something that drives people into some sort of collective activism. That’s a good catalyst.

I think that another thing that's on top of money itself is the concept of ownership. What does it mean to own? What does it mean to own media? Because if you own media, you own so many other things, you get to influence — it's not just the money itself, it's the structures. You influence policy and how that's written, you influence the narrative of how certain people are portrayed.

— Sean Valentine

Afeworki Bein – Snelling Cafe. St. Paul, MNMelissa Taylor – The Beauty Lounge. Minneapolis, MN

Melissa Taylor – The Beauty Lounge. Minneapolis, MN

Elijah: What Jordan’s referring to was my trip to Minneapolis. It was ground zero of the whole situation as far as rioting. A lot of people were still living in fear of potentially being targeted as a Black-owned business based on the different conversations I had. I was able to soak up and really learn a lot more about each individual business owner in that city.

A lot of the time you would learn something new. There’s a barbershop that was broken into and they have a lot of White customers, so they’re nervous about putting up the sign. There are so many elements to it that we had to shift gears on-the-go and try to encourage people to unapologetically rock with our community. Because what we’re trying to establish is that as a community, we support one another and also like we encourage other communities, other socioeconomic classes of people coming together to build that generational wealth.

Being in Minneapolis was very tough for me. A lot of the times, I’ve had to explain that I wasn’t selling anything. We’re really here for the love. We’re here to support you. But like I said, we’re in these times where there’s a lot of criminal activity going on.

Each individual business owner has their own idea of how we can help. And I think it’s super important that we have that rapport with all of them in the streets. That’s why we went the route of passing out and introducing ourselves. That’s where I was having the most effective communication.

It means standing in front of the business owner and shaking their hand and telling them “we love you. I’m here because we love you and we’re trying to help.” When people feel like they’re a part of something, they’re going to understand it more and they’re also going to know how they can suggest solutions.

Jordan: To that point, something Justin would say is that we’re malleable. It means a lot that when you see what we’re doing, it feels really buttoned up. We’re rolling with the punches as we’re going.

I also want to back up to what Elijah said about criminal activity and being in the streets with these businesses. The businesses aren’t talking about criminal activity from the Black community: they’re talking about people that have come in and try to hijack a movement. For Elijah to go in and shake an owners’ hands and say, “we’re here for you,” we’re a face that they see — it’s not somebody like Nike on Instagram and saying, “we’re here to donate this much money.”

That’s a cool thing to do, but it’s something completely different to come to a community where white supremacists have been masked as protesters and have broken the windows of a Black building. For Elijah to come in and shake their hand and give them the posters and say that we love you, that’s so much. That means so much to a business owner, as opposed to posting something on Instagram.

Elijah: Yeah, that’s everything (laughs).

All of the messages that can be conveyed through a sign, one thing that we come back to is the idea of, thinking about the stop sign.Yet all it is is a red octagon with "stop" in the middle. And it doesn't matter what language you speak, you have a fundamental idea of what to do when you see it. Imagine the simplicity of that and the power of design when you boil it down to its essential parts and then infuse things that you want to happen in there. So when you talk about the color red, red is a color of activity, it's to inspire action.

— Sean Valentine

Gerard Klass – Soul Bowl. Minneapolis, MN

Lori Greene – Mosaic on a Stick. St. Paul, MN

Sean: One of the big things that I’m learning is, honestly, it’s a lot about signage. Even the concept of what a sign can do. All of the messages that can be conveyed through a sign, one thing that we come back to is the idea of, thinking about the stop sign.

Yet all it is is a red octagon with “stop” in the middle. And it doesn’t matter what language you speak, you have a fundamental idea of what to do when you see it. Imagine the simplicity of that and the power of design when you boil it down to its essential parts and then infuse things that you want to happen in there. So when you talk about the color red, red is a color of activity, it’s to inspire action.

When we write “protect this Black business,” it’s a call to action. When you stop, when you see the red and then you see the fist and the words, that creates a package of information that someone can take and say, “okay, I feel a way about this.”

And because we’re all going through all of these introspective exercises, we have people examine that feeling. Everybody isn’t necessarily going to have the response that we would like them to have which is a prideful call to duty, “yeah, I will walk into this business and I will spend more money maybe than I would have spent. I’ll actually answer the call,” but some people don’t respond that way.

Some people respond by being defensive and saying, “well, why does this business need protecting?” We have statistics to show why, and we have the stories to show why the long history of discrimination against Black people in America that only further extends when we go into commerce.

All of these messages are packed into a sign, and people get offended that it says “protect this Black business,” that’s actually a bit of racism because there isn’t anything wrong with them self-identifying as a Black-owned business. It’s a statement of material fact. It’s not up for debate. It’s not controversial. And the controversy comes from the person who looks at it at that and gets offended.

There are other movements that have their own importance. But business was something that we could act on. Storefronts were being destroyed, windows were being broken and people needed to know that, 'look, you probably don’t want to break this window.'

— Elijah Craig

Dalton Outlaw – Element Gym. St. Paul, MN

Julian Gray – Fades of Gray Barber Shop. Minneapolis, MN

Sean: It’s a lot easier to swing the hammer when you know what you’re building. What we’re building is solidarity and visibility. It really all comes back to those same words because these businesses and statistics already exist.

The problem hasn’t gone anywhere. The problem’s been around since chattel slavery. How can we swing the hammer more efficiently to put a real dent in this thing and one of those ways is by allowing people to identify themselves and say, “I am a Black-owned business. I stand tall and proud.”

If you’ve removed racism from our society in the way that you say you have. Then this shouldn’t be an issue and you should come in and you should help my business stay open. That’s ultimately the goal. And in our forward-looking nature, we also want this to protect the business literally. If a business goes through property damage because they have this signage in the window, that should constitute a hate crime?

Because there was no reason to hate this business until they self-identified. So what’s going on? What’s the difference here? The difference is that they’re proud to be Black. This is hatred that we’re speaking about. So doing things like that, serve other purposes as we grow.

Our goal is one symbol for Black business worldwide. When we improve our design and go in other directions to make it more widely disseminated, that collective power will come to fruition in a way you can’t really deny it anymore.

Go in there and buy your donut, bro. Don’t even, don’t even make a big deal about it. You know what I’m saying? Like, go into the store and buy everything you would have bought anyway and have a good day about it.

Eugene: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that you think need to be addressed in terms of whether it’s Black ownership or sort of the Black business community, or a Black Lives Matter in general in terms of that movement?

Sean: The prevailing idea is that everything is on the same footing. When we go to the bank for a loan as a Black entrepreneur, it’s a completely and wholly different experience than when someone else goes to the bank.

I was reading about how with the Paycheck Protection Program and the different experiences people endured. Black and women-owned businesses went into these banks and received different treatment while having the same profiles as their white counterparts. The products they were offered in terms of loans, were wholly different.

That’s a misconception that we want to chip away at and say, “look, these institutions are playing defense,” whereas they’re often laying out the red carpet for someone to try and fail for the first, second time, and the third time, there’s such a pressure for us (Black entrepreneurs) to get it right the first time that we feel.

We feel it when we dig into our savings to make sure that what we’re doing pays off and, sometimes the reality is sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a lot of courage that goes into trying to be a Black owner and an entrepreneur. That one misconception of “it’s business as usual” is one we’re trying to chip away at it.

There is a fire that was set and George Floyd isn’t the first person, but just the backdrop ignited something in me to say, “I’m here. I’m doing this. I’m in America and I need to stand on the shoulders of the heroes and heroines that came before me, and set the precedent for this generation.” And if this is the gap to fill and we’re the ones to fill it I’m happy to take on that small role.

— Jordan Riggs

Eugene: I know that you guys all have mostly creative backgrounds. Can you talk a little bit about your guys’ art direction? What role does creativity will play in you guys carrying this message through and allowing it to spread?

Sean: The design was the most important thing with the visibility of everything. Justin was the guy who really took the reigns on it and he wanted to put his personal spin on it. He has a very illustrative style that wanted to merge the past and present era of contemporary design using a classic bold, headline serif, that read like the news.

We definitely like bold colors that express ourselves in a way that would ignite the community, and create a call to action to ignite us all and put that sense of urgency into the art.

Jordan: Something Justin said yesterday that really stuck out to me was that we’re trying to “tether legacies.” That’s key to how he designed it. It’s also key to how stuff like the video and how we move forward in the future and show the legacies behind these businesses whether they started yesterday or they’ve been open for 60 years. The goal of a business is to keep it going for as long as humanly possible and to build a legacy, something that you can pass on.

And so our hope is to be able to communicate that. Something we did in the video was ask people, what does “protect Black business” mean to them? That’s where we’re most able to show visibility and protect Black business. When you read it, you know what we’re talking about, but when a business owner tells you what it means to them, they’re communicating way more than we can do. They’re telling you exactly what it means to their community. And that is why you should support them. They are dealing with these things on the ground every single day.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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