Courtesy Chicago Ideas

How to Get in the Room

Panelists explored questions of Black generational wealth in an unconventional, but fitting, setting

Building a legacy” sounds promising, but “Black Generational Wealth” was the real siren call that brought a large group to the headquarters of Chicago Beyond, an “impact investment” organization created in 2016 with a focus on equity over charity. It’s the first time Chicago Ideas, a nonprofit that describes itself as providing “access to thought leaders and innovative ideas” and is co-chaired by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, has used the space, but the two organizations’ aesthetics complemented each other. The open layout—with white walls and chairs, stylish lighting, and colorful artoffset all the concrete and worked well with Chicago Ideas’ yellow and black branding.

Still, it was a little jarring to have a discussion about Black wealth at 811 West Fulton Market, which last year sold for over $50 million.

“Why is Chicago Beyond in Fulton Market?” asked Liz Dozier, its founder and CEO, and a former principal of Fenger High School in Roseland. She said that before Fulton Market became what some refer to as “Google’s campus,” it was “The Great Central Market”: meatpacking warehouses and wholesale produce markets advantageously located near lake, rail, and canal transportation. In the late nineteenth century it was a booming economic center for the city—and a bloody, corrupt neighborhood for a working-class, largely immigrant community that inhabited it.

The decision, in a segregated and increasingly gentrified city, to move the “impact investor” near “restaurant row” was intentional, Dozier said. It helps to “create space for those same voices” who were fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions there around the turn of the twentieth century, and “bring it back to what it was at one point in time.”

And for the next ninety minutes they did bring it back. Lolly Bowean, a reporter for the Tribune on race and poverty, asked the other panelists to define wealth. Each presented what she called a “remixed definition of wealth.”

“We have to redefine wealth outside of the parameters of money, because very few of us will become millionaires, and that is okay,” said Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University professor of African American studies and the author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. She said that everyone has the capacity “to build strong communities, build our capacity to help others, and to create knowledge of ourselves in the past and the present to give another generation.”

Panelist Tiffany Williams embodies this concept, with a backstory that screams Black excellence. The talented chef and mother of three worked with local nonprofits such as Sunshine Enterprises to develop her small business, Exquisite Catering, and “counts Beyoncé as one of her fans”—yet still claims her greatest achievement is attending her elementary school’s career day each year, as she told Rolling Out in 2017. She works with local vendors and believes in second chances, hiring ”those who have made some wrong choices in life, but are ready to make the right ones.” 

Still, Tiffany Williams shared lessons learned the hard way after hiring an inefficient bookkeeper. She stressed the importance of a good accountant and lawyer for a new business. Operational expertise is often the difference between small businesses that make it and those that don’t. Xavier Ramey, CEO of social impact consulting firm Justice Informed, said this realization usually comes after the high of that first check wears off.

“Entrepreneurship is about taking on the consequences of your truth. The reality is that everyday is feedback day for an entrepreneur,” Ramey said.

Eric Williams, founder and creative director of The Silver Room, has been running a successful small business in Wicker Park (and now Hyde Park) since 1997. Bowean asked how he made it over “that hump of obstacles.” Eric Williams, who also serves on Chicago Ideas’ “Brain Trust” of local subject-matter experts, said he had similar struggles as Ramey and Tiffany Williams, simply “not knowing what he didn’t know” because mentors were hard to come by.

“If I had to depend on just looking at Black people to help me I never would’ve made it, honestly,” Eric Williams said. “I had all kinds of people helping me out…. you have to do everything you can do to make it work because you know you’re already starting behind from the very beginning.”

The panel spent some time unpacking this inherent handicap: not just the standard umbrella of racism, discrimination, and outright plundering that Black Chicago is no doubt already familiar with, but also the nitty-gritty details that are deadly for Black businesses not to know.

Panelist Marcia Chatelain’s new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, explores the Black entrepreneurs who used government subsidies in the late 1960s and 1970s to build up fast food franchises. She argues this created new beliefs about “solutions” to racial inequality that put the onus of social responsibility on Black businesses themselves, and those beliefs are still championed today. Even local nonprofits like Sunshine Enterprises believe “entrepreneurship is the solution to poverty.” 

Chatelain paused to offer the following thoughts about the upcoming election: “Anyone running for office, regardless of political party, when you challenge them on the issue of poverty, racism, and equity and they tell you about business development—that’s not the answer to that question.”

Fast Food employee scholarships like Chipotle’s Educational Assistance Program sound good in theory, said Chatelain, but she argued that this is not corporate giving—it’s a rebate. “A community’s taxes help subsidize the land, the water lines, and the security for that business,” she said. She said it was better for a community to have access to public funds from appropriately taxed corporations rather than rising and falling according to corporate “gestures.”

Bowean swept in with a sardonic question: “Do I expect too much from you as a small business owner to hire my unemployed, unemployable uncle, pay them a living wage, give them health benefits, and then throw the best party every summer?”—referring to the hugely popular block party that Eric Williams’s store The Silver Room throws each year.

The room erupted in the kind of laughter only marginalized people can produce; coming up with Black solutions to problems created by white supremacy is a harsh reality for those Black people that “made it,” but the irony is never lost.

Eric Williams said one of the main differences between his Hyde Park and Wicker Park locations are two simple customer questions. In Hyde Park, people ask “Is this a small business? Is it Black owned?”, because they understand the importance of their support. “We’re part of the community. It’s not a hierarchy. The community gives to us, we give to them.”

In addition to the burden of responsibility Black business owners may feel toward their community, they also have to deal with pressure from other organizations to donate goods. Tiffany Williams protested against large, corporate nonprofits that siphon resources from Black businesses with donation requests that often come in February, Black History Month. “Hey, can you donate food for our fundraiser we’re gonna make $2 million for?” Tiffany Williams recalled.

“I learned really quick in my first year that that wasn’t fun and it wasn’t sustainable,“ Tiffany Williams said. “I tell people to be wary… Is it going to bring about more customers, bring about more clients, more sustainability to your business?”

Ramey called this kind of behavior “piracy that turns into philanthropy.” His Justice Informed consulting firm has clients ranging from small nonprofits to universities and tech giants, and its job is to find the causes within their organizational frameworks that led to current inequities—such as a lawsuit from the former diversity officer, or failure to recruit or retain staff of color. He helps organizations “move concurrently with social good” rather than taking incremental, “hopeful steps.”

Ramey said true wealth begins when people who are working- and lower-class are no longer harmed by being kept from doing more than simply surviving. This takes time and the right people in the room.

“I’m just wondering, where might I find those rooms?” one woman asked from the back row.

Ramey said that at sixteen years old he decided to spend at least ten years in Chicago growing his network, so that when he finally launched his company people already knew of him and his work. “The room is not just a physical space,” Ramey said. It’s social media, blogs—even what you say on Instagram stories when you’re on vacation. “All of those are outlets to establish your reputation. That reputation establishes credibility, and credibility is revenue,” he said.

After the panel, Domonique Battle of Woodlawn, the small business owner who asked the question, said she didn’t really learn anything she didn’t already know, but some of the catch phrases like “credibility is revenue” hit harder points home for her professionally—she dislikes using social media, but recognizes its importance in growing her business.

Her business, Getting to Center, LLC, which specializes in career coaching and nonprofit consulting, is just a year old. She said she’s applying for a Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant from the city at the end of the month.

Knowledge is power. What happens when knowledge far outweighs capacity is a lesson typically only learned by those with failed businesses, but this room was a reminder of how much Black excellence is out there. And yet so many still face the daunting task of juggling success and survival.

A majority of the room stayed long after the panel ended, asking panelists more personal questions and lining up to buy Chatelain’s book. But eventually, everyone had to exit the building, the doors locking automatically behind them, and walk down restaurant row.

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Olivia Cunningham is a freelance writer and digital content specialist. As a two-time City Bureau Reporting Fellow, she investigated school resource officers in Chicago Public Schools and Black generational wealth in Chicago. This is her first article for the Weekly.

Olivia Cunningham is a freelance writer and digital content specialist. As a two-time City Bureau Reporting Fellow, she investigated school resource officers in Chicago Public Schools and Black generational wealth in Chicago.

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