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Commemoration highlights MLK's dream of economic equality

Activist Maggie Anderson calls for action to support black businesses

A crowd gathered for Northwestern University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Keynote Jan. 28 in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, highlighted by speaker Maggie Anderson, author of “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.”

A powerful orator, Anderson, who was recently diagnosed with a rare form of adult onset muscular dystrophy, said that although the disease is having a weakening effect on her physically, she finds great strength in finding her purpose as an activist for King’s vision of economic equity and seeing others join the cause.

“When we stand together to lift each other up, we can see over the mountaintop,” Anderson said. “We can make miracles. If you believe there is no social justice without economic justice, stand up and let your bucket down.”  

While those assembled gave a sustained standing ovation, Anderson thanked the crowd saying, “I love you for what you are going to do tomorrow.”

Anderson, CEO of the Empowerment Experiment Foundation, has a law degree and MBA from the University of Chicago, and is married to John Anderson, a Northwestern Kellogg School of Management graduate (MBA ’99). Inspired by the election of President Obama and a desire to do more for the black community, the Oak Park, Ill.-based Anderson and her family, including two young daughters, embarked on a social experiment in 2009 to provoke more action and unity around economic equity. 

They made a public pledge to support only black-owned businesses for an entire year, prompting a study by the Kellogg School of Management to examine the statistical relevance on the economic impact of their experiment.

 Anderson spoke of the hardships her own middle-class family endured that put them in touch with the everyday struggles experienced by black people living in food deserts with overpriced, inferior food options. To stick with the commitment they made, the family had to drive farther and look harder to find black-owned businesses to meet the family’s needs. She recalled that their children sometimes went to school in clothes that were too tight because of the dearth of children’s clothing stores, often begging for a banana or other favorite foods that were scarcer than the sweet cereals and fast food found in gas stations and convenience marts.

Adding to the family’s hardship was Anderson’s mother’s battle with pancreatic cancer. Born in Cuba and possessing a ninth-grade education, her mother convinced her U.S.-raised daughter to see her project through: “Mija, I’m going to go out fighting. Are you?”

Quoting King, Anderson said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

The experiment brought many hard realities and economic disparities into view, which Anderson chronicled in her 2012 book “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy,” including the fact that dollars stay in the black community an average of just six hours, because the majority of businesses operating in black communities are not owned by people who live in the community.

According to the Kellogg study only 2 to 3 percent of black dollars stay in the community where they are spent. The study also found that if black households of $75,000 or more increased their spending in black-owned businesses to 10 percent of their discretionary income, the resulting flow of cash in the community would have the potential to create a million new American jobs. 

Anderson challenged attendees to join the empowerment experiment by supporting black-owned businesses in their communities and hiring black suppliers for their businesses.

Rewarding those who braved the weather were Northwestern’s Jazz Small Ensemble who enveloped the room with jazz arrangements of spirituals. Saxophonists Albert Kuo and Jon Rosen and trombonist Emma Blau smoothly traded solos on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Joshua Fit da Battle.” 

Bienen alumnus and countertenor Carl Alexander (MA ’17) gave exquisite expression to Uzee Brown Jr.’s soaring “I Dream a World.”

Senior Derick Wallace, Weinberg ’19, helped welcome guests and explained the MLK Commemoration Committee had focused on King’s messages about economic equality as a theme for this year’s choice of keynote speaker and event programming.

More information about the Empowerment Experiment and the book “Our Black Year” are available on Maggie Anderson’s website

For resources on black-owned businesses visit the Black Business Consortium of Evanston Northshoreand the U.S. Black Chambers Online Directory.

At candlelight vigil, a shoutout to youth

Approximately 200 members of the campus and community attended the 40th annual Candlelight Vigil hosted by the Alpha Mu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Jan. 21. The cold winter evening would have marked the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Candlelight vigil

The celebratory and catalyzing momentum of the evening included musical selections by student choral groups Northwestern Community Ensemble and Soul4Real. Ogi Ifediora, a member of the Northwestern student a cappella group THUNK, led the collective singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Spoken word artist Timothy Mays performed two of his poems, “Fighter” and “This is the Year,” which championed the resilience and hope required to pursue a dream through life’s many adversities.

In his keynote address, civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis Jr. praised the bravery, activism and potential of the youth who turned out for the vigil. He also praised those who attended the third annual Women’s March, which took place Jan. 19. Citing a study that today’s youth are less prejudiced than previous generations, he said, “no one is born with the notion of oppressing someone, it is socialization that teaches the dominant have the right to oppress the weak.”

“The young have the most potential, but they need our encouragement,” Chavis said. “Reach out to the young people in your family and community and encourage them to push forward.”

Chavis spoke about his experience working as a youth coordinator for King in North Carolina. Then just 14 years old, Chavis was putting up posters for an address King was giving at Shaw University when he saw King pull up in an automobile. King got out to help with the posters. When Chavis protested saying King had far more important things to do, King replied, “When you are a leader, you never ask your followers to do what you won’t.”

Witnessing King’s humility and care for others inspired Chavis’ career as an educator, journalist and civil rights leader. “Dr. King cared about who was at the end of the march,” he said. “He cared about their protection, because attacks from the edges were a risk.”

Chavis closed by saying if King were alive today, he’d be organizing, marching and giving people a sense of their worth. Pointing out that the 2020 elections were going to be very important to bridge the nation’s economic, cultural and political divide, he urged all to “keep marching, keep mobilizing. Freedom will come.”

Rounding out Northwestern’s MLK Commemoration and Dream Week activities were community service projects for Chicago and Evanston nonprofit organizations, an arts festival, panel discussions, youth programming, a documentary film screening, an oratorical competition and the annual Harambee: Black History Month Kick-Off event hosted by Multicultural Student Affairs and For Members Only.

Topics: Diversity, Events
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