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MKE Black Holiday Gift Box Initiative: Supporting Black-Owned Businesses During Pandemic

Maayan Silver
(From left) Paul Wellington, Ayrton Bryan and Rick Banks of MKE Black distribute boxes during the first weekend in December.

 Editor's note: As of Friday, Dec. 11, all of the MKE Black gift boxes have sold out. 

The movement to buy Black and for economic justice has been longstanding. This year, it's also framed through the lens of the pandemic and the racial justice protests over the summer. Now, holiday shoppers in Milwaukee can keep a safe social distance, while also supporting Black-owned businesses and racial justice — thanks to a gift box initiative by MKE Black, a local organization and app that supports and promotes Black-owned businesses.

LISTEN: MKE Black App: A Guide To Black-Owned Businesses In Milwaukee

Kristin Schmitt owns INIK Soap Co. here in Milwaukee.

“So INIK means unique in Haitian Creole,” she explains. “And I thought, or I believe, my soaps are quite unique, either from batch to batch or just all over. I mean, the colors I use, the designs I make, everything's really unique.”

Schmitt’s soaps are in some of the MKE Black holiday gift boxes. The boxes range in size and cost, from $20 to $250. 

“OK, so the ones that will be in the basket are called a unity. And they represent the colors of MKE Black, but they were really made under, I would say, the inspiration of the Pan-African flag,” Schmitt explains. “So on the bottom, you have green, then you have black, and then you have red to represent the flag. Now, those are wrapped, and it says unity on the front, we have what's associated with the Black Lives Matter fist on the front.”

Credit Maayan Silver
A sample MKE Black gift box.

Shoppers can order boxes through the MKE Black app or onlineand pick them up at MobCraft Brewery on December 19 and 20. They're focusing on walk-up service unless prior arrangements are made.  

People are trying to figure out how to support Black businesses and also stay safe in the pandemic, says Rick Banks, executive director of MKE Black.

“It's important to increase the economic well-being of the Black community because far too often, you know, the Black community doesn't see investment and it doesn't necessarily get the support that it needs to thrive,” Banks says. “And so unfortunately, so many businesses don't last as long or, you know, fold unfortunately under economic pressure. Economic development is kind of slow in in the Black community, in general. And so, if we want to have thriving neighborhoods and thriving communities, we have to continue to invest in our small Black businesses as well.”

Drastic and sustainable change is needed when it comes to economic and housing justice for Black and brown Milwaukeeans, says shopper Ruth Weill. She works at Riverworks Development Corporation, and says these are sizeable issues.

Weill picked up her gift box last weekend. When asked if buying one might seem like a small step — she says it’s a significant one.

“If 400 people buy a gift box and there's five different businesses in a box, I'm using hypothetical numbers, that's a lot of purchases driven to those small businesses that depend on all those drops in the bucket,” calculates Weil. “So maybe they can pay their rent or a mortgage this month. That's huge.”

Credit Maayan Silver
Customer Ruth Weill (center) speaks with MKE Black's Rick Banks as she's picking up her gift box last weekend.

Weill says local businesses and their employees are a crucial part of the economic fabric of communities. “And buying local keeps more money in the community, and then more people have money in their pocket to support the business,” she says. “And it's the opposite of the trickle-down effect. It's the trickle-across-and-up effect. And that's really what builds communities economically and otherwise.”

The MKE Black gift baskets offer a sweet way to make a difference, explains Marcia Taylor. She’s a self-proclaimed foodie who runs a business called LUSH Popcorn with her brother Marc.

Their liquor-infused gourmet popcorn, inspired by what Taylor calls the “lush culture” of Brew City, is included in some of the gift boxes.

“So we have a number of different flavors that go out: some sweet, some spicy, some savory, it’s a combination of our maple bourbon, our Wisconsin cheddar and our movie theater butter popcorn, and chipotle cheddar," she says.

Credit Courtesy of Marcia Lush
Lush's Maple Bourbon and Cheese flavored popcorn, one of several flavors included in MKE Black's holiday boxes.

Taylor says when the pandemic hit, LUSH closed its doors to protect staff and the public. It’s reopened with public health protocols in place. Taylor hopes the gift baskets help recover some of the business lost earlier this year.

“So, this and partnerships like this really helped us to reach new customers and get our products out in new ways where, since the pandemic, there aren't as many folks that necessarily want to come to a store directly or retail location.”

Dave Bent of Jamaican Fairtrade, whose coffee is included in the initiative, says the gift boxes are a boost. "The gift boxes have definitely helped business, and it gives people the opportunity to try 100% Blue Mountain coffee straight from Jamaica," he says.

Bent says the coffee is more smooth and that a lot of places only offer a blend. The company works with small farmers that get certified through a Jamaican agency.  

Credit Dave Bent
Dave Bent of Jamaican Fair Trade coffee says the gift boxes are a way for people to experience 100% Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica.

Rick Banks of MKE Black says as of last weekend, shoppers spent $18,000 on the gift boxes.

The large majority of the funds goes directly to the businesses with a small margin for MKE Black’s fundraising, says Banks.

“We are paying pretty much whole cost for all of the products that we put into the box. And we have a very, very small like fundraising margin for MKE Black," he says. "And so that's where all the money's going.”

Paul Wellington, director of operations and technology for MKE Black, says there are a lot of national apps directed at helping people find Black-owned businesses, but MKE Black has the advantage of being able to keep up with individual businesses locally.

“While the top [national] apps will have like only a couple businesses [listed in Milwaukee], we have over 500 businesses listed in our directory. So, I really think that we are helping identify Black businesses, helping people discover them. And we're also more than that, we also provide grants and the funding to businesses, as well as opportunities for them to really increase their visibility as well. So, we are more than just the app," he says.

People can use the MKE Black app or website to place orders for gift boxes through Friday, December 11 at 6 p.m.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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