Black-owned shops call on other businesses, customers to commit to support

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A year later and it’s still hard to watch.  

Manger at Villa Clothing Store Melvin Stewart remembers watching from home as bystanders and news outlets livestreamed video of his shop becoming the first downtown Grand Rapids business to be raided and robbed the evening of May 30, 2020.

The store, located on the southeast corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue, was the first to experience damage when things turned from peaceful to a riot.

“It was surreal,” Stewart said. “We still to this day we get people that travel here, they come from all over and they say, ‘I saw what happened on the news,’ …Like it was a historical site they came to see it and talk about it and talk to me about it.”

A year later, Village Clothing Store manager Melvin Stewart watches video of his store being looted during the May 30, 2020, riot in Grand Rapids. (May 2021)

Stewart has come to embrace the store’s newfound fame, seeing it as an opportunity to start a conversation. 

“It was cool. It was people of all races that were coming to talk to me about it,” Stewart said.  

Instead of dwelling on the destruction, Stewart chooses to focus on the unity that followed as the community came together the next day to help pick up the pieces.  

As neighbors swept up shards of broken glass, businesses began pledging their support for the Black Lives Matter movement — a trend seen locally and nationwide. Jamiel Robinson, the founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, was skeptical of the sincerity of the support and the businesses’ commitment to change.  

“The posts and the social media and the equity statements that come out,” Robinson said. “We’re still seeing who’s actually going to live up to what promises they made when it comes to closing the racial equity gap from that standpoint.” 

Robinson and GRABB began working to close this gap years before rioters tore through downtown Grand Rapids. A year later and Robinson said there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

He said for a lot of the businesses that made pledges, they’re now tasked with figuring out how to actually implement the change promised. 

“It’s almost like you’re trying to harvest a crop that’s never been watered or never been tended to,” Robinson said. “You can’t just magically say we want to hire X number or X percentage or just increase hiring overall when you haven’t built the pipeline or the funnel for these things to occur.”  

Robinson and GRABB began working to close this gap years before rioters tore through downtown Grand Rapids. A year later and Robinson said there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Take the downtown Grand Rapids business community, for example, where Robinson said he can count on one hand the number of Black-owned businesses, aside from his own.  

“Downtowns are usually the most thriving economic centers of a community, so when you think about the wealth that is created downtown and the owners that own property … and you see an absence of African American businesses and Latinx businesses, that’s a huge issue,” Robinson said.  

As Robinson continues to call on the city and other stakeholders to grow diversity downtown, he said businesses can also do their part by supporting minority-owned vendors.  

“If we’re talking about private businesses, they can definitely look at who they’re contracting with, who they’re purchasing some of their products from and seeing if there are Black-owned businesses that have some of the services that their company can purchase from,” Robinson said.  

Robinson is also calling on you, the consumer.  

“You can do what occurred for exactly three weeks following the (Grand Rapids) riot and the nationwide riots,” he said.  

Robinson and other business owners say the spike of support for Black-owned businesses following the unrest was shortlived.  

“He saw an extreme uptick … an uptick of like if you were to go to the top of the Himalayas but then after three weeks come, we see it dip all the way done to where we’re in the Mariana Trench, which is the lowest point in the ocean,” Robinson said.  

He said support for Black-owned businesses needs to be sustained and consistent. 

“A one-time purchase is more charity, when Black businesses are looking for customers,” Robinson said.  

It’s a phrase Winsome Kirton frequently finds herself saying as well. Kirton is the founder of Pack Elephant, a new boutique in downtown Grand Rapids that provides a storefront for local women and minority makers. Pack Elephant opened at Studio Park in December, receiving funds through a local initiative to create more business diversity downtown.

“We were really fortunate to receive a grant to help offset the cost of being down here for the first 18 months,” Kirton said. “I find that incredibly important for all diverse-owned businesses that want to have a presence here.” 

Breaking barriers with its recent opening, Kirton described what it felt like to be one of the few Black, female business owners in downtown Grand Rapids.  

“It felt like most of my life,” Kirton said. “And I think it’s unfortunate that often I’m the only Black woman sitting at the table, but I’m determined to not make it the case forever.” 

Kirton being one of the many voices behind this movement that looks to replace the memory of a night of violence in Grand Rapids with a more diverse and inclusive downtown.  

“It helped elevate us to another level,” Stewart, the owner of Villa, said. “It took us to a place where it wasn’t just about clothing, it wasn’t just about the shoes now. It was about the efforts we put to keep the community together… going forward.” 

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