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Manitoba directory spotlights Black-owned businesses

By Claudine Gervais

Francine Bhati began to see her social media filled with black boxes for #BlackoutTuesday last June, she was preoccupied with finding a way to preserve the awareness it created beyond a fleeting moment in people’s feeds. She didn’t want to see the support it generated become like so much else online: present for a day and forgotten the next.

For the past few years, the owner of Queenfidence Cosmetics felt called to connect with and support her fellow Black entrepreneurs. #BlackoutTuesday galvanized it.

She has used her social media not only to share her business, but her heart. When George Floyd was murdered, she spoke of her broken heart. The event and other accounts of injustice and racism brought up her own memories of fear and horror she faced as a child. Along with her parents and five sisters, she was forced to flee her home as a result of the Second Congo War.

The family spent 10 years in Uganda as refugees before coming to Winnipeg in 2012.

While she saw people tagging and sharing Black-owned businesses on social media, she knew there had to be a better way to focus the support. She called her sister, Odette, owner of Timely Staging and Design and together they talked about what they could do.

A directory of Black-owned businesses topped the list. They turned to their friend Ima Eknem, who matched their enthusiasm with  the technical skills to bring the directory to life online. Black Owned Manitoba launched at the end of June.

“I’ve seen the struggles,” said Francine, citing her sister Odette’s business branding as one example. Odette chose not to include photos of herself on her company’s website, fearing she would be discredited as a Black woman based on stereotypes.

Francine has also said it’s possible to see economic inequality by counting how many BIPOC businesses and brands are carried at Canada’s major retail stores.

The directory provides a route for people to make a long term investment into Black- owned businesses in Manitoba, in turn uplifting and advancing the economics of Black communities. Starting a business can be easier than sustaining it. Allies demonstrate their support by purchasing from Black-owned businesses as part of the solution, said Francine.

Since the launch of Black Owned Manitoba, the feedback they have received has been overwhelmingly positive. While they have had their share of racist, divisive comments, it never diminished their vision and passion for empowering the economic growth of the Black community in Manitoba.

In November, the three founders of Black Owned Manitoba  will provide the virtual keynote with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce’s event, How Your Business Can Support Diversity & Inclusivity.

Francine said she would like to see more organizations put the emphasis on inclusion, beyond just having someone who is BIPOC as part of your business or organization, but ensuring their voices are heard and they are included in decision-making.

Future plans for Black Owned Manitoba included continuing to focus efforts here, before considering expansion into other parts of Canada. They are also looking to create a market, when the pandemic is no longer a barrier to organizing such an event.

“It really makes my heart happy to see [businesses] highlighted and supported.”

On June 2, 2020,  #BlackoutTuesday saw millions post black boxes to Instagram. It started when two black women in the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang suggested pausing for “an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.” They used the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused. The idea took flight, as celebrities, influencers and corporations posted the black squares, however as it became more popular, the original messaging was harder to find, with vague repostings of a black square, and concern over the use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag preventing people from finding the information they sought on the movement and from those organizing around it.