In St. Louis, several local LGBTQIA+-owned businesses have modeled an anti-racist role. I asked Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books to speak about his perspective on how business and racial justice intersect.
What inspired you to put up signage welcoming Muslim customers?
I put the sign up after seeing a Facebook post by The Main Street Alliance, which is a national network of small business coalitions that works on public policy issues. They had created a sign in response to the backlash against Muslim refugees and immigrants. I amended the sign to include a Bosnian translation to represent the large Bosnian population in St. Louis. I think it sets a wonderful tone and conveys the values that underpin our bookstore – respect and love for our community and the desire to work together to be more literate.
The kind of fear and xenophobia that politicians weave into their messages is hard to sustain. It takes huge amounts of focused energy and can't survive acts of love. I realized that this small thing - a sign welcoming Muslims and immigrants - could be a beacon of kindness. It could signal the absence of fear and the presence of respect - at least on the corner of Euclid and McPherson.
Is it necessary to put up a sign to welcome people who have always been welcome here? I'd argue in this moment - yes. In a climate where the default question is "How can I survive?" it is necessary to answer publicly and visibly "By living together."
What is the role of white business owners in racial justice issues?
American society places a lot of value on business leaders and we (white business owners) have a responsibility to the whole community that supports us. We are responsible for earning and maintaining that community’s trust in us, in the business we create and run, and in the integrity of our mission.
That means that white business owners have to listen and use our positions of privilege to amplify the voices of those who are kept silent.
In concrete terms this means hiring, promoting, trusting valuing and giving credit to people of color. It means structuring our company's policies so that the real-life needs of the people who work there are considered (health insurance, etc.). It means choosing vendors with our eyes open to who owns those companies and who those vendors hire.
Sometimes it just means getting out of the way.
What should white LGBTQIA+-owned businesses do to get more education on racial justice work?
This is a tough question because one size doesn’t fit all, and I’m no expert. I’ll suggest a few things I’ve done and continue to do - Read, read, read. Read any or all of the books on the Black Lives Matter reading list.
Schedule diversity training for yourself and your employees regardless of whether you think you need it or not. Diversity Awareness Partnership is one avenue locally, but there are more.
Find a role model business, schedule coffee with the owner. Ask questions.
Look to a community leader who does this work and follow that example.
A couple of examples (there are many more):
Mike Kinman (Christ Church Cathedral)
Rabbi Susan Talve (Central Reform Congregation)
Try not to be defensive. You don't have to be perfect (nobody is), just brave enough to grow and learn. The key is to listen.
Left Bank Books has also been an advocate and educator on the Black Lives Matter movement. What are some examples of this that other businesses can do?
Many business owners don't publicly express opinions on social or political issues because they have to balance their consciences with the need to appeal to as many customers and clients as possible. It's risky (and terrifying) to do something that alienates the people who keep your doors open. There are ways to be an advocate besides making an entire window of Black Lives Matter signs:
- Hire black people. There shouldn't really be an argument here. There are many thousands of qualified people of color for every job.
- Buy supplies from vendors who are owned by or hire black people.
- Don't profile black customers. (Yeah, I know you don’t think you do this. You do.)
- Interrupt racist jokes, conversations or confrontations in your place of business. Every time.
- Schedule diversity training for you and your staff.
- Buy books about racial justice. Give them to all of your employees. Invite them to discuss the book together.
- Discuss your position on topics such as policing, profiling, income inequality, etc., with fellow business owners and Aldermen.
- Attend neighborhood meetings and interrupt racist remarks there.
- Know that you are not going succeed at all of this all of the time and be ok knowing you will be better tomorrow. Keep that in mind when talking to others who may not be at their best today.
Read more from Jarek Steele at his blog here.
Jennifer Kovar is Co-President of the Gateway Business Guild (St. Louis' LGBTQIA+ chamber of commerce) and a volunteer racial justice facilitator with YWCA St. Louis.