At the Sherman Phoenix, Black Businesses Rise
Trymaine Lee: With the holidays coming up, I can't help but think about the seven principles of Kwanzaa, two of which are Ujima and Ujamaa, collective work and responsibility, and cooperative economics. Now, this is not a Kwanzaa story, but it is a story about a Black community and a group of savvy entrepreneurs who came together to literally lift themselves from the ashes.
JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir are entrepreneurs who, in 2018, took a burned out bank building in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood and transformed it into an economic hub called the Sherman Phoenix. This is from a video they put out to promote the space in 2019.
I met JoAnne and Maanaan on a reporting trip in Milwaukee a few years ago, and I knew right away there was just something about them. They oozed positive energy, aspiration, and Black love. And it's all of that that gets us into the heart of this story and gets us to Ujima and Ujamaa, and that bank building, now filled almost completely with Black-owned shops.
Maanaan Sabir: Hey, it was like goin' into an arena and all your friends were there. (LAUGH) I mean, it was like the basketball lineup. "And now introducing your Chicago Bulls," you know what I'm saying? And they're like, you had Jordan and Pippen and everybody walkin' through a tunnel. Man, it was the best feeling in the world.
Lee: Creating the space for Black businesses, it wasn't easy in a place like Milwaukee. The city is 40% Black, but it's one of the most segregated cities in America, with one of the highest rates of Black male incarceration. And there's a long history of police violence and racism.
And now it's fighting the onslaught of COVID-19. As the economic fallout from the pandemic continues to gut American businesses, Black business owners have been hit hardest. This is true despite the corporate goodwill and Buy Black encouragement we see on social media. Yet JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir have found a way to help buoy this collective of Black businesses in their city. As the end of 2020 approaches, many of them are not just surviving, they're thriving.
Joanne Sabir: So if we can do this here, we can rally here, then this is a testament to what's possible across the nation.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, the story of how a group of Black business owners in Milwaukee defied the odds and are drawing on a spirit of togetherness to make it through the pandemic.
Archival Recording: In the (UNINTEL) intersection, southwest corner. Shots fired, shots fired.
Archival Recording: Tonight with the Milwaukee Police at the ready, Wisconsin's governor activated the National Guard. The plan, deploy the guard if there is a second night of violence.
Lee: To understand the story of the Sherman Phoenix in 2020, we have to go back to the city of Milwaukee in 2016.
Archival Recording: Last night and into the early morning hours, the Sherman Park area of town exploded in a fit of anger after a Black police officer fatally shot a 23-year-old Black man.
Lee: On August 13th, Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith after a traffic stop turned into a foot chase. The shooting set off three days of protest in the surrounding neighborhood, Sherman Park.
Archival Recording: We don't know what's going to happen if we have a flare up tonight.
Lee: People marched. There were clashes with the police, dozens were injured or arrested, and several buildings went up in flames, including an auto parts store, a gas station, and that old bank building, then home to BMO Harris Bank.
Sedan Smith: It's the police. This is the madness that they spark up.
Lee: During an interview with CBS 58 in Milwaukee, Sylville Smith's brother, Sedan, pleaded with the city.
S. Smith: This is what you get. Either you're taking a loved one from someone, this is what you get. You get a lotta people that's hurt. And they can't vent the right way. They can't no longer depend on the police to be here to protect us like they say they're gonna do. So this is what you get.
And no, it's not gonna end today. I can't tell you it's gonna end tomorrow. I don't know when it's gonna end. But it's for y'all to start. We're not the ones that's killin' us. Y'all are killin' us. We can't make a change if y'all don't change.
J. Sabir: The call from our community was really one of deep, entrenched pain.
Lee: JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir remember being shaken by those calls.
J. Sabir: The day after the riots had occurred, we were, you know, kind of walking the streets, handing water out, and doing, you know, the whatever that we could to really understand or to support. It was a band-aid, but really get a sense of the pain.
Lee: In this small, segregated city, where JoAnne and Maanaan are raising their young family, hurt is just a handshake or a hug away.
M. Sabir: We also have to remember that Milwaukee is a place, it's like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. You can land yourself in one part of Milwaukee and you'll understand that you're about three feet, maybe even three inches away from knowing the next person's family.
And so when events such as the shooting at MillerCoors happened, you automatically know who that particular person is, especially if that person has roots in Milwaukee. One thing we have to understand in that incident with Sylville Smith is that-- that the cop and Sylville knew each other. So we also have to know and notice that when you do have that six inches of separation, what you get is a powder keg.
J. Sabir: So we feel the pains deeply, because we're so interconnected. And I would love, and our goal is to channel that interconnectivity to our successes, our joys, versus the deep felt pains.
Lee: Early on, the Sabirs knew they wanted to do more to help Milwaukee after the protest, but they weren't sure what.
M. Sabir: And we didn't want this to go down as something that we couldn't do something about.
Lee: A few weeks later, JoAnne got a call from developer Juli Kaufmann. Juli wanted to know if they might be interested in expanding their business. At the time, the Sabirs ran The Juice Kitchen, a 500 square foot juice and smoothie bar devoted to community wellness just a couple miles from where the protest erupted. Juli told JoAnne that the BMO Harris building was for sale, its structure charred in the protest.
J. Sabir: She called me and said, "JoAnne, it's 20,000 square feet. Can we do this?" And of course I said, "Maanaan, it's 20,000 square feet. (LAUGH) Can we do this?"
Lee: Maanaan said yes, and they got to work.
J. Sabir: How can we create a space that is like a Thanksgiving table, you know, at your grandmother's house, on the best day, on the best of terms, when all the uncles and the aunties and folks are coming, you know, from college?
Lee: JoAnne and Maanaan wanted to start a community hub, a place where Black business owners like themselves could thrive, and Milwaukee's Black community could heal.
J. Sabir: Sylville wasn't just a one off, right? It's the tragedy of where we are in America. How do we find spaces? Because that nurturing is what is required to do the work. We can't just be entrenched in this movement building without really thinking about liberation in terms of our whole person wellness. And so that was the concept around Sherman Phoenix, you can go to yoga, you can eat pizza, you can get your locks tied, or even just sit and be and talk. That's how we landed here.
Lee: The name came to them from a conversation with a local official.
M. Sabir: There was a call from the alderman saying, "Hey, you know what Maanaan, JoAnne, we need a Phoenix to rise from the ashes."
Lee: Out of the ashes of that bank building, bearing the scars of three nights of protests and decades of frustration, came the Sherman Phoenix.
J. Sabir: And here we are, the Phoenix. It's risen and it's rising. It takes shape, right, based on what is needed and what is required.
Lee: Juli and JoAnne became co-owners and co-developers. And to start raising money, they leaned on the connections that Maanaan made while managing The Juice Kitchen.
J. Sabir: So we knew every entrepreneur, every corporate leader.
Lee: But as Black business owners, raising money came with challenges.
M. Sabir: We're not white. And so we can't walk into a bank and say, "I want a $100,000 loan," and they go in the back and they come out and give you the check. You know, it's the $100,000 loan comes after, you know, as Black people, it comes after being scrutinized for that particular loan for, you know, 30, 45, 90 days.
J. Sabir: My business partner, Juli, who is a white woman, who didn't get it until we were partners and said, "I cannot believe." You know, when I'd go into rooms folks would say, "Juli, you did a really good job." Not that she didn't, but you know, I got the first $497,000 in the door, right? And I, meaning Maanaan did it. But, (LAUGH) you know, I in the--
Lee: Y'all a team.
J. Sabir: --team us.
Lee: In order to make this dream happen, JoAnne and Maanaan also needed businesses ready to fill those 20,000 square feet.
M. Sabir: We want to make sure that people see the vision of being owners of themselves, but in also owners of their own community.
J. Sabir: I think that folks just signed on easily, because they trusted Maanaan, and they knew, for whatever it's worth, whatever they thought they saw in him, in his life, they wanted a little bitta that. You know, "I want a little bitta that freedom," so here we are.
Lee: It's risky to open a business. JoAnne and Maanaan were asking their community to take a chance with them. In opening the Sherman Phoenix, JoAnne and Maanaan went from simply being small business owners to small business mentors.
J. Sabir: I wear a lamppost. It's a piece of jewelry. Because I feel like what we've done embodies that. Really thinking about what does it mean just to be that lamppost? What does it mean to be that light?
Lee: When the Sherman Phoenix opened its doors in December of 2018, the two story bank building had been transformed into a testament to the city's past and its future. The cement flooring and high ceilings remained. But instead of offices, there were food stalls and beauty shops.
The airy space was lined with picnic tables. The old bank vault was turned into an apothecary. The Sherman Phoenix opened with 27 businesses. All but one were owned by people of color, mostly Black, and many of them were people who never had a brick and mortar shop before.
Adija Smith: I felt like I was in a whirlwind.
Lee: One of those new business owners was Adija Smith, who runs a bakery and dessert shop called Confectionately Yours. I caught up with her between customers last week.
A. Smith: People come, you know, near and far for our peach cobbler. They come for the caramel cake, cheesecakes. Some people come for our signature cinnamon rolls.
Lee: She's churning out the goods now, but back when the Phoenix opened, professional baking was pretty new to Adija.
A. Smith: I was a working mother and wife, and I'm always working really long hours. And, you know, when my husband and I finally decided to start a family, we were both working third shift. He was a City of Milwaukee police officer. I was a dispatcher. During that time we made the decision that I needed to stay home.
Lee: She started baking some of her grandmother's old recipes and giving them away as gifts.
A. Smith: Eventually people started asking me to come to different places and start vending and, you know, different things like that. Then it just became a (UNINTEL) for me. And after about a year of doing that, I knew it was more than just a hobby, because I loved it. And it was time to take it to the next level.
Lee: For Adija, getting to that next level had everything to do with a chance meeting at a community event in early 2018.
A. Smith: I'm already tired from a long day, and I'm ready to go home, and I get ready to leave and a young lady walked in.
Lee: A friend asked her.
A. Smith: "Do you know JoAnne?" And I said, "You know, I don't know JoAnne personally, but I know of her." I said, "But I'm very familiar with her husband, he and I went to school together." And so she had JoAnne come over. And JoAnne said, you know, I told her my name.
And she said, "I know who you are." And I said, "Oh." And she was like, "But what are you doin' with your business?" And I was like, "Um, what business are you referring to?" She's like, "You're a baker." "Well, you know, I just operate as just a home baker. You know, I do personal catering, things like that." And she was like, "You're so much greater than that."
Lee: JoAnne asked her to consider joining the Sherman Phoenix.
A. Smith: And I'm really lookin' at her in awe like, "Are you serious right now? Like, I just really met you for the first time." We're talking, she's telling me all about the Phoenix. She's telling me all the businesses that they're planning to be in the Phoenix.
And she's like, "Adija, if you really wanna open that bakery, I can help you." And I'm like, "I don't have money to just open." I'm like, "You guys are opening this in something like a couple months?" And she's like, "Look, all you have to do is say yes, and I promise you I will guide you through the rest of it."
A. Smith: "I will make sure that you see this bakery open." And I'm like, "Can I pray about it?" And she was like, "You can, but I need you to pray fast, because (LAUGH) we need to build you into this development."
Lee: Get Jesus on line one, we need an answer now. (LAUGH)
A. Smith: I'm like, seriously Trymaine, I was like, "Okay, hold that thought. Let me call him now."
Lee: Adija and her bakery, Confectionately Yours, signed on. And in year one, the Phoenix was on the rise.
A. Smith: Sherman Phoenix was a place where people came, and it was like freedom. The energy was so organic, where people were here. I mean, it was love. And 99% Black owned, where do they do that--
Lee: That's amazing. I guess they do it in Milwaukee. I guess they do it in Milwaukee--
A. Smith: Right? (LAUGH) Listen. And right in the hood, okay? We are in the hood. We are in the central area of Milwaukee, and we are serving our people. You know, the truth is, a lotta the places that are similar to this are in areas where they really don't wanna see our faces. They're okay with the Black dollar being spent there, but the truth is, is they really don't want us there. But JoAnne and Juli provided a place that our people could call theirs.
Lee: And then.
A. Smith: We were on, like, a runway. And we were just really in our first year, and so we're on the runway, and we are just getting ready to pull the wheels up and just take off. Then COVID hits. And we back on the runway.
Lee: As the pandemic set in, millions of small businesses across the country were affected. The Sherman Phoenix was no exception. So how did they survive? That's after the break.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, this is Into America, and we're back with the story of the Sherman Phoenix, a hub of Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood. Right as the Phoenix was ready to take off last winter.
Lester Holt: Breaking news tonight, millions of Americans ordered to shelter in place as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.
Lee: COVID-19 brought businesses around the country to a standstill.
Holt: Major shutdown, several states and cities closing restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters.
A. Smith: Food vendors are shut down completely March 16th. Close your doors, nobody in, nobody in. It's a wrap until further notice.
Lee: I asked Adija Smith about those early days of the crisis and what the shutdown meant for her bakery.
A. Smith: We're like, "What's till further notice?" Honestly, I didn't know what was gonna happen. I didn't know if that meant forever. I didn't know if that meant till the end of the year. I didn't know if all of that work, all of the prayers, all of the tears, if all of that was a wash.
Lee: Black business owners were hit especially hard by the pandemic this year. Nationwide, 41% of Black-owned small businesses shut down between February and April, compared to 17% of their white counterparts. That's according to an August report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Now, there are a bunch of reasons why that is. Black-owned small businesses tend to be concentrated in areas that have been rocked by COVID-19. Many of these businesses are in industries like food service and retail. More in-person exchanges mean more disruptions during a shutdown.
And federal relief, like the Paycheck Protection Program loans, were processed through banks that tend to prioritize existing customers. White people have stronger ties to financial institutions. And there's bias in the way those same financial institutions make loans available. That's just a reality in this country. Even before the pandemic, Black-owned businesses struggled to access capital.
J. Sabir: All of the things that we've had to overcome have only become more significant hurdles in the face of COVID-19.
Lee: But JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir refused to let the Sherman Phoenix fall.
J. Sabir: The first thing that happened was a text that included all of the tenants was, "We're gonna make it through. We don't even know what this is. Like, we don't know what we're gonna make it through, but irrespective of what it is, we're gonna survive and we're gonna be okay." (BABY) Oh, okay.
M. Sabir: Sorry.
Lee: JoAnne and Maanaan's one year old, Sahar (PH), woke up from her nap while we were talking. It's all right. (BABY) (LAUGHTER) She got something to say.
Lee: She said, "Black business."
M. Sabir: Black business, y'all. (BABY)
Lee: Okay, so as JoAnne said, reassurance and then action. The Phoenix hired an engagement specialist to support their businesses and connect people to grant opportunities. And the Phoenix raised money so that business owners wouldn't have to worry about paying rent for the first three months of the lockdown.
J. Sabir: I'm not gonna put you in a position where if you can't afford to pay rent, you have to. That was a lot different than a lotta landlords that were looking at these rates, eviction rates, were looking at businesses that can't afford to pay rent. This is life. This is how the lifespan of a community should look like. We should be working for the greater good. We should be working for each other.
A. Smith: That part took a huge weight off my shoulders.
Lee: For Adija and the bakery, that reduced some of the stress, even as she had to close the doors and temporarily lay people off.
A. Smith: Relieving our rent, so that's one monkey off my back. And then eventually the government started putting opportunities out there for assistance. And I applied. And the great thing about the Sherman Phoenix is that, you know, they have people in place that help with the different resources that we need.
Because, you know, we're talking about 30 different businesses, and everybody needs help. Here, these are the resources. These are the grants that are out here. Apply for it. You know, and we started just following their direction. Confectionately Yours has been blessed to receive some of the federal funding. Those things helped us to, you know, pay our staff. You know, the Payroll Protection, when we were able to bring our staff back, we were able to get access to those funds.
Lee: The Sherman Phoenix engagement manager told us that all of the businesses got some form of corporate or private support, and about two thirds got city funding. Only a couple got federal money. Adija also turned to her fellow business owners for support.
A. Smith: We were able to, like, kinda collaborate different meals together. Like, you know, we can get you your dinner and dessert. I mean, it's times where if I got to run into, you know, Funky Fresh and help out in the kitchen.
Lee: Funky Fresh, by the way, is a spring roll place.
A. Smith: Because something has happened and prevented them from being able to execute what they need to do, like, we kind of, like, when we're all in, it's not just about us. Because we wanna see each other be successful. We wanna see each other win. And so I think when we started this journey together, we made a commitment not just to our businesses, but to one another, that if we see somebody else fall, pick 'em up.
Oh my goodness, prime example, I had a huge order for the Green Bay Packers. I had to do this crazy order for the Packers. And we ended up having a power outage. When I say it was pitch black, the day I had to assemble all of these dessert boxes for the Packers.
The ladies in the Underground Makers Market, the beauty salon, like, they, like, came down to the kitchen. They started takin' all my inventory upstairs, layin' it out, helping me pack everything. They're like, "Listen, we're gonna get this stuff packed in the dark if we have to. You're not by yourself." I mean, everybody was comin' through. And I got all that stuff up to Lambeau. And I couldn't have done it if my community didn't have my back.
Lee: Wow. And was that during COVID?
A. Smith: Yes, yes. That was just, like, two months ago.
Lee: Wow. You know, one thing that I think is kind of amazing is that, you know, hence the name Sherman Phoenix, that y'all literally grew from the ashes, right? This building literally torn down, the community comes together to rebuild it, right? And build it with the village in mind.
But I wonder, after the killing of George Floyd, and we had Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the push to support Black businesses and Buy Black. And I wonder if you saw another wave of support around y'all in that really tough time for us.
A. Smith: I did. I did. I saw a influx of support that came in from our non-Black support system. And I think that many of them were trying to send the message that this is their way of showing that they are for us and not against us. And I appreciate that. And just to be extremely transparent, I feel like it goes far beyond this, though. As much as supporting the Black business is great, I hope that it's not just a temporary thing.
Lee: I asked JoAnne and Maanaan about this too. What do you make of that kind of corporate goodwill and the Buy Black Movement, and is it lasting, do you think?
J. Sabir: I think that it has to be. I think that our value propositions have changed, and my hope is that it's a permanent change. That we understand one, the need and the opportunity, and how significant it is to support a Black business. I don't think that we had that lens previously.
And so I think that, my hope is that that term that you used, and you know, we say, "Buy Black," that it actually is a movement, and that we're thinking about this corporate responsibility lens that has been made brand new, is one that is sustainable. Because we're paying into the system. Corporations don't just exist without, you know, the benefit of our participation. So they're giving us back our dollars.
M. Sabir: She puts it in loving terms. I just say we're taking what's ours, what we're owed. We worked too long for so long for free. And it's time that we draw the line in the sand where we're not working for free anymore.
Lee: JoAnne told me that just about all of the Sherman Phoenix's businesses have made it through the economic challenges of this year.
J. Sabir: None of the businesses, except for actually our coffee shop, shut down.
Lee: Wow. So you had to actually shut down your coffee shop.
J. Sabir: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Lee: The only Sherman Phoenix business that had to close was Shindig Coffee, a café owned by JoAnne and Maanaan. With other businesses in need, they decided to shift their business to online only and focus on helping the rest of the Phoenix stay strong.
J. Sabir: And this is not, like, a bootstrapping thing. But what does it look like to really buy into each other? You know, our building was financed in large part by our neighbors who decided to become investor owners. So what does it look like to invest in others?
You know, we're bankable if we, you know, we are the bank. The bank of us. So I think it's really rethinking our power in community. So it's really, you know, like the emergency SBA EIDL grants. Wonderful, significant opportunity. The loans that came down the pipeline, significant. But how do we begin to think about going back to this collective opportunity, cooperative economics? How do we fund each other's dreams? What does that look like?
Lee: You know, my last question is if you have any advice for any brothers or sisters out there who are trying to make their way in business in this moment especially? And given all the knocks that folks have taken, do you have any good advice for them?
J. Sabir: Yeah. Don't go it alone.
Lee: Adija has taken that advice. And despite everything that's going on, the bakery is thriving.
A. Smith: Because even in a pandemic, Confectionately Yours is gonna open up another location.
Lee: So that's your breaking news, you heard it here on Into America.
A. Smith: You sure did.
Lee: Confectionately Yours is getting location number two.
A. Smith: We sure are. (LAUGH) In the midst of a pandemic.
Lee: In the midst of a pandemic. In the midst of a downturn, you found a way, and you're expanding.
A. Smith: I am. I am.
Lee: Before we go, get in touch. If you have story ideas or feedback on the show, we'd love to hear it. You can write to us, email@example.com. that's intoamerica, all one word, @nbcuni.com. and if you like the show, please, please, please subscribe so you don't miss a single episode.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.