By Steven Philp
Now that we have entered the month of November, many of us look forward to the prospect of spending time with loved ones for Thanksgiving. Yet during times of celebration, Jews are also called to remember the needy through the commandment of tzedakah. Tzedakah often takes the form of charitable giving–small donations to help the less fortunate meet their most basic needs. Yet many people continue to struggle to make ends meet, and every year we are given the difficult task of counting our blessings in the face of endemic poverty. It is written in the Talmud that the highest forms of tzedakah are those gifts that enable another person to become self-sufficient. As Jews, we ask ourselves: how can we give in a way that contributes toward a permanent solution?
In 2009, activist and lawyer Maggie Anderson asked herself a similar question: as a successful woman of color, what could she do to make a positive–and enduring–contribution to the black community? Her answer was the Empowerment Experiment – a commitment to buy exclusively from black-owned businesses for one year. This pledge took courage; according to Anderson, some labeled the project as pointless, or worse: racist. Yet the sense of pride and community it fomented among her family and friends was worth the effort. The project also helped demonstrate the power of the dollar, when spent correctly. In a recent lecture at the University of Chicago, she paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr., stating that charitable giving–although wonderful–only treats the symptoms, rather than the cause, of poverty. Unlike other ethnic enclaves–the Jewish community included–where a dollar will circulate among local businesses for seven to twenty-nine days, the black community sees money leave their local economy within six hours. Contributing to this problem is the belief that there are no quality black-owned businesses. According to Anderson, there is some truth to this; as young black businesses are outsold by more established operations, they find it difficult to provide competitive services. As a result, a growing number of businesses within black neighborhoods are owned by people who live elsewhere; money spent at these stores is then filtered to those communities, rather than reinvested in their own.
The Empowerment Experiment challenges consumers to replace their charitable giving with charitable spending, finding and sustaining local businesses in an effort to bolster financial stability in our communities. As a result, money is redirected back in to the local economy and invested in projects that increase the standard of living; as businesses thrive, local services – such as schools, libraries, and childcare programs – improve through an increase in tax revenue and sponsorship. With more conscious spending, these communities can support local businessmen and women, and help the needy become self-sufficient. According to Anderson, the data collected through the project has shown a positive impact.
So what can we, as Jews, learn from this project? Perhaps this winter, rather than setting aside our loose change for charitable giving, we can aspire toward the highest level of tzedakah through charitable spending. For Thanksgiving dinner, purchase what you can from food vendors in your community. When preparing for Hanukkah next month, try to see what items on your menu can be bought from local, sustainable sources. Buy your holiday gifts from local businesses, especially those owned by members of minority communities. A component of this project takes courage, traveling outside your community in to neighborhoods you may perceive as less safe. Yet there can be no change without chutzpa, as exemplified by Anderson; facing down her critics, she has shown how a simple change of habit can make a positive impact on your community.