CHICAGO — At 42, Tosha Wilson has her retirement plans mapped out.
An Evanston police officer for the past two decades, Wilson figures she has about five more years on the force. Her cousin Jacqui White is a Highland Park police officer on roughly the same time table.
For the past year and a half, Wilson and White have been researching and planning to open a laundromat and cafe in Evanston’s historically Black 5th Ward, not far from where they both grew up. They’ll spend their retirements side by side, joining and leading their community in conversations and camaraderie over shared meals and clean clothes.
“We want to make it where we’re employing people in Evanston and having different types of get-togethers and literacy programs and community meetings,” Wilson said. “You can wash your clothes there, but once you step in further, we want there to be other experiences that you want to have.”
In May 2019, the cousins were turned down for a small-business loan.
“Two professionals with decent jobs (and) good credit scores, and the bank basically told us, ‘You don’t have enough experience,’” Wilson said. “I just thought, ‘How in the world do you beat the red tape to get a dream to unfold?’”
Four months later, Wilson was among a group of Evanston folks — Black, white, Asian, Latinx, Jewish, Christian, ages 18 to 80 — who filled two buses and rode together to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. They called it their “uncomfortable journey.”
“You go to the museum and you see all the things Black Americans have gone through for years and generations, and you have a feeling of needing to do more,” Wilson said. “I have a duty to do more for my ancestors and for Evanston in general.
“It’s easy to go to work every day,” she said. “It’s easy to get paid every other Friday. But there’s something powerful about that perspective that you not only have to push yourself through, you have to push others through. If we’re all locked in chains, there’s no way I can move if you can’t move. Everyone has to move or we can’t move together.”
The laundromat/cafe will be in service of that duty, Wilson said. But it’s still a ways off — and it’s not enough. So last month, on July 20, she launched a Facebook group called Boosting Black Business.
Her goal was to gather 1,000 people and get them to commit to donating $20 each month to a different Black-owned startup. She would research and vet a variety of start-ups and reveal a new one on the 20th of each month.
By the first week of August, the group had 2,601 members. In less than a month, those members helped raise close to $14,000 for ChiFresh Kitchen, a food service co-op founded and run by four formerly incarcerated women and one man.
ChiFresh Kitchen launched in May with a goal of preparing 1,200 meals per week. It has contracted with Urban Growers Collective, a network of eight Black-owned Chicago farms that work to combat food insecurity with fresh, local produce.
“They’ve come out of jail and joined the fold,” Wilson said. “It’s a great story.”
I asked Wilson if there was something particularly poignant, in her estimation, about a police officer helping to boost a business run by people who served time in prison.
She said no.
“I don’t live my life as a police officer,” she said. “I am a police officer, and I think I do a pretty good job at it. My community respects me and trusts me. But beyond a police officer, I’m a Black woman, and I understand social injustice. I understand being raised in a house full of strong Black men with a strong Black father. I’ve been privy to this information for the last 42 years.”
She liked ChiFresh Kitchen’s story and mission. So she choose them to boost. On Aug. 20, she’ll reveal another Black startup that’s worthy of her group’s support. She has a whole list of new businesses she has been researching: doulas, beekeepers, salons, farmers. Some startups will be local; some will be based in other parts of the country.
She hasn’t decided whether to boost the laundromat/cafe as a means of getting the funds they need to open.
“Some people have warned me not to,” she said. “Other people say, ‘If you don’t self-advocate, you must be crazy. Who else is going to advocate for you?’ It’s on the table. We’re still debating it.”
Meanwhile, she’s watching an organic community of helpers take root and grow. Some members of her Facebook group have pooled their money with friends and family and donated much more than the $20 suggestion. She got one donation for $685. Other people, she said, can’t swing the full $20. They’ve donated $5 or $10.
“That’s beautiful too,” she said.
It sure is. And like so much that’s beautiful, it grew from the ground up.
(Contact Heidi Stevens at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)
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