Shortly after Cynthia Gordy Giwa moved to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn four years ago, she set out to learn about the different businesses in the area.
“I was noticing, a lot of black-owned businesses in my neighborhood,” said Giwa. “And then finding that there wasn’t a resource where I could read about them. A lot of the places were being overlooked by other local lifestyle sites.”
So, she called up her friend, Glenn Alan — who has a background in marketing and photography, and has lived in Brooklyn on and off for 10 years — and he expressed a similar frustration. After some thought, they decided to create their own resource to fill that void. Not long after that conversation, they launched a site called Black-Owned Brooklyn, which highlights black business owners and culture in an area that has a rich history of black culture and innovation.
Since launching in February, Black Owned Brooklyn has amassed over 15,000 followers — far surpassing all goals Giwa and Alan set for themselves — and have profiled businesses and cultural spaces across New York City’s most-populated borough.
Giwa and Alan spoke with AfroTech about their experience, and how they brought their idea for a local blog to fruition.
How has living in Brooklyn informed the project for you? Have you noticed a change over the time you’ve been in Brooklyn?
Cynthia: Something I think Glenn and I are both really careful about in our work is that, we’re guests here. We’re not people that have lived in Brooklyn for generations. So, we don’t claim to know everything about the changing landscape of Brooklyn. We have spent a lot of time talking to people that are native Brooklynites, and have been here for a long time, and they’re constantly talking to us about the change that they’re seeing, you know, over the past decade
There have been a lot of businesses coming to Brooklyn, and a lot of the business owners that we have talked to are people who wanted to be a part of that change, and participate in that change, instead of feeling like bystanders to the change.
Glenn: These things are not something new, or something that we have discovered. They were there, and we just realized that it wasn’t being documented in a way that we saw fit. So, there are businesses popping up, and businesses that have existed. For there not to be any information on it was sort of jarring.
How did you start? What was the process like?
Cynthia: So, we started talking about the idea for almost a year before we actually just started it. Sometimes you have this big ambitious project, and you’re sort of paralyzed by analyzing how you’re going to do it before you start. But in that time of thinking about it, and planning, we sort of created a master list of so many businesses that we knew or that we’d heard about, did some research and started from there.
We’re very clear to say that we’re a curated guide to these places versus an encyclopedic directory of everything that is a black owned business. It’s a collection of places that we know and love, so it takes some time to cover them. So everywhere that we cover is somewhere that we have visited and have experienced.
What is some of the reaction that you got? And what are some of things that you have taken away from the experience?
Glenn: The response has been almost overwhelmingly positive. I think the project has really helped us get to know our community better. And the thing that I’ve seen people take from this, and what I’m getting from the comments and feedback we’re getting is, people are using this as a conduit to just get to know their neighborhoods better. So through our interviews and our engagement with the business owners, I think that people are finding that they’re becoming, more familiar with their neighborhood and the people that are around them and also being more informed about how they’re spending their dollars and where they’re spending and trying to make more ethical decisions how they spend their money.
How has your thinking about it changed as you’ve gained traction?
Cynthia: When we started the project, I think we saw it as an act of local service journalism. So, the point was at its most basic level, to connect people with black owned businesses and business owners, by spotlighting places. So it was this local service for the community: There’s these great places that we want more people to know about, you should definitely be spending your money at these places because they’re great. But I think the more that we talk to people, and the more that we heard their stories, I think we’ve come to see ourselves more as storytellers and documentarians where the act of telling the stories of the people, the places in and of itself is one of the goals of the project.
So, we’re sort of capturing not just like businesses and places to go, but it’s like a bigger story of black Brooklyn today. We are really intentional about highlighting the diversity of black culture. In Brooklyn, we don’t only talk about businesses, we also document the spaces and the celebrations that we’ve created for ourselves. So, it’s like a bigger story of just the Brooklyn that we know and love.
What advice or insight would you offer to someone that wanted to create a product or service for their community?
Glenn: I think my piece of advice would be if you have an idea, often you’re worried about it or you’re ruminating on it. I think that you need to find a safe space to share that idea. So, we have a group of friends that we met with, and we sat down, and we were all working on different projects, and we spent a weekend just bouncing ideas off of each other. And through that weekend, we had been sitting with each other for a very long time. And trying different formats, and working on the side, and trying to build a format for Instagram. And then once we allowed other people into the project, people that we really trusted to see it and to critique it, very soon after that we launched.
Cynthia: I have to say that a lot of the work has been very intuitive. It’s not like every week or every day, we’re sitting around, really spending a whole lot of time strategizing on how we’re going to zig and zag. It’s just a very aligned, natural process that has a level of ease to it. And people are just responding to it really well. And I think it’s just because we are very guided by being authentic and focused.
My piece of advice would be pick a project that you like that you want to spend a lot of time on. If you don’t love it, it will show and if you don’t love it, you’re not going to be consistent.