When Rose Barboza lost her job last spring, she never imagined she would soon gain two new business ventures and more than 14,000 Instagram followers as a result.
Barboza, 30, is the founder and co-director of Black Owned Maine, a passion project she started as a way to bring attention and support to businesses owned by Black people statewide.
Since its inception however, it has evolved into something much bigger, with both nonprofit and for-profit sides. What began less than six months ago as a list of local businesses owned by Black Mainers has spurred a podcast, gained a financial sponsor, and started offering grants to local families.
Black Owned Maine, according to its website, is an organization seeking “to bring together a collective of people that often feel far apart. … We understand the loneliness that often appears when we feel separate from our community and we understand the transformation that must take place to break down these barriers.”
Blacks make up less than 2 percent of the state’s population. For Barboza, who grew up in Lewiston and is of mixed race with Cape Verdean heritage, inspiration to launch the venture was two-fold.
As she was dealing with her own issues this summer, across the country and around the world other members of the Black community and their allies were protesting police brutality. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 while being detained by Minneapolis police.
Barboza said as a single mother in a pandemic, attending a protest in-person was not an option for her “for many reasons,” but she still wanted to show her support. She also needed a way to build her work portfolio while unemployed.
Black Owned Maine was born.
“It’s really an accumulation of me wanting to do something different with my life but also wanting to support the movement in a different way,” she said.
Black Owned Maine launched on June 1 – the same day more than 1,000 protestors held a demonstration in Portland in response to Floyd’s death.
While there are some large directories of Black-owned businesses nationwide, Barboza said Maine is often ignored – and she “wouldn’t think to put Maine on a list” either, if she was not from here. So she decided to take matters into her own hands.
She began by compiling a list of 75 Maine businesses owned by black people that she was familiar with.
While she grappled with whether or not that was a safe approach, she said she hasn’t received any “hate mail” or opposition from any business since the site launched. The website now features a form where anyone can recommend an establishment for inclusion.
Black Owned Maine’s digital footprint began with what Barboza called a “super basic website,” followed by an Instagram account, which she created a couple of hours later. It now has more than 14,000 followers.
Instagram is the source of most of the businesses currently on the list, Barboza said, both from people messaging her about establishments to include, and business pages she finds.
Black Owned Maine’s growth on the social media app, Barboza said, was unexpected.
“It just keeps going up,” she said. “(They) are all super engaged, it’s not like we bought these followers or anything.”
The directory on Black Owned Maine’s website, which lists 256 businesses, can be searched by region, category, or location on a map.
Southern Maine has the highest concentration, representing a wide range of industries including fitness, catering, farms, cleaning services, cosmetics, wedding planning, mental health, retail, law, newspapers, and restaurants, among others. In order to be listed, a business must be at least 50 percent owned by a person of the African Diaspora.
Among them are Portland Trading Co. on Market Street, 207 Bar and Restaurant on Cumberland Avenue, Maine Laser Clinic on Commercial Street, Jamaican restaurant Yardie Ting in Monument Square, and Mariama’s Beauty Supply store on Forest Avenue.
Barboza said the list not only includes “official money-making businesses,” but also has groups such as the Black Student Union at Bates College. Churches and artist collectives can also be found.
Including those organizations, she said, “builds community for people who may not realize there are people around them that share similar sentiments.”
Despite the potentially polarizing effect the Black Lives Matter movement can have, Barboza said she has not received much pushback because of her focus on helping local businesses.
“In terms of Black Lives Matter as an organization, there’s Black Lives Matter the organization, Black Lives Matter the movement, and then kind of everyone else who fills in the pieces,” she said. “We have that advantage because we’re filling in the pieces.”
By bringing attention to the Black-owned businesses in Maine, Barboza said Black Owned Maine can “bring money to all of the businesses in Maine, because that’s how the economy works.”
Though it can sometimes be tempting, she also tries to avoid putting out what she called “hate messages” about other groups or politicians, which she thinks has contributed to the positive reception she has received
And, while she knows some Mainers might see launching Black Owned Maine as “radical,” she sees it as simply necessary.
“People come to me (and say) ‘I’m so happy what you’re doing for the community’ and obviously I totally appreciate that and respect that and not trying to downplay that, but this is just something that needed to happen,” she said.
Black Owned Maine has also started to expand in recent months. The organization recently launched a podcast hosted by local audio engineer and music producer Genius Black. Recent episodes have discussed topics such as youth incarceration, the reality of modern policing, and the fight for racial justice.
As it works on its nonprofit status, Black Owned Maine also has a for-profit side, which Barboza said focuses on providing media services, such as helping people launch their own podcasts or produce an album.
Barboza’s partner in running Black Owned Maine, Jerry Edwards, is an audio engineer and musician and has helped to get the venture off the ground.
Including a for-profit aspect allows the initiative to have multiple streams of income and “move a little more freely” than would be possible with a nonprofit alone, Barboza said.
On the nonprofit side, however, Creative Portland is Black Owned Maine’s financial sponsor and has helped Barboza’s organization receive grants. It is also able to accept donations on Black Owned Maine’s behalf, or people can donate on the Black Owned Maine website.
Black Owned Maine also provides Family Grants, which offer $250 for families struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic to pay for things like child care, food, or medical expenses. Recipients must be full-time residents of Maine, be a family of at least two who are of the African Diaspora, and demonstrate financial need due to COVID-19.
Black Owned Maine also recently unveiled a new campaign known as the Maine Black Business Pledge, which is a collaboration with Portland Buy Local. The effort encourages Portland retail shops to allocate 10 percent of shelf space to black-owned business products and urges Maine consumers to allocate 10 percent of their spending to local black-owned businesses.
Barboza said it was inspired by the 15 Percent Pledge, which asks large national businesses to pledge 15 percent of their shelf space to the same cause. So far, on a national scale, businesses including Sephora, West Elm, and Yelp have signed on.
Barboza said Marginal Way’s Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness, Little Chair Printing on Congress Street, Handiwork studio and market on Pleasant Avenue, as well as Mainstream Finance and the Greater Portland Council of Governments have taken the Maine Black Business Pledge.
She added Black Owned Maine is not asking for people to completely change their spending habits overnight but wants to encourage them to “think about the spread of their money and who it’s going to and who unfortunately doesn’t often receive that money.”
With all of Black Owned Maine’s nonprofit efforts, she said she wants to show Black Mainers that there are other people who look like them and share their experiences.
Growing up as a mixed-race person in Lewiston was confusing for her, she said, and she often felt lonely and had a lot of insecurities. She wants people in Maine to know Black people have lived here for a long time and that the local Black community isn’t “something new.”
“There were Black people here long before we were even born,” Barboza said. “We’re really just trying to show that side of Maine that no one really ever shows.”