When Kerin John started an Instagram account to highlight local Toronto Black-owned businesses in May of last year, she had no idea how quickly the idea would take off.
Soon after, the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd reignited a global Black Lives Matter protest movement. As resources circulated online, people started to trade and circulate lists of Black-owned businesses. And John’s weeks-old Black Owned Toronto (@blackowned.to) account exploded with new followers and submissions.
“I didn’t expect it to grow so rapidly and didn’t have a lot of big plans for it at first,” says John, who comes from a graphic design and photography background. “Once I realized how big my following was getting I thought, OK, now I have to do something with this.”
In the months that have followed, with some donated web-hosting and site-building from GoDaddy, she’s turned Black Owned Toronto into a searchable online directory, a business hub, an online store stocked with vendors making food, jewellery, haircare, clothing, games and more. There’s an affordable studio space for Black photographers and creators. She’s planning events (online or eventually in-person) and a Canada-wide Black-owned directory.
And on May 29, John will also open a physical retail space for Black Owned Toronto at the Scarborough Town Centre. She’s searching for vendors now for the lofty space and says she’ll be able to up her sales capacity from 20-30 vendors to 250-300. They’ll also offer delivery, as they do now.
John says she started the Instagram page because she made a resolution to support more Black-owned businesses herself, but had trouble finding them in Toronto.
“I feel like Toronto is such a unique city in that we have a huge Black population, with immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa bringing so much culture,” she says. “But we lack spaces that are for us, especially with Little Jamaican disappearing.”
So Black Owned Toronto is creating as much space is it can – both literally and figuratively – to support Black businesses, which John argues is much deeper than just making sales. It’s tied up in history and systemic racism.
“We don’t historically have the same amount of resources, wealth, support as other races,” she says. “We’ve been historically denied loans, housing, opportunities. We still get denied jobs based on our race, our hair, the way that we speak.”
“So when you support Black-owned businesses, you’re giving us the ability to support ourselves,” she continues. “We’re able to create more jobs and opportunities, we’re able to hire more people in Black communities, we can pass businesses down to our families. That’s important too because generational wealth is something a lot of us don’t have.
“You’re helping build our communities.”