The line to enter the Columbia City Farmers Market stretched down 35th Avenue South, curving down Ferdinand Street, shoppers standing the designated 6 feet apart in the shade of the trees of the shuttered Interagency Academy. Vendors stacked fresh vegetables and prepared food on tables that lined each side of Edmund Street, tokens of normalcy in abnormal times.
Just a block away, Monika Mathews had a small table of her own set up in front of QueenCare, the natural skincare company that she launched December 2018. Colorful face masks and dangling earrings next to Black Lives Matter shirts and a handful of her handmade products lay out to tempt in customers, as a person filled bottles with handmade products inside the small storefront.
There’s a lot of work to keep up with.
Sales skyrocketed over the past few months, a welcome respite after the sales slump caused by the coronavirus.
That early period was so dire that Mathews was forced to halt operations. She, like most Black entrepreneurs, was denied a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — loans from commercial banks backed by the federal government to keep small businesses and their employees solvent.
Her business was deemed “too small,” Mathews said. Data shows that only 12 percent of Black and Latinx-owned businesses received the loans they applied for, in part because of structural barriers at commercial banks that disadvantage people of color in “normal times,” something Councilmember Tammy Morales called out as an example of white supremacy on July 15.
The fact did not escape Mathews.
“When I looked around and asked around to my entrepreneurial friends, none of us had gotten any, and all of us were people of color,” Mathews said. “That made me very angry, because I have been banking with this bank for a very long time.”
She tried to shift to online sales to stay afloat.
That’s when the world fell apart again.
“We’ve been navigating two different pandemics: COVID and the murder of George Floyd,” Mathews said.
Floyd’s murder launched sustained protests in cities throughout the United States and in dozens of countries abroad. It also created a groundswell of support for Black-owned businesses, particularly bookstores whose owners watch copies of anti-racism instruction manuals fly off the shelves, hopefully to be read and not flaunted.
QueenCare wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the increased interest, if not for a stroke of luck.
Mathews’ only two vendors for ingredients and packing materials shut down in the early days of the pandemic, leaving her unable to get more of the basic building blocks for her handmade products.
“Our saving grace was that right before March, we made the decision to buy in bulk a lot of our ingredients and all of our packaging,” Mathews said. “I don’t remember what made us make that decision, because financially it didn’t make sense.”
That decision saved her business.
“What were we going to do? Put body wash in cups?” Mathews said.
A few things slipped through the cracks. Mathews could not source ingredients for bath bombs at one point, forcing her to cancel subscriptions for the product and send apologies to customers. The bottles she was able to find in New York and California weren’t always the same size or shape and often had inflated prices.
But QueenCare survived and then thrived.
The company is the for-profit arm of a wider empire that Mathews helms. The nonprofit arm, Life Enrichment Group, goes into local schools to work with students to provide support. It quickly grew to meet the needs Mathews identified in her community.
Those needs morphed into college tours with young Black women — the Young Queens — and paid internships at the shop. There, Mathews helps them learn the ins and outs of business operations and marketing — durable skills in the uncertain future of work.
But most of all, Mathews hopes to impart the necessity of, and tools for, the revolutionary act of self-care for Black people.
In “A Burst of Light,” radical Black feminist Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Self-preservation is essential in a society that is structurally hostile to Black people.
“When you’re experiencing a trauma like racism all day, every single day, it grinds into you and breaks you down, piece by piece, day by day,” Mathews said.
It’s more than a metaphor.
Stress is a natural, biological response to outside threats; it’s a survival mechanism. But constant stress — sometimes referred to as “toxic stress” — fills the body with a steady stream of stress chemicals that, over the long term, damage the body.
“From the perspective of discrimination models, the causal mechanism linking racial/ethnic minority status and health disadvantage is thought to lie in the harmful effects of chronic experiences with race-based discrimination, both actual and perceived,” wrote Vickie Mays, Susan Cochran and Namdi Barnes in a study published in 2007.
Those experiences are thought to start physiological responses, such as high blood pressure and hypervigilance, that wear the body out.
Health disparities between Black and white Americans are persistent and durable. Scientists believe that racism and discrimination are two of the reasons why.
So when Mathews talks about her hand sanitizer made with tea tree oil or a rub with eucalyptus oil in it or her desire to normalize bubble baths, it’s more than a product and more than a sale. It’s a way to promote self-care at a time when her community needs it, or as the QueenCare motto goes, to “Indulge. Engage. Uplift.”
Because that’s what Mathews does.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more of the July 22-28, 2020 issue.