Wood heart earrings

The heart-shaped ebony earrings are one of the many African pieces Rita Townes sells through her business, Vessels of the Paut Neteru.

Black History Month Vendor Showcase

Arlecta Beard, owner of Lecta's Glam Corner, and MJ Johnson, owner of Taylor B's, at the Black History Month Vendor Showcase in Auburn Gresham

Rita Townes is holding a small red box. Behind her, a three-tier display is covered in Adinkra cloth, her table of artistic goods carefully arranged and ready for customers: colorful Ankara fans, beaded necklaces, silk thread art, and hand-carved wooden bowls.

Rita shows a visitor the red box from her table. Tucked inside are heart-shaped earrings crafted from ebony wood. The heart, or “Akoma,” is an Adinkra symbol from Ghana that symbolizes patience and endurance, she says.

A long-time resident of the south suburbs of Chicago, Rita Townes is the founder and CEO of Vessels of the Paut Neteru. Her collection of African spiritual art and jewelry is handmade in the U.S. and Africa, curated to honor her ancestors and heritage. A heritage that celebrates Black creativity and innovation. Qualities of many local entrepreneurs like Rita who lead their businesses with passion and purpose.

This Black History Month, small business owners have been selling their wares at a weekly market in the Auburn Gresham Neighborhood Network. The Black History Month Vendor Showcase features jewelry, art, skin care products, clothing, and even freeze-dried candy.

“Markets like the Black History Month Vendor Showcase are important because they bring small businesses to the neighborhoods. Black-owned businesses are the backbone of our community,” Rita said.

Black entrepreneurship was on the rise before the pandemic. From 2017 to 2020, the number of Black-owned businesses increased by nearly 14%, according to research from the Brookings Institution. The number is even higher for Black-women-owned businesses, which rose by more than 18%.

This growth of Black-owned businesses is encouraging, especially those operating in historically disinvested neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago and in the south suburbs, where United Way works alongside our partners to build thriving communities.

Black small business owners are a crucial part of this transformative work – the backbone, as Rita said – to creating economic opportunity and employment, re-investing in neighborhoods from the inside out. And they need support year-round, not just during Black History Month.

Despite the recent rise in Black-owned businesses, the racial wealth gap still exists. Many Black entrepreneurs face barriers accessing loans and other financing to build sustainable businesses. Which is why community development initiatives like the Healthy Lifestyle Hub in the Auburn Gresham Neighborhood Network are so important.

In addition to housing a bank, pharmacy, and health center, the Hub offers programming in workforce development and entrepreneurship to help bridge the gap. Plus, they’re hosting the Black History Month Vendor Showcase, where entrepreneurs like Rita are building their businesses – and embodying “Akoma.”

“I want the neighborhood to have something they can enjoy, like this market,” Rita said. “It’s important to shop local because it’s more personal. We do this work from the heart.”

The Black History Month Vendor Showcase is open on Fridays in February from 11am to 3pm at the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation’s Healthy Lifestyle Hub at 839 W 79th Street, Chicago.

You can see Rita Townes and Vessels of the Paut Neteru, plus many other Black-owned small businesses, at the upcoming Far South CDC Marketplace, launching in March.

Auburn Gresham’s Black History Month Vendor Showcase

Budblm Productions – Music, Art, and Fashion

Carni-Go – Freeze Dried Candy

Divine Jewels By Khalifa

Lecta’s Glam Corner – Jewelry

Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant – Skin Care and Cosmetics

Shalas Wilks – Knitted Accessories and Jewelry

Stein Learning Gardens at St. Sabina – Garden Education and Community Programs

Taylor B’s – Beard Care

Vessel of the Paut Neteru – Art and Jewelry

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