A Missouri Chamber of Commerce Speaks up For Their Community

*By Louis Pascarella
Time Period: 2020
Location: United States, Missouri
Main Actors: Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce
Establishing new social patterns 

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations, members of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce (JACC) in Missouri did not want to stay silent. In particular, Black business owners who were members of the Chamber wanted to know they were supported and represented during such an important moment. In a critical and candid op-ed, Chamber head Tobias Teeter condemned systemic racism, indicated support for the BLM movement, and pledged to address inequities in the Chamber of Commerce and its member businesses. Teeter wrote of an intention to change hiring practices and ensure Black owned businesses and business professionals within the chamber and throughout the community were adequately supported.

This action was costly. Following the op-ed, an oppositional movement began calls to boycott the Chamber of Commerce. Teeter himself received multiple threats, and before his scheduled speech in front of city council, an unknown individual(s) threw a large rock through the JACC’s glass front door. The rock was then lodged into the drywall for effect. Internally, some within the chamber were upset with taking such a strong stand. The board of directors offered tepid support and over 40 white-owned businesses canceled their JACC membership.

The Chamber refused to back down and the local community, seeing JACC’s strong commitment to racial justice, soon rallied behind them. Many supporters showed up to the JACC sponsored Unity Walk, a demonstration in support for racial equality. A local activist joined with the chamber of commerce, recognizing ways for the community to help amidst criticism and backlash. This activist worked alongside a local non-profit, raising money to pay for chamber of commerce membership dues of Black businesses. This effort sharply increased the representation of Black owned businesses within the JACC. Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) projects were also instituted and are ongoing.

While its critics hoped to dissolve the Chamber, the JACC’s actions strengthened their organization and built valuable ties with the local community. Infused with new members and forming new connections with the broader community, the JACC demonstrates how democracy building can benefit both business and local organizers.

Organizers and businesses can learn much from the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. Primarily, the Chamber demonstrated how taking a stand and forming connections with the local community can strengthen the position of business and create mutually beneficial relationships. The local community’s willingness to help expand the Chamber was predicated on the JACC taking the initiative to speak out in support of racial justice. The initial backlash the Chamber received was mitigated by an outpouring of support from community members. For activists and organizers, a key lesson is in how business can bolster a democratic movement. By engaging with business, activists make connections that unify communities, reduce backlash, and achieve movement objectives. Due to local organizers’ willingness to engage with business, some goals of the racial justice movement were realized.

Where to Learn More 
– See especially Dr. Daniel Kinderman’s work, The US chamber and chambers of commerce respond to Black Lives Matter: Cheap talk, progressive neoliberalism, or transformative change? 
Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce issues letter addressing racism, equality in the community 
Toby Teeter: An open letter to our community

You can access all the caselets from the Pillars of Support Project here.