Colorado Women Creating Modern Version of Green Book After Experiencing Discomfort in Rural Areas

Crystal Egli, left, and Parker McMullen Bushman recently launched a new Inclusive Guide through their new company, Inclusive Journeys. The new online guide, which launched on Dec. 10 allows Colorado customers to rank businesses on their inclusivity practices. McMullen Bushman is holding a photo of the organization’s logo, resembling a quilt code, which was used during the Underground Railroad era to help direct slaves toward freedom. (Mike DelliVeneri/Special to The Colorado Sun)

The first time Crystal Egli went hunting with a private instructor, she was terrified. Her fear of guns compounded her discomfort of being in rural areas.

Egli, a Black woman, tried to explain her viewpoint to her mentor, a white man.

“It’s not that I’m certain rural communities are racist. It’s that I have no idea if they are, and if they are, I’m out in the middle of nowhere with no contacts,” said Egli, a board member of the nonprofit Hunters of Color.

Egli’s mentor didn’t buy the argument, and asked her to back up her suspicion with data, showing people of color aren’t as safe while hunting.

Egli left the hunting session angry and wanting to find a way to gauge whether a space was safe for people who regularly experience discrimination.

“And I thought of the Green Book,” Egli said, referencing the 1930s travel guide used to help Black travelers navigate the racist and dangerous roads around them. “I was like, what if there was a modern one?” she said during an interview.

Egli brought the idea to colleague Parker McMullen Bushman in 2019, and after two months of conversation, the idea for their new organization was born. Their new Inclusive Guide allows customers to rate businesses on whether they foster welcoming environments that celebrate all identities.

Their company Inclusive Journeys was founded with a mission of creating data-driven economic incentives that push businesses toward becoming more inclusive, in turn, creating safer spaces for people who typically experience discrimination, Egli and McMullen Bushman said.

The Inclusive Guide – a mix of two ideas, a digital Green Book and the modern website Yelp – launched in pilot form in Denver on Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the emancipation of Black slaves. The site became widely available to all who wish to use it on Dec. 10. Egli and McMullen Bushman expect the site to launch in other U.S. cities starting early next year.

Here’s how it works. Participants can rate businesses using a range of markers, including courtesy of staff, Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, sense of personal safety and gender-neutral bathrooms. These ratings are used to populate “inclusivity scores” and to grade the store, restaurant or service provider on a scale of 1-5. Business owners who pay to participate receive a detailed report with suggestions and recommendations about how to make their establishments more inclusive.

“We want to shift the way the economy works. We want to shift it towards inclusion,” McMullen Bushman said.

If organizations receive low scores on the Inclusive Guide, consumers, especially those who often experience discrimination, will be less likely to shop there, she said. “We know that money talks. We know the way that our economy works. Capitalism will work, if organizations are not doing what they need to be doing,” she said.

Many user-review websites quantify subjective markers from customers, such as, someone complaining that their soup was too cold at a restaurant. But when a person is rating a business based on something that has to do with their identity, people don’t understand how that could be subjective and still quantifiable, Egli said.

“Everybody else is quantifying the seemingly unquantifiable just fine,” she said. “But for some reason, this hasn’t been an area where people are allowed to just freely give their own reviews, based on their experience in regard to their identity.”

Now participants can rate a business based on feelings of safety, welcomeness and whether they feel celebrated.

“Safety” on the Inclusive Guide is defined by feelings of physical, mental and emotional well-being. “Welcomeness” is defined by whether the customer feels they’re receiving good service, and “celebrated” is measured by how well a person’s identity is reflected in business’ space, McMullen Bushman said.

“When I go in, do I see pictures of people that look like me? Are there people that look like me that work there?” she asked. “I always give the example of going to find Black hair care products: Is it displayed like the other hair care products? Or is it locked up in a corner or behind a post?”

People rating businesses are asked to input information about their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality and accessibility needs and appearance, such as body modifications or facial implants. “Or things that might impact how people treat you when they see you,” McMullen Bushman said.

After the person signs into their account and rates a business, Inclusive Journeys leaders aggregate the data and share it with the business along with recommendations on how to improve.

“Businesses have the opportunity to see what communities they’re serving really well and what communities, they maybe could use some help in serving better,” said McMullen Bushman, a diversity, equity, inclusion and justice trainer for almost a decade.

— ‘No business is perfect’

A one-off review is not meant to sink a business. No business is perfect, Egli said, and all establishments will likely receive a bad review.

A detailed report would not be sent to businesses until they’ve amassed a certain number of reviews and scores that help identify a trend. For example, if a Black person indicates a bad experience at a restaurant, and white people report similar experiences, there’s probably a customer service issue. But if many white people rank a restaurant highly while Black people don’t, there’s probably another trend the business leader should know about, Egli said.

“What we’re hoping to get from that data is things like, ‘Asian men have a great time at your facility. But white ladies in wheelchairs have a harder time — and this is the reason why they’re saying that,’” Egli said.

The two founders are asking all people to use their new website. They’re also asking all kinds of people to leave reviews, low scores, average scores, and good scores, which will help create diversity in responses in order to identify trends most accurately.

“Whenever we talk to folks that are people who experienced oppression, they see it and they love it, and then want to sign up right away,” McMullen Bushman said. Now the founders are in the process of trying to amplify the need for everyone to use their service, she said.

But that hasn’t been easy, especially from the funding side.

The Inclusive Guide founders have raised more than $100,000 through individual donations since inception from supporters. To launch the Inclusive Guide nationwide, the company is accepting donations via GoFundMe, and looking for investors.

They’ve set a goal of raising $500,000 by spring. If they reach that goal, they will receive a matching donation from an anonymous donor.

The same donor provided Inclusive Journeys $700,000 this year to get the guide started and to help build the website, and another grant for the next year. But that donor won’t fund the new organization forever.

— Closing the funding gap

Venture capital funding to U.S. startups led by Black women is on track to outpace the last five years. Startups with at least one Black woman founder have raised around $494 million so far in 2021, already surpassing the $484 million raised in all of 2018, Crunchbase News reported in an examination of diversity and access to capital in the venture-backed startup sector.

Still, Black women founders receive just a tiny fraction of venture capital funding. In 2021, Black women entrepreneurs received just 0.34% of the $147 billion in venture capital invested in U.S. startups, according to the news organization.

Egli and McMullen Bushman said they won’t let funding obstacles stop them from raising the money to build their business.

“As Black women, we’ve talked to a lot of venture capitalists. We’ve talked to angel investors and we are, I think, on the receiving end of the trend that we see – that Black women are not being invested in by venture capitalists,” McMullen Bushman said.

Each of the five times the women have met with investors to pitch their new business idea, the session turned into a “training or consultation,” she said. Investors have asked why it’s not enough for business leaders to simply promise they’ll be open about becoming more inclusive.

“And then, instead of pitching our technological ideas, we spend the whole time trying to explain systemic oppression,” Egli said.

“It’s just not a level playing field at that point,” McMullen Bushman added.

To help close the gap, LaDawn Sullivan, a leader at the Denver Foundation, started the Black Resilience in Colorado fund in June 2020, a month after George Floyd was murdered and while local nonprofit leaders of color were repeatedly reaching out to her in need of financial support to run their businesses.

The fund has raised more than $2 million since inception 18 months ago and has granted more than $1.5 million to Black-led and -serving nonprofits that are addressing systemic racism and its impact on Black communities in metro Denver, Sullivan said.

Inclusive Guide founders held an in-person and virtual event at their Denver headquarters on Dec. 10 to raise money and awareness about the guide and recognize people who have helped them along the way. Potential investors and business owners hoping to get involved attended.

Tim Wolfe, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, attended the Dec. 10 event and received an award for supporting Inclusive Journeys with a recent $50,000 sponsorship and by promoting Inclusive Journeys and other Colorado businesses on its website, Wolfe said.

“We support them because we believe in their mission,” Wolfe said, “and we’re going to continue that journey with them.”

— Similar initiatives

Other similar initiatives exist, including The Green Book Project, a mobile app helping people from marginalized groups find inclusive businesses. The app is different from the Inclusive Guide website, because it doesn’t offer businesses a detailed report about their ratings.

The National Black Adventure Directory, “a guide to Black adventure representation, information and access to the outdoors,” has a few posts on its website about recreation in Western states. The founder travels to different outdoor spaces, engages in adventurous activities, and then posts reviews about the places she’s traveled to.

Open to All, created by the company Yelp, is a coalition of more than half a million businesses that have pledged to become and remain welcoming and inclusive. Businesses simply opt in to deem themselves safe and welcoming, whereas with the Inclusive Guide, customers will define that.

In the new year, Inclusive Journeys will host training workshops and other events, especially during Black History Month, for people who wish to learn more about their goals. (Those who missed the Dec. 10 event, can reach organization leaders at hello@inclusiveguide.com.)

Almost 60 years after the discontinuation of The Green Book, Black Twitter has become its modern day version. #BlackTwitter serves as an informal guide to help Black people avoid discrimination and build community.

Black Twitter and The Green Book both provide a space where Black people can share tips and resources about navigating racism, according to researchers at the University of Colorado.

“I think that it’s fantastic that they’re doing something that invokes the Green Book for a contemporary moment,” said Shamika Klassen, a doctoral student in the information science department at CU, who recently finished a project examining the similarities between The Green Book and Black Twitter.

“I definitely see the similarities between their work and what inspired our research,” she said of the new Inclusive Guide. “And I think that spaces like this are definitely needed.”

SOURCE: The Associated Press, Tatiana Flowers