WARREN, R.I. — Growing up in the South Side of Chicago, Amber Jackson recalls singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black National Anthem, in school.
Her world, she said, was “all Black,” in Chicago and even after she left the South Side to attend college in Tennessee and earn her Master’s in Alabama.
So when she moved to Rhode Island to work at Brown University in 2017, she expected the population to be less diverse. But when she arrived, she said her expectations didn’t even come close to the reality. Oftentimes, she said, she was the only Black woman in the room.
“I’m used to a lot more diversity. It takes a real effort to find people that look like you that you can actually relate to here,” said Jackson. “Even then, it’s difficult. A lot of people here, culturally, they may look like me but we’re nothing alike.”
In April 2019, Jackson founded The Black Leaf Tea and Culture Shop, located inside the Hope & Main, a Warren-based incubator for startups related to food and beverage.
Her loose-leaf teas are available online and feature intriguing combinations like “Salud” (a honeybush-red rooibos blend), “Sunday Morning” (a mix of orange peel, lemongrass, spearmint, and chamomile), and “Glow” (infused with black pepper, lemon peel, turmeric, and ginger).
But the store does more than sell tea. Jackson was committed to creating a space for local Black professionals to connect, network and have open conversations about everything from Black culture and current events to sex and dating.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced her to consider two options for the community she created in the store: put the conversation space on hold and wait until people could gather again, or pivot to virtual discussions. With the stress of the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and the calls for racial and social justice after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Jackson said she couldn’t bring herself to cancel the open conversations.
“Tea Talks,” Jackson’s virtual discussion series, was born. In panel-fashion, Jackson leads conversations on topics such as racism in the hospitality industry, being Black in academia, the importance of therapy to break down traumas, and setting and keeping realistic New Year’s goals and resolutions during a pandemic.
Last year, on Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, Jackson found herself on local lists promoting local Black businesses. She quickly sold out of her teas, and since then, business has been booming.
On Feb. 1, Jackson will launch her latest tea blend, “Chai-town,” which is an ode to her hometown of Chicago. Twenty percent of the proceeds from sales of the black pepper-chocolate chai blend will go to support My Block, My Hood, My City, a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 by Chicago native Jahmal Cole. It provides underprivileged youth with an opportunity to reach beyond their neighborhood by using field trips to introduce them to arts and culture, culinary arts, STEM, entrepreneurship, and volunteerism.
“I hold my home very near and dear to my heart. I am a South Side Chicago girl through-and-through,” said Jackson, who still lives in Rhode Island. “And while I don’t plan on going back, I plan to continue to give back while here.”