Youngstown Creative Collective Aids Entrepreneurs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Joncquil Hope minces no words about the difficulty in raising awareness and drumming up support for small businesses in the inner city.

The founder of Hope Community Services in Youngstown says the problem is a systemic one derived from a history of having an “every man for himself” mindset among some black communities. 

“There is a sense of lacking for this idea of togetherness and community,” Hope says. “It’s like a survival thing: ‘I can’t work with you because I have to survive by myself.’ But in reality, people are stronger working together.”

That’s why Hope does what she does. Since 2016, the Hope Community Services nonprofit has worked to improve the quality of life in the city by hosting events to raise awareness of particular issues. This summer, she collaborated with the Youngstown Creative Collective on a public awareness event for Juneteenth, what she describes as “almost like a black Independence Day.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day the last remaining slaves were emancipated throughout the former Confederate states.

Hope’s event featured a brunch and panel discussion about the importance of unifying the community. It’s a message that the Youngstown Creative Collective promotes as it works with local organizations and businesses, says its founder, Joseph Napier.

Napier established the Creative Collective in 2016 after working on a grant-funded program with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and doing freelance work. He was inspired by YNDC and after seeing some of the challenges in the city, he wanted to find a way to use his skills as an artist and photographer to make a positive impact, he says.

Leveraging his experience in community organizing with the YNDC, Napier formed the Youngstown Creative Collective to cultivate an artistic talent base and create content and strategies to help entrepreneurs and organizations inside the city. He got together with a few friends and started small, providing free web development and branding services to a few entities.

“There was a great need for the talent in Youngstown to be activated. So we basically helped each other,” Napier says. 

One of the first clients was Hope Community Services and its Juneteenth event, which drew about 50 people, he says. The event also promoted healthful eating and distributed fresh produce. Dietitians and nutritionists were on-hand to offer tips on how to achieve a balanced diet and create good habits to pass down to future generations.

“That was an opportunity to help with graphic design, event promotion and photography to boost [Hope’s] brand,” Napier says.

The event turned out well and Hope looks to collaborate with Napier and the  Creative Collective at least once annually, she says. She appreciates his work, but also his message of educating people and working together to uplift the community, particularly among young people.

Hope has worked in Youngstown City Schools and Warren schools, and says an environment with positive role models encourages young people to take an active role in their community and consider entrepreneurship. It gives them an opportunity to take ownership of something and be proud of it, she says. 

“He’s big on collaborating and getting the younger generation to be more involved, which I think is awesome because people who are older are going to have to pass the torch at some point,” she says.

Napier’s organization isn’t a traditional creative agency. Rather it’s a collective of like-minded individuals. It’s similar to the concept of the gig economy, which promotes freelance work and short-term contracts in lieu of permanent jobs.

Members bring leads to the collective, which meets regularly to exchange ideas, Napier says. Five members meet regularly, but the collective has had more than 100 attend its meetings.

Members bring their expertise to help local businesses and professionals take the next step. Services range from the creative, such as graphic design, to the strategic, including digital and social-media marketing, and events at bricks-and-mortar locations, he says.

“It eliminates the stigma and anxiety surrounding entrepreneurship.” Napier says. “We try to create a space where people can feel comfortable and connect with each other in a genuine fashion.”

So far, the collective has helped nearly 30 people and initiatives, including the Youngstown Playhouse. When the theater company was planning its production of “Dreamgirls” in September, Napier promoted the show with flyers, photography and a series of video interviews with cast members.

The production marked the 30th year since “Dreamgirls” had last been performed in Youngstown, says James Major Burns, a resident actor at the Playhouse. The four-episode docuseries provided an engaging way for community members to learn more about the show and helped give the cast a better understanding of themselves and their characters, he says.

“With that history, [Napier] wanted to dive in a little bit deeper so people could get to know the cast,” Burns says.

The video series crested 1,000 views on the first day, but “it’s easy to rack up views on Facebook,” Napier says. Engagement was the big deliverable. By the end of the campaign, each video topped 5,000 views, driven by the more than 10,000 engagements on each post, he says.

“Dreamgirls” sold out seven performances, selling 3,119 tickets and grossing $41,000, says James McClellan, operations manager for the theater.

Burns met Napier in late 2017, shortly after the collective had been formed. Napier is inspiring to work with because rather than just present an idea of what he wants to do, Burns says he brings a complete plan to the table and explains how it will work.

Napier has “a very clear vision in his mind” of what he wants the collective to be, Burns says. 

Since meeting Napier, Burns has attended every collective event. In the last year, he’s worked with promoters, musicians, designers, dancers and behind-the-scenes workers who he met through the collective, including a social-media marketer who worked on producing “Dreamgirls.”

It’s quite a difference from the competitiveness common in the creative community, Burns says. Now, the Playhouse and the collective have collaborated on more events and will continue to do so, he says. “We were able to come together as two different organizations and help each other flourish.”

Whether in the inner city or in surrounding areas, small businesses face the same challenges, Napier says. The biggest challenge is visibility, he observes.

“Even in Boardman, it’s kind of easy to get lost in the new businesses popping up,” he says. “As a local business, you have to separate yourself from the pack.”

To do so, the collective is working to expand its online presence while branching out into other industries beyond nonprofits and the arts, he says. Napier welcomes others who want to bring something into the collective, he says. 

And while clients can collaborate with it free of charge, Napier is working to help the initiative grow into a nonprofit so it can seek grants and donations.

“Learning from experience has been the best thing,” he says. “And we’re in a position to grow and build on what we’ve done for the past three years.”

Pictured: Joncquil Hope and Joseph Napier collaborated on a Juneteenth event to bring the community together.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.