During a recent workshop in conjunction with a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas assembly, Will Staley and Terrance Clark led a brainstorming exercise about the positive aspects of Helena, an impoverished town in the Arkansas Delta.
Ideas included optimizing community resources like the blues, river tradition and kudzu.
“The exercise is part of what we do every day,” said Clark.
The fast-growing plant can really grow on a person – as Helena and the Arkansas Delta did on the two young design professionals who have started Thrive, a nonprofit organization in Helena that helps business start-ups in the Helena area and small local governments in Arkansas to go through strategic planning, branding and marketing plans at a fraction of the usual rates. They hope it serves as a new social justice-based template for business initiatives in rural areas.
“Helena screamed at us,” said Staley, a son of Carolyn Staley, an associate minister at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock. “There are a lot of nonprofits, but places like Helena are not high on their list. Helena is close to my home, where I grew up.”
Staley and Clark are examples of a group of young professionals who are relocating to the Arkansas Delta with a mission of reviving the once-thriving area with a new business model aimed at low-income entrepreneurs and organizations. One of the clients they are working with has no money.
Staley remembers childhood trips through the Arkansas Delta to visit his grandmother in nearby Greenwood, Miss. As a college student, he was drawn again to the community after helping his parents do mission work in Helena and dropping off books and coats for the Together for Hope project.
“I found it an engaging community,” he said. “One of the strongest assets is its young people and being able to mentor these kids.”
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Staley grew up in Little Rock, graduated from Kansas City Art Institute and got his master’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute. Clark grew up in Illinois and met Staley at the Kansas City institute. They shared studio space and kept in touch after Clark spent two years in the private sector in Kansas City.
Staley persuaded Clark to join him at Pratt, where Clark obtained his master’s in design management. Both wrote theses on social impact design.
Staley’s thesis presentation included the basic concept of Thrive: how design could help economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised people pursue jobs, income and hope.
“The basic question on the project was how can design help people?” Staley said. “I’ve always wanted to use my talents to help people, to give something to people who have been neglected. I wanted to do it in a place where design is a foreign object. Who could I help? A third-world country?”
After working with Together for Hope’s All Church Challenge in Helena one summer, Staley decided to locate there and launch his idea. After he told the Together for Hope story to Clark, his friend said, “I want to do this.”
So the twentysomethings launched their vision last year. Staley is creative director; Clark is accounts/administrative director.
They have a five-year goal to spread the idea through the Arkansas Delta, the Great Plains and Appalachia. They wanted to create the flagship model in Helena to test the idea and build a database.
“There was no place to practice sustainable design,” Staley said. “So we created it.”
“It’s a business incubator,” said Clark.
Things have progressed faster than expected, but the two young artists want to maintain the home base in Helena.
“There was excitement when we first came to this place,” said Staley.
Through modern technology and web design, the two have shown clients how they could connect from small businesses in Helena to larger ones throughout the country.
“It’s about creating jobs, what we really care about,” Staley said. “It’s about helping people understand they can have a purpose.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.