Designing Opportunity: Ending Generational Poverty and Re-establishing Economic Stability in Rural America
It is never too late for a once economically thriving community to recover, regardless of its size or physical location. Seven years ago, my business partner Will Staley and I chose our new home of Helena, Ark., as an ideal place to prove this thesis. In the years since, we have successfully created a new model for community and economic development in the Delta in the form of Thrive, a hybrid nonprofit design firm.
Our mission is to design opportunity in impoverished regions of rural America in an effort to increase economic mobility and decrease rural brain drain. Everything we do at Thrive involves a strategic application of the design thinking process, which is an iterative methodology that relies heavily on exploration of ideas and problem solving.
What we have found is that the creative process used to design a powerful brand or new product is very similar to both the steps an entrepreneur takes when launching a business and the path community organizers follow when working to restore their cities. At Thrive, we are involved in both of these scenarios with the work we do locally; as we grow, we plan to expand our model to other rural areas in our country suffering from generational poverty and drastic population loss.
After many years of running Thrive, I have learned that a nonprofit is still a business, and that there are no large amounts of grant funding just waiting around the corner. Funds are becoming increasingly difficult for nonprofits to secure. This is especially true in rural areas that cannot compete with the better roads and larger populations found in urban areas across our country. In lieu of this fact, Thrive has grown a successful graphic design services business that does commercial work for great clients who pay for our time and ideas. The revenue we collect from these services creates an additional diverse revenue stream, which makes the organization less reliant on grant funding.
In an effort to keep our entire graphic design workload mission-centric, we tend to focus on clients from within the Delta as well as organizations that are working to alleviate poverty regardless of their location. These clients range from individuals working to start small businesses and create jobs to local city governments and agencies or nonprofits that focus on community and economic development. It is an evolving funding model for us, and one we intend to grow large enough to cover a majority of our annual operating expenses.
To provide a bit of history on the origin of Thrive, Will and I met at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2001 as we were each pursuing bachelor's degrees in design. We were surrounded by many progressively minded professors and mentors who impressed upon us the importance of using our design training and skills to make the world a better place. I still talk to many of these professors, and it is their insight—along with additional people and mentors we have met since—that has helped Thrive become what it is today.
After working as a designer in the private sector, I missed the altruistic environment and motivation that art school had provided. Around 2006, Will and I reconnected after he had spent a summer researching in Helena. We began having long discussions about establishing our own platform to use design as a tool to improve low- and moderate-income communities in rural America. Soon after these discussions began happening weekly, I quit my job and moved to New York City to pursue a master's degree in design management from Pratt Institute while working to create the preliminary version of Thrive.
Will had just completed his master's degree at Pratt as well and began taking on freelance design jobs while working as a policy fellow at the Clinton Foundation in Manhattan. As Thrive started in New York, we started focusing on making initial connections in Helena. It was this investigative process that helped us begin to understand a feasible way for Thrive to become part of the revitalization of the city.
Today, Thrive has entered its sixth official year of operation and its third year with two additional full-time graphic designers on staff. The next few years will decide many things for our organization's future, and we have many goals we intend to achieve.
We hope to grow Thrive by looking to the 27 counties immediately surrounding Helena that make up the Planning and Development Districts in eastern Arkansas and northern Mississippi (see Figure 1). From these counties and other major populated areas within our region, we plan to make new contacts and capture design contracts to both grow the reach of Thrive's mission and become more financially stable.
Within the last two years, we have reached a critical mass with two of our major programs: the Helena Entrepreneur Center, a countywide business incubator; and the Cherry Street Fair, a monthly street fair (April to September) in historic downtown Helena. To date, we have had more than 110 individuals complete our 8-week business development class; more than 20 of those entrepreneurs either launched or expanded their businesses, creating or saving more than 50 jobs. Our street fair, which features live music, local vendors and activities for kids, has grown from 150 people per event to an average turnout of around 500. In addition, we have launched a garden-based education program, regularly contribute our abilities to helping neighborhoods attain a voice in local government and work to inform the voting public about contested races in our county. More information on our projects and the people we work with can be found at www.thrivecenter.org.
It goes without saying that Thrive is my dream job, and my work there matters greatly to me. My co-workers and I get to work with incredible people, dedicate our lives to community service and take a seat at the table when it comes to the designer's role in the makeup of community revitalization. In time, it is our goal to bring this opportunity to others by taking Thrive to a national scale and recruiting a new generation of young creatives to take an active role in community revitalization in rural America.