Photo by Kennedy Moore BlackTeaBrownSuga Founder Eszquire Harris (front right) and Studio Manager Ishara Henry (front left) pose with Learn and Earn student workers Christopher Moore, Aonah Booth, Kymir Sheffield, and Michael Kennedy (back row, left to right).
By Jamie Wiggan
A recently completed “participatory capital” program piloted in the McKees Rocks and Stowe communities has put $10,000 into the hands of six small business owners.
Volunteers from the community overseeing the funds spent several months thinking through how to allocate the money before settling on the six recipients. All were businesses with four or less employees deemed to be making a positive contribution through their work.
“Everyone who received funds is already doing the work in the community,” said Sara Eve Rivera, a local business owner who helped form the Community Investment Fund committee for distributing the funds.
New business owner Eszquire Harris used the money he received to complete a music room in the basement of his Broadway Avenue multimedia studio.
Harris had begun renovating the space before the awards were announced, and was preparing to take out a small loan to complete the project when one of the committee members showed up at his door with a check.
“It completely caught me off guard,” Harris said. “…It came just at the right time.”
The funds enabled Harris to equip the basement with a drum set, new lighting and a fresh paint job just before he welcomed a cohort of 11 students for an immersive summer work program.
The students – all local – have been learning new skills in areas like photography, music production and social media management as they’ve pitched in with running Harris’ multimedia platform, the BlackTeaBrownSuga Network.
A trained mental health therapist, Harris launched the BlackTeaBrownSuga Network as a way to engage with the community in his free time.
Seeing the lack of opportunities and unmet needs – particularly among young people – the Arkansas native said he felt compelled to get more involved in his adopted community.
“The more I talked about [issues in the community], the less I wanted to talk about it and the more I wanted to do something,” Harris said.
In addition to community service, Eve said the committee was looking for businesses that had been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Dan Hinchliffe opened up La Vostra Pizza in Stowe just months before the nation buckled down under lockdown measures enacted to slow the spread of the virus.
“I just opened up, and then March happened,” Hinchliffe said.
With his dining room closed, Hinchliffe managed to subsist in a take-out only economy by offering heavy discounts on carry-out pizzas and contracting with delivery services like Grubhub.
Now that most restrictions are lifted, business is slowly picking up for Hinchliffe, and he’s using money awarded through the investment fund to pay for an air conditioning unit in hopes of expanding his dine-in service.
Other fund recipients struggled under the lockdown measures, too.
DaLisha Hoszwoski has been crafting rice crispy cakes and other chocolate-based treats at her home in McKees Rocks since 2018.
DaLisha Hoszwoski prepares chocolate-based treats at her home in McKees Rocks. Hoszowski sells her products at her sister’s Sheraden market and takes party requests through word of mouth.
Initially, she had a reliable market for her products at her sister’s convenience store, B & M Market in Sheraden, but demand slowed down last spring with the onset of the virus.
Hoszowski has developed other clients through word of mouth but had begun to reevaluate her business model by the time she applied for a grant from the community fund.
Hoszowski now plans to use the money she was awarded to build a new website and develop her marketing strategy in view of reaching more customers. She’s looking to apply other portions of the grant to host a community “sip and dip” strawberry fondue event this summer.
The Community Investment Fund was formed around an experimental idea for developing communities known as ‘participatory capital.’ According to Diana Chun, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, this essentially means “the community coming together and making democratic decisions about how they’re going to spend a sum of money.”
Chun brought the concept to the Stowe and McKees Rocks communities to pilot a model she had developed during her graduate study research. The bedrock of organizations already working in human services and economic development made the small struggling towns an ideal testing site for her model.
“There was a network of non-profits that was working already, and they were a great bridge to the community,” she said.
Having recently graduated and relocated to Seattle, Chun said she’s continuing to watch the Stowe-McKees Rocks communities with interest, and is hopeful funding can be established to continue the program.
“If we can get more funds, this should keep on going because it does more than just financial aid,” she said.
Rivera, a business owner who did not benefit financially from her role in the committee, agrees.
“Doing this project, not only did it help fund businesses but it also helped forge these lasting connections,” she said.
Other Community Investment Fund recipients include:
• It’s a Pizza Cake Cafe – a couple-owned pizza and cake venture launched in April at the Shoppes at Chartiers Crossing.
• Lustrous Looks Beauty Care Lounge – a hair salon in Stowe with a mission of providing professional beauty services at affordable prices.
• Gazette 2.0 – a hyperlocal newspaper startup covering several neighborhoods northwest of Downtown Pittsburgh.