I Am SoHarlem
SoHarlem is a social enterprise that partners with creative thinkers, residents, not-for-profit organizations, as well as public and private industries to provide people living in high poverty neighborhoods with cultural industry jobs and career opportunities.
Founding President and CEO, Janet Rodigruez, has made it her mission to make certain that residents of Harlem are able to capitalize on any and all development opportunities, while simultaneously redirecting educational, and economic resources back into the community. “We exist to create a skilled cultural workforce earning livable wages in historically disenfranchised communities through education, apprenticeships, and entrepreneurial experiences”, says Rodriguez.
Harlem has a culture and history rich in artistic and professional work, and it is that history that will be preserved and promoted through the SoHarlem brand.
So what is SoHarlem exactly?
Rodriguez says, “SoHarlem is a feeling; a feeling of pride and culture. A culture that makes fashion statements. It’s a feeling of pride in ethnicity, location, and history. There is only one Harlem. I am so Harlem. “
As a creative outlet, SoHarlem stands strong in its goal to guarantee that creative people benefit from the redevelopment in Manhattanville Factory District by working closely with developers who show a commitment to working within the community. One of the key roles of the organization is to ensure that, for developing businesses, the workforce comes from within the local community.
The SoHarlem artisans, who are creative entrepreneurs, essentially incubate themselves within the community. They are nurturing their individual businesses, in many different design aspects. It is this incubation and nurturing that will guarantee these businesses will be able to thrive on their own. Women, who are currently in alternative incarceration facilities, predominately serve as apprentices. The artisans train the participants, who are reentering society. Working as apprentices to the artisans, they learn skills, while the artisans develop a work force. “We hear a lot of talk about everyone needs a job, but what we must do while we are developing a workforce is to make sure that people are trained and have the skills to perform these jobs”, says Rodriguez. “This is an issue of economic development and working with creative individuals to make that happen. “
SoHarlem also partners with organizations like, incarceration alternative, Green Hope Services for Women, one of SoHarlem’s biggest partners. SoHarlem works with these organizations preparing women to reenter society. Rodriguez boasts, “these women are given a chance to make a lasting impact on the community by becoming tax-paying citizens. They get a job, they start paying taxes and they contribute to our community’s tax base.”
With a continued devotion to uplifting the community, the SoHarlem organization decided to branch out and work with local youth in a very innovative and creative way. A tourism academy, headed up by Dorris Prester, certified tour guide and founder of New York My Way Tours (NYMW), was formed. A recruitment of 8 local youths learned about tourism as a business and helped develop tours in Manhattanville.
For Ms. Rodriguez the pledge to invest in the future of Harlem means encouraging the younger generation to be creative and to think.
She explains, “I think young people should be encouraged to be creative, which doesn’t necessarily mean they have to create art. Being creative is about knowing how to think critically. You have to know how to figure things out. We have young people who are very passive and have passive activities which are very two dimensional, very flat. When you are unable to think, unable to create, you cannot fully function in society. You’re just going to always be a follower. “
With all of her dedication and hard work in the Harlem community, Janet Rodriguez has great aspirations for Harlem, and its inhabitants. “My hope for Harlem is that it becomes a totally mixed community”, she says. One sure guarantee that this community stays mixed is by ensuring the existence public housing and affordable housing. There are a lot of moderate to low income tenements and buildings here, how well those are protected against becoming unaffordable is in issue that is extremely real in this community, and has become painful to watch.”
As a native of Harlem, currently living in West Harlem for several decades now, she has seen many changes over the years, and continues to take notice of the ever-changing dynamics of the make up of the community.
“When I first moved into my building there was one white family, now it is at least half white or Asian. You see the change, but what concerns me is how affordable will it be for the people that are here and should be here, and have a strong history here, to actually be here.” Although it remains an issue of almost monumental proportions, Ms. Rodriguez explains that this is a fight best fought by those selected by the community.“ My battle to stay in Harlem and to continue doing what I am doing in Harlem, helping the people I can help, and ensure they benefit from my work; that is my mission. The mission of protecting the people of Harlem and their interest is really up to politicians. The people we elect to protect us.”
You might wonder what propels someone with more than 20 years of philanthropic experience, to continue his or her work? Rodriguez considers it a privilege to have worked in philanthropy for so many years, public, private and corporate. “You become an advocate for the very people who need that money. You’re advocating and trying to make the case to people who know very little about the community you’re representing or the issues they’re facing.” She also contributes her experience in running a small business, and working with a lot of artist in her life, as important driving forces in her work. “I wanted merge all of my experiences into one place, with my concern, almost obsession, with the disproportionate number of people of color in jail. So I have a couple of different driving factors. I feel that this was something I had to do.”
The Manhattanville neighborhood has shown a great response to the work that SoHarlem is doing. From the people who directly benefit from the progress the apprentices make, the artisans, who have an opportunity to create in an environment that’s respectful and nourishes them, SoHarlem is indeed reinvesting within itself. “Every single person that has come through this door and has had the opportunity to create has excelled. Which proves my point that every single human being is creative. What happens here is a living testament to that.”
Strength, Courage, and Wisdom. Three key ingredients for Janet Rodriguez.
“You must be extremely strong to run a small business. For all intents and purpose, this is a business; for profit, not for profit, it’s still a business. It’s about taking a risk, understanding your constituents, or your market. You work 24/7,and to work those hours you have to have an enormous amount of strength. “
Aside from her official title at SoHarlem, Janet also serves in many secondary roles such as counselor to some of the apprentices.
“ I’m dealing with people that when they leave here, whatever happens while they are away has implications on my business. So I am kind of on-call on weekends in case something may happen.”
“I think anyone who decided to start anything during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, has to have an enormous amount of courage. In an economy where no one is buying where funders aren’t giving, we are truly going up against some odds.”
“I think the wisdom simply comes from the artisans that have been at their craft for 25 to 30 years. They completely understand their craft, and know how to teach it to others.”
Although the work is strenuous, and at times the road may appear to be unnavigable, Janet Rodriguez remains steadfast and firm in her belief that she, through SoHarlem, is making a difference. “My advisors are always saying I should stop beating myself up, because for the first year we did ok. But OK just isn’t good enough. You can never get too comfortable. “
By: CJ Sylvester for Harlem One Stop