If Not Me, Who?: Social entrepreneur Derrick Braziel answers the call

In the bustle of Over-the-Rhine there are artists, entrepreneurs and opportunists to be found around every corner. The neighborhood’s seemingly blank canvas draws a diverse group of people who still hope to get in on the ground floor of its growth and development.

Perhaps the most inspiring element of Cincinnati’s (and any city’s) urban redevelopment is the undercurrent of “social entrepreneurs,” people who jump into the streams of progress and harness them for something greater than their own profit. Their interest is in solving shared problems and ensuring the success of others in a way that’s equitable for everyone.

Forget the shiny new storefronts of Over-the-Rhine for a moment and take a look instead at a few people who are working behind closed doors to change the fabric of its local economy and community life.

"A model for providing real, tangible opportunities"

A fairly recent transplant from Indianapolis, Derrick Braziel is the quintessential young, idealistic social entrepreneur.

At first glance, he blends in well with his peers: He frequents the same restaurants, drinks the same local beer and buys his clothes (even his eyeglasses) from local vendors. Yet, although he meets the description of an ordinary 28-year-old urban pioneer, his motivation for living and working in Over-the-Rhine is anything but ordinary.

In the roughly 18 months Braziel has lived in Cincinnati, he’s already garnished the attention of local and national interests, mostly focused on his contribution to MORTAR, a 10-week training and mentorship program for low-income, minority or other “non-traditional” local entrepreneurs.

MORTAR is a partnership among Braziel, William Thomas II and Allen Woods, who together have created a nonprofit that addresses what they saw as both an urgent need and a great opportunity in Over-the-Rhine.

Many believe that gentrification, by definition, excludes long-term residents especially poor minorities. Braziel doesn’t think it needs to.

“As opposed to having people that are displaced, MORTAR could be a model for providing real, tangible opportunities for citizens and residents to be engaged,” he says. “And not just to be engaged, but to contribute positively. … We think that this could be an example for some other communities experiencing some of the same challenges Over-the-Rhine is experiencing now.”

Through group presentations, one-on-one mentorship and the opportunity to test their business or product in a live pop-up shop called Brick OTR, MORTAR students are given the tools necessary to build their businesses from the ground up. The tried-and-true Co-Starters entrepreneurship curriculum developed in Chattanooga, Tenn., keeps the class on target, and local partnerships with the University of Cincinnati’s School of Law and SCORE bring a wealth of professional services.

John A. Moore, a Cincinnati businessman who is vice chair of the local African American Chamber of Commerce, sits on the MORTAR Board of Directors. He believes that what MORTAR does is unique in Cincinnati.

“MORTAR brings action to an issue that has not been fully addressed: turning poverty to entrepreneurship,” he says. “There are other programs in Cincinnati that provide theory well. It works for some, and for others it under-delivers. (MORTAR is) active in producing results instead of only bringing a voice to an issue.”

Alleviating poverty through entrepreneurship

MORTAR isn’t Braziel’s first run at social entrepreneurship. After completing a degree in political science at Wittenberg University, he spent time in Indianapolis as a Senior Fellow at a community center. Their work was standard youth-based community support: after school programs, educational support, healthcare resources, etc., all aimed at alleviating poverty.

Though the work was valuable for Braziel, he could see a void in the opportunities provided at his and similar organizations — many programs for youth, few for willing and capable adults.

During the last few years Braziel spent in Indianapolis, he helped develop an organization called Dreamapolis, an “idea accelerator” in which artists and entrepreneurs compete for start-up funds and support. His goal was to connect the people with ideas to the people with the resources necessary to implement those ideas.

In many ways, Braziel says, Dreamapolis was the precursor to MORTAR.

Braziel moved to Cincinnati in 2013 to serve as a project manager at StriveTogether, where his longtime friend Thomas worked. This means that, in addition to spending their free time supporting MORTAR students, they work daily lending tools and resources to communities nationwide working to address issues of education and opportunity from “Cradle to Career.”

Even before moving here, OTR was Braziel’s neighborhood of choice. Thomas, a friend since college and “practically a brother,” first introduced him to Over-the-Rhine. After visiting Thomas — who was once dubbed “Prince of Over-the-Rhine” by then-Mayor Mark Mallory — a few times, Braziel fell in love with the vibrant community.

Ask Braziel to describe his first impression of Over-the-Rhine, and he says it was something akin to “a beautiful woman you perceive to be unapproachable.” The neighborhood can seem intimidating to outsiders and is full of misconceptions, he says, but after getting to know the community better he’s learned that it is “warm and charming and helpful and all the qualities that you’d want in a person.”

“Because I’ve gotten a chance to get to know this proverbial ‘beautiful woman’ and get to know the person they are — ‘The Queen,’ if you will — I think that Over-the-Rhine is my favorite place in the country,” Braziel says. “I get to travel a lot for work and see a lot of different neighborhoods, and I think that what Over-the-Rhine has to offer to the city and the region is unparalleled.”

A deep motivation for social change

The fascinating thing about social entrepreneurs is that they have the same enthusiasm and focus as traditional entrepreneurs, but their motivation is more mission-driven. And it’s this combination of tenacity and altruism that makes for such a powerful and inspiring story.

For Braziel, motivation for his life’s work built slowly, first through his experiences as the child of first-generation college graduates. They taught him about poverty and injustice and encouraged him to know his history and take responsibility for his own education.

He also credits two books — Building Social Business by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Mohammed Yunis and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington — for inspiring him to pursue this work.

The notion of business as a way to end the cycle of poverty is much more than a job, he says — it’s his calling.

“Our country was founded on a social contract that if you work hard, if you do everything the right way, you should have every opportunity to be successful,” Braziel says. “However, I think for many populations that social contract is a myth. It doesn’t exist.

“But I’m an idealist, and I think that I can be a part of change. And if I can leverage the opportunities that I’ve been given … then change can happen. But it’s not just me. It’s an eco-system.”

This is where the strength of his partners and support system come into place. Braziel has been intentional about soliciting help and guidance along the way from people who have already built successful businesses and nonprofits.

Teresa Hoelle is vice president of institutional advancement at ArtWorks, another local nonprofit that uses the Co.Starters curriculum. She says that Braziel sought her out “as soon as he arrived in the city” and, as a result, she now sits on the MORTAR Board of Directors.

“Everything Derrick does is with intention and purpose,” Hoelle says. “And we’re fortunate he chose Cincinnati as a community where he wants to help drive change. … Derrick’s leadership with adding MORTAR to the local landscape ensures our community is specifically targeting and supporting underserved populations and also helping minority businesses to launch and thrive.

“MORTAR ensures that all (Over-the-Rhine) residents have the potential to create thriving enterprises within their own community, allowing all to participate in the momentum the neighborhood is experiencing.”

"Every living thing has a hope"

Things are moving quickly, both for Braziel and for the Over-the-Rhine community. The fast pace of redevelopment is exciting but can seem overwhelming and intimidating for those whose most recent memories of the neighborhood illicit fears of violent crime on dark, vacant sidewalks.

Yet times have changed in Over-the-Rhine, and Braziel believes it brings more opportunities than challenges.

“There are opportunities for those who are bold enough to go out and get them, if they are not scared to fail,” he says.

Speaking about Braziel’s deep commitment, Thomas says, “I immediately noticed he was a caring individual that wore his passions and emotions on his sleeve. Even back (when we met) he was passionate about improving communities and making sure everyone had a fair chance. During our college years, we actually unsuccessfully attempted to start a nonprofit to provide additional support for children at one of the local schools close to our campus. It showed that from beginning this was something that was rooted within him.”

Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary theorist who spoke damningly against what he perceived as institutional scientific racism, wrote: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Braziel begins every day reciting the quote.

“It’s what motivates me,” he says. “Every person has the ability to change the world.”

Then, quoting the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, he adds, “Every living thing has a hope. Even a live dog is better than a dead lion.”

Braziel isn’t peddling a new business plan or promoting a hip new bar or restaurant or T-shirt shop. And it doesn’t seem like MORTAR is really the point, either.

These are simply the words Braziel lives by. He truly believes them, and that makes it a little easier for others to believe, too.

He’s another reason why — in the economy of true, shared wealth and opportunity — Cincinnati’s cup is overflowing in 2015.
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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.