SoHarlem is an innovative non-profit organization that focuses on rebuilding the creative arts industry in Harlem by providing opportunities to residents and artisans. Founded by Janet Rodriquez in 2011, SoHarlem strives to combat the adverse effects of gentrification on the community. Rodriguez recognized that while gentrification provided significant economic opportunities for newcomers, it impacted Harlem’s existing residents much differently, offering only low wage, service sector jobs. In addition, increased property values led to rising rents, which further strained residents and stifled entrepreneurism. Rodriguez stepped forward and created SoHarlem to foster opportunities for creative entrepreneurs of color and for the Harlem community.
Through her vision, experience, and grit, Rodriguez and the Board of Directors shaped SoHarlem into an incubator to support a variety of creative enterprises. SoHarlem helped transform the formerly desolate, abandoned Manhattanville Factory District into a vibrant center where creative entrepreneurs have a chance to launch their businesses and ensure that they flourish. Here, artisans are part of a collective and utilize SoHarlem’s affordable work space, gaining access to their ready workforce, benefits which are all too often absent for today’s budding independent designers. Artisans create everything from wearable art and accessories to home décor made from upcycled materials. Collective members and trained apprentices also offer custom tailored designs to the public and create fashion wear for special occasions as well as everyday wear through the Made to Measure program.
SoHarlem affirms the value of people by investing in them, providing free mentoring and training to unemployed and underemployed residents. SoHarlem’s collective members are also instructors in its Community Training Program for local residents who learn all aspects of garment construction, design, and studio management. The majority of products created at SoHarlem are made from recycled materials which were headed to the landfill. As trainees develop skills to help them earn living wages, they become active participants in sustaining the creative economy, and they represent the full spectrum of the community. Over the years, SoHarlem has taught trades to high school students, young adults, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated women, people with substance abuse issues, and unemployed residents. By supporting people as they develop livelihoods, SoHarlem is planting seeds of change that reverberate throughout the community.
It is no surprise that such an incredible organization was founded by Janet Rodriguez, someone with the rare confluence of experience from her own creative entrepreneurship and her decades of philanthropic leadership. Rodriguez received her MFA in Arts Administration from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and her MA in Art Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Long before founding SoHarlem, she opened Straight Out of Harlem, Inc., her own entrepreneurial enterprise, in which she promoted and sold the work of hundreds of local and global artists who created functional and wearable art. In addition, she produced public programs, exhibitions, and salons that explored contemporary cultural issues.
From 2001-2009, Rodriguez served as Vice President of the JPMorgan Chase Global Philanthropy Group, where she provided leadership and support to the National Community Relations team. It was here that CERF+’s path auspiciously crossed with Rodriguez’s when she committed seed funding from JPMorgan Chase to create CERF+’s Studio Protector. We are forever grateful to her for her commitment to building community, investing in resilience, and bolstering the creative economy.