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Black in Halifax: Business owner uses brand to connect with community

Black-owned businesses in Halifax have awakened to the fact they can create opportunities and find resources within their own communities.

Duane Jones poses for a photo at the Daily Grind Café in Halifax, where he sells his clothing line, Art Pays Me.

Zane Woodford / Metro

Duane Jones poses for a photo at the Daily Grind Café in Halifax, where he sells his clothing line, Art Pays Me.

Under his structured wool trench coat, Duane Jones wears a slate grey sweatshirt with the phrase “Art Pays Me” written across his chest.

Black-owned businesses in Halifax have awakened to the fact they can create opportunities and find resources within their own communities. Many Black-owned businesses in the region are attracting new customers through social media by being proud and unapologetic.

This new movement is offering small businesses such as Art Pays Me and The Reiki Eye a lot more visibility and opportunity.

"I am learning how to become more unapologetically Black, and that is what I am tying into the Art Pays Me brand," Jones said.

Jones launched the clothing brand in 2011 because he wants to combine his identity as a Black man and as a designer.

When Jones graduated from NSCADback in 2004, he wasn’t the confident businessman you see today. The young man, originally from Bermuda, was afraid of how his Black identity could impact his desire to become an entrepreneur.

"I was intentionally trying not to be pigeonholed as a graphic designer that does Black design,” he said.

Jones felt he had two choices: push aside his Black identity to fit into the mainstream or embrace the Black designer label and explore what opportunities could come from that.

He decided to take a risk.

"As a graphic designer, I wanted to do more than just put one logo on multiple products. I want to design things with a higher concept," Jones said.

Jones launched Art Pays Me as an online retail clothing brand. It targets creative professionals of all backgrounds who want to wear a social message.

When asked how he’s overcoming the challenges that Black-owned businesses face, Jones said he refuses to be limited by barriers.

"But I know that racism and systemic biases are legitimate and have no doubt that they impact me," he said. "You can't think about what the optics are or what other people think because it's who you are. You have to embrace it, and society will have to catch up if they don't get it."

Black busines group pushing for 'relevance'

A group that serves Black businesses in Halifax says it needs to become more self-sufficient.

"One of the biggest things for us is relevance .... We've realized for many years that we can't stay solely funded by the government," said Black Business Initiative Society (BBI) stakeholder and director Laurissa Manning.

The provincewide, business-development organization supports entrepreneurship among Black Nova Scotians by advancing business skills through training, consulting and financial support.

For 21 years, BBI's goal has been to grow a stronger Black presence in Nova Scotia’s business community. With government funding tight, that's difficult to achieve.

Rodger Smith, BBI’s entrepreneur engagement manager, said he’s seen staff go from 19 to 10. Not to mention, he said, fewer businesses are seeking their services.

“When people left, their positions were not filled,” said Smith.

BBI's annual report for 2016 showed 98 per cent of its operating revenue comes from the government. The group has now started a think tank to help change that and is hoping to start making strides toward that in the coming year.

A Black business influenced by African roots

At The Reiki Eye on Barrington Street in Halifax, certified reiki master Mariah Pelly-Smith represents the Black-owned business label in an entirely different way. The room is dimly lit, with ambient music reverberating through the space. She'll offer a glass of water before asking you about what physical and mental ailments brought you to her.

Pelly-Smith opened her practice this past fall after attaining her certification in October. Reiki is an alternative healing practice that uses energy to heal and promote positive living.

“I'm a practitioner, but I see myself more as a vehicle for an energy to help people,” she said.

Her practice is influenced by her historic African roots and diversity of experience.

She believes that people have different sparks that connect them to her. She said people seek her services because she is different from regular practitioners in Halifax. Her Reiki services incorporate chanting, singing and tapestries that are all inspired by her African roots.

“I think what I do is very unique, in that there aren’t a whole bunch of singing, chanting, half Black reiki practitioners running around Halifax,” she laughed.

This story is part of Metro's ongoing Black in Halifax series. Let us know your thoughts on the series, and share your own stories using the hashtag #HalifaxWhileBlack with tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook comments. We may just share it in a future edition.

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