Samantha Byake recalls what it’s like to grow up in a culture that viewed her as inferior to men.
“Growing up in Africa, the culture is so conservative,” says the 23-year-old. A Congolese refugee, Byake spent nine years in Uganda before immigrating to Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. “They consider women as inferiors and can’t do anything. Women are just there as housewives: look after the kid, prepare food, make sure the house looks good.”
Through her work with refugees at various organizations, Byake says women from similar backgrounds often view themselves as vulnerable and weak.
“Coming to America, having a psychology degree, going to women’s empowerment conferences, I realized you don’t need to wait for a man to bring everything,” says Byake, who received her bachelor’s degree in psychology through a leadership scholars program in Uganda. “You don’t have to be vulnerable because you don’t have a husband or father or male in your life. You can be the one putting bread on the table.”
That’s why Byake, along with others at the North Akron Community Development Corporation, are using their experiences and platforms to empower women in North Hill at the new Market House at 762 Elma St.
“These women are talented,” says Byake, who is on NACDC’s board of directors. “Back home they make jewelry. They know how to craft things. They know how to sew clothes. With Market House, it gives them a space to exhibit what they can do. It gives them a platform to show the world, ‘this is my culture.’”
North Hill is home to a robust immigrant and refugee population, as well as many longtime Black residents. NACDC’s goal is to bolster and empower residents of the neighborhood through economic development programs like the ones hosted at Market House.
“We engaged our community to figure out how we could activate this space in a meaningful way,” says Katie Beck, NACDC’s Executive Director. “The resounding response was that women in new American communities or communities of color aren’t as empowered as they could be. They want leadership and entrepreneurship opportunities.”
The first floor of the Market House will be a community space similar to the Exchange House next door, which serves as a cultural hub and international hostel. Market House will host programs and cohorts of various programs for women in the community, such as a 10-week entrepreneurial training with Bounce Innovation Hub and a 4-week prototype of Crafty Mart’s beginning maker session. Both programs will be either taught by a facilitator in participants’ native language or be ESL-friendly. The cohorts will begin this summer.
A makerspace in the attic and basement will also be available through a membership program, offering access to professional machinery like a textile machine, a sublimation printer, a heat press and a laser cutter.
Two office spaces for entrepreneurs are available to rent on the second floor, with a preference for women- and minority-owned businesses. An additional room will serve as a cooperative clinic space where volunteer practitioners will assist women with health care needs.
“There are no health clinics in this community,” says Tiffany Stacy, who is managing Market House. “We’re going to host groups of women in the years they have their babies that will meet to provide support for one another. With that clinic open, they can see somebody right there if they have a medical issue in an appropriate space.”
Daycare will also be available for mothers and other caregivers wanting to participate in Market House programs, and SPARK will offer various preschool programming.
Market House, painted a fresh coat of bright green and trimmed with a dark forest color, is next door to the Exchange House, which opened in 2017 with funding from Better Block. The building is an addition to NACDC’s efforts to activate Temple Square. In the last year, the organization has also opened NoHi, a rotating restaurant with community members preparing cultural dishes each weekend at 778 N. Main St., and NoTique, a retail space for residents to sell their products next door.
“Our goal is to create interconnectedness with all our events and spaces,” Beck says. “If someone comes into [Market House] programming with a food business idea, they can try it out at NoHi. If they create something in the makerspace, they can sell it in the NoTique.”
NACDC still has plans in the works. They are working to bring major renovations to their pocket park behind Market and Exchange Houses, The Backyard, including a 40×20 pavilion, sun shades, multilayer decks and a roof over the stage with added light and sound equipment.
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“Our goal this year is to encourage people to come to Temple Square,” Beck says. “There’s multiple reasons to come to North Hill. We want people to meet at the pocket park, eat at NoHi, shop at NoTique.”
The ultimate way to support the economic development of the area, Beck says, is empowering and supporting the residents who live there.
“I want to show these women that they can start something and bring bread back to their families,” Byake says. “You don’t have to just go and work for someone else. You can also work for yourself. Once you empower a woman, you empower the whole society.”