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Small businesses raising funds to build a permanent safe space for marginalized communities in Richmond

Person reaches for plant
Crystal Stokes, the founder of Frank Community, a vocational program that employs neurodivergent people on a Fulton Hill tea farm. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Stokes)

Two local businesses focused on uplifting Black, Indigenous, LGBT and neurodivergent creators are working together to set up a communal space for their community in Richmond.

Once it opens, Project Community will be a gathering space located on a local tea farm in Fulton Hill. Its creators are planning on building a tea house, store and event space on the property for Richmonders to enjoy.

“It’d be a small beautiful space where they can feel safe and take their time and not have to worry about fitting in,” Crystal Stokes said.

Stokes is the founder of Frank Community, a vocational program that employs neurodivergent people on that tea farm. They joined forces with co-founder of Safe Space Market RVA, a pop-up market and safe space for Black, Indigenous and LGBT vendors of color, Andy Waller, to develop the idea for Project Community.

“The mission of that was really to sort of celebrate, and really bring about visibility to underrepresented businesses, like small businesses that didn't have brick-and-mortar stores and really saw a sharp decline in sales and support during the onset of the pandemic,” Waller said.

Project Community, like their other business ventures, will be focused on creating a safe space for marginalized communities. Products sold at the store they propose to build will exclusively be made by Black, Indigenous, LGBT and neurodivergent vendors.

“Those individuals in particular can come to the space and know that they're there in community, they're supported and they're safe. And we want the community to, in general, to love that as well as love us back,” Waller said.

But everyone, regardless of their identity, is welcome to visit and support Project Community and the local businesses it will feature.

Situated on the grounds of a working tea farm, Waller and Stokes plan to build a patio, an open-air pavilion and a series of greenhouses for guests to explore. The tea house in particular will ideally be a tranquil environment for visitors, according to Stokes, and will create a much-needed place for queer people to meet and socialize outside of bars and night clubs.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, members of the LGBT community are more likely to struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. That’s in large part due to the marginalization of queer youth in American society, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Stokes says in addition to helping people avoid the pitfalls of alcohol addiction, this space would be more accommodating to neurodivergent people than most other queer spaces.

“That's another beautiful outdoor space where people can come and drink and feel safe and not feel the pressure of necessarily having to be at a bar, or a very loud bar at that, and partake in alcoholic beverages,” Stokes said. “There's nowhere to go, really, as adults who are neurodivergent.”

Creating a sense of community for young people in marginalized communities is something the founders are focused on with this project.

“​​There's very little that exists that has a stronger impact on my mental health, on my well being, than being in community with people who love me, support me, are like me,” Waller said. “That's immensely powerful, especially in today's environment when we're all siloed off. We're all broken off from each other. It's so much harder to be together in a way that feels safe.”

For now they’re in the process of building the greenhouses, and according to Stokes, they’ll begin welcoming a limited number of visitors for tea on the farm in the next month or two. To complete the project, they’re hoping to fundraise $75,000 over the next year.

“The farm already exists. So much of this has already been carved out. Crystal has been building greenhouses, carving out farm space and growing tea,” Waller said. “We're just asking for that final step of raising funds to really bring it all together, to beautify the space, to purchase trees, to purchase more equipment and things of that nature. And to make these larger structures, the big tea house, the store, and things like that possible.”

So far, they’ve partnered with some local businesses to raise some of these funds, but they’re still seeking new partnerships and donations from the community. In the meantime, they’re using the resources they have now to build what they can.

“We have to take baby steps with the funding that comes in. As soon as we get funding from people, Crystal is legit taking that and putting that directly into the farm to build out the space,” Waller said.

To learn more about Project Community, visit their linktree or Instagram.