CO:LAB has reactivated the Hartford Public Library’s former Goodwin Branch into a community space called the Free Center.

Social impact brand development and design firm CO:LAB is committed to supporting the community in Hartford. The company recently moved from its Parkville location to the Hartford Public Library’s Goodwin Branch, which closed in 2018.

CO:LAB operates out of the building and has reactivated it into a community space called the Free Center.

“This space meant something to this community. It meant their ability to actualize their empowerment,” explains CO:LAB Principal Rich Hollant. “This was a place where people became part of the community fiber. And that matters—it matters to people and it matters to the community.”

Plans for the Free Center are based on the community’s needs. To that end, CO:LAB is doing some research with actual community members.

“Folks who participate in neighborhood revitalization programs are those who have the time, wherewithal, a sense of culture around civic engagement, and fewer barriers to participation. That’s not the bulk of the folks who live here,” underscores Rich.

“A minority of the folks who live here have that capacity,” he adds. “We’re really interested in supporting the majority of the folks who live here—those who can’t migrate to another library, because what appears to be a minor inconvenience to some is inhibitive to others.”

CO:LAB Embraces Social Impact Mission

CO:LAB launched 30 years ago as a branding communications company working with Fortune 500 companies including Conagra Foods, Motorola, Travelers, and Hasbro. Over time, the company evolved. As Rich notes, “We are a perpetual startup. Every few years we do something new.”

The company’s biggest shift began about 10 years ago while they were working on a project for the

Human Rights Institute. For Rich, personally, it provided a deeper understanding of the plot of human rights violations over time.

“I recognized that if we don’t address a change in the social fabric, the current condition becomes the new normal,” he says. “As we were doing this work, I gave a lot of consideration to what urgency meant. While we were helping some nonprofits and organizations in some ways, the work we were doing didn’t fall under the auspice of social impact in a manner that addressed the urgency.”

Soon after working with the Human Rights Institute, Rich says he told the team to wrap up the corporate work because they were going to try to figure out how to participate in social impact.

“It took about six months to complete those projects and then we started working on how to put our energy and time into work that’s going to make a difference—doing something that’s actually going to have an impact, not just feel good for us to do,” explains Rich. “How do we get to a place where we’re confident that we’re making a quantifiable difference?”

Since then, CO:LAB has been focused on social impact work. “We largely just say yes to things that look like we could learn about how systems work, or we can use our learning about how systems work to influence change and encourage favorable outcomes through communications,” says Rich.

The company works with many local foundations, nonprofits, cities, and the government. Rich is also Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of Hartford, a Billings Forge Community Works board member, an AIGA national board member, and co-chair of Design for Democracy.

“I show up and I advise folks who may be having board challenges or organizational challenges,” he says. “CO:LAB is engaged. We’re in it.”

The company is also committed to giving back—which is how they became involved with the Hartford Public Library.

Making Community Impact

CO:LAB was invited to attend a meeting at the library to discuss the evolution of the space. “We showed up and started sharing some thoughts—not really thinking about us!” admits Rich.

CO:LAB and the Free Center are located in the Hartford Public Library’s Goodwin Branch.

“But the more we looked at how the space operates, what it takes to run this facility, and what the contractual agreement would be, it was a complete switch from where we were in Parkville,” Rich explains. “Though our office was pretty cool there, we were isolated. And impact doesn’t happen in the back row. It happens up front, on the street. That’s the magic of this new space—it’s in the middle of community where the real social work happens.”

He adds, “There was very little additional cost to get going in this environment. The additional cost is going to come in determining how to activate the space in terms of staffing and equipment. We need to figure out what running a community center is really going to take beyond the space.”

While they sort out the programmatic details, CO:LAB initially plans to make the space open with a few computers available, free Wi-Fi, and meeting spaces that can be signed out for use.

Programming and Collaboration

In terms of programming, Rich notes, “We’re still sorting that out with our nonprofit partners. The idea is the space is accessible for free as long as the programs happening there are also free. There’s something about that model I like tremendously.”

He continues, “But, then I struggle with the idea of the space being used for a fundraising event or something along those lines. There’s an exchange going on, so it gets a little complicated. That’s where we’re still figuring out the model and how to keep the space functioning equitably.”

CO:LAB also plans to create some of its own community programming and events. And they started a forum with local organizations including COMPASS Youth Collaborative, Hartford Youth Scholars, Billings Forge Community Works, and RE-Center.

“These organizations have human capacity. They have programmatic design capacity. They run their programs well, but access to space can be a challenge,” notes Rich.

“We invited them to sit together to visualize: If space weren’t an issue, what would they run programmatically together as a team? And, as we started to look at what each of these organizations brings to the table, we realized they can actually mesh nicely, and we can create something new together,” he says. “So, we’re working to provoke those types of conversations and encourage a sense of natural collaboration based on how we already know these folks in the community—because these are the people we work with every day.”

Other ideas for the community space include an on-site farmers market, a community garden, a pop-up café, training courses, musical performances, and art exhibitions.

Keeping the Arts in Connecticut

The real drive is to continue giving back. In addition to opening the Free Center, for the past three years CO:LAB has run Parkville Studios, an artist residency program at their former 1429 Park Street location in Parkville.

“To me that was the real forbearer to this Free Center project,” says Rich.

He explains, “A number of years ago, when I was working on Hartford Fashion Week, I noticed some volunteers were students or recent art school graduates who were planning on leaving the state. They were going to New York, San Francisco, Miami—anywhere but Connecticut. My son was one of them, so I was really curious why!”

Rich continues, “What it came down to is this: While they were at school they were working collaboratively. They had studios together and they were working in large scale. Once they graduated, they were living with roommates and working this way was a challenge and ultimately a limiter. So, they wanted to go somewhere else where ‘accidents’ happened with greater frequency, where they could collide into other people and create opportunities.”

Rich’s solution: What if CO:LAB creates that kind of space?

“We’ve been developing a space where curators, gallery owners, or museum directors could come in and support, provoke, or catalyze artistic exploration and growth. We have five local artists using studio space. And what we’re finding is, three years in, even though they were considering moving elsewhere, they are here. They’ve made investments in the community. They’re selling work. They’re starting ’zines and starting alternative spaces in the Fuller Brush building. They’re deeply engaged in the creative community here,” he says.

“Like the Hartford Public Library opportunity, it all started because of conversations,” Rich points out. “Simply saying: Let’s all talk, figure out what folks need, and find out how we can be helpful.”

Bringing It All Together

The new space brings new opportunities to the community—and CO:LAB.

“I think we’ll do better brand communication and strategy work for nonprofits and social enterprises as we run our own,” says Rich. “We’ll have a better understanding of the capacity challenges. We’re able to motivate folks around the distinction between what they are working on and what they are working toward. And we’ve been able to do that with very little experience ourselves living that distinction.”

He adds, “For the most part, we have been advising based on theory, and it’s been helpful to people. We’ve been in the community on boards and as a partner, and we’re working to understand our community dynamics. We bring strategic thinking and the love of research and data and our communications acumen to the programmatic and operations side of the table, which I think is going to make this new endeavor work pretty nicely.”

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