Alumna’s social justice PR agency thrives with focus on honest conversations

By Andrea McCaffrey, Photo by Autumn Driscoll August 24, 2022

Mercy Quaye wearing a  t-shirt that says "enough" stands in front of The Narrative Project office sign

In spring 2020, like many working professionals, Mercy Quaye ’13, MS ’18, was navigating the challenges of the pandemic lockdown.

While small businesses across the country were shutting down, she had just opened The Narrative Project, leaving the security of a full-time professional position only months before COVID began to spread across the world. As she faced the uncertainty of the future, Quaye remained undeterred in her mission to put community first.  

Since its founding in 2019 as Connecticut’s only anti-racist and social justice public relations agency, The Narrative Project has embraced the influence of social media, weathered a global pandemic and helped champion social justice advocacy. 

“I brought my first staff member on in September 2019 and my second in January 2020. And after that, everything became very unstable, very fast. But looking back, I think the challenges our country faced at that time were the very ones we were perfectly positioned to navigate,” said Quaye. “We were already occupying a digital anti-racism space when COVID hit. And then the deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd happened in such quick succession. Organizations across the country were looking for an agency that could live in that digital space and help them facilitate difficult conversations. And we were poised and eager to help them.” 

When it comes to inspiring social change, Quaye believes the most powerful tool is also the most meaningful: the ability to start a conversation. With a focus on socially responsible communications, Quaye has harnessed the power of storytelling to help local mission-driven organizations increase awareness and reach their goals while building a stronger, more inclusive community.

“We don’t have clients,” notes Quaye. “We have partners.” 

 

Building community through impactful storytelling  

Stories are an essential part of the fabric of society, with common interests and shared values interwoven to shape the way a community develops its social consciousness. Quaye is working to change those shared narratives. One story at a time.  

As an agency, The Narrative Project is on a mission to tell just stories that dismantle harmful narratives, sway public opinion and catalyze policies to end and address the impact of systemic racism. These include key issues such as education, environment, food justice, gender equality, healthcare, justice system reform, police brutality and restorative economic development. 

With a new office in downtown New Haven, the company has grown over the past three years to serve more than 30 organization partners with a full-time staff of 15 employees. The Narrative Project’s partner list has included names like the ACLU of Connecticut, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Connecticut Justice Alliance, the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale and Human Rights Funders Network.  

“Communications is the way you tell people about your mission or announce a new initiative or brand identity,” said Quaye. “But it can also shape public opinion. The key is to be authentic and implement those beliefs and practices within your own organization to create a workplace that is respectful and compassionate. When we tell stories, we build community.” 

Leading through example 

Launching a new business is always a risky venture. Launching a new business during a global pandemic is unchartered territory. There were no playbooks to follow, and even the most comprehensive business plans were obsolete by spring 2020. Quaye recounts that it was not an easy task to convince partners and new hires that her startup was secure. According to Quaye, those who left their jobs to join The Narrative Project during that time risked a great deal, while others were exhibiting a noticeable strain from the stress of layoffs and unemployment experienced because of COVID. 

“The path wasn’t easy. Although I had been consulting under The Narrative Project for years and was well known in the field of journalism, none of that name recognition bled over to the team I was building amid a global pandemic and the social awakening happening in our country at that time,” said Quaye. “Staffing a growing agency during a pandemic was the biggest challenge. Now, having made it through the pandemic successfully, our team has more than quadrupled in size and our portfolio of partners has done the same.” 

That success can be attributed to Quaye’s determination to build The Narrative Project on the very principles she espouses, a commitment to positive societal change in the community. And for her company, that included creating a workplace with clearly defined people-centered policies. The agency’s day-to-day operations are rooted in anti-racist, socially responsible policy and clearly expressed in the team’s work culture.  

“Because of my own past professional experience, I never want to undermine my staff or cause them to question their own judgment,” explained Quaye. “We respect personal commitments and the demands that come from being an adult. That is why we’ve created office policies based on data and research that also encourage personal well-being.” 

While most PR agencies will accept clients on any range of issues, The Narrative Project has a set criteria of core values and issues that organizations must align with to be considered clients.   

“I firmly believe that if you do not practice the values you espouse, that is grounds for termination for both employees and partners,” said Quaye. “We draw a clear line, but what has surprised me the most is how many are willing to show up for those types of principles. I’m grateful we have partners who are willing to support new innovative ideas on how to conduct business.” 

 

Building a career of positive impact 

According to Quaye, the relationships she formed as a student at Quinnipiac helped to solidify her passion for journalism and social justice while driving her motivation to pursue a career that is not only personally fulfilling but also one of positive impact. 

With aspirations to be a foreign correspondent from a young age, Quaye dedicated her skills and talents to furthering the art of storytelling in communications. As a student at Quinnipiac, she majored in journalism and discovered a love for local reporting. After graduation, she returned to Quinnipiac to earn her master’s degree in public relations, social media and applied communications while pursuing a career that included positions as a full-time reporter for the New Haven Register, columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media and communications director for New Haven’s Board of Education.  

During her time with Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) in 2015, Quaye informally organized a series of talks at a local New Haven coffee shop to explore the intersection of race, gender and social justice in the city. As her reputation grew as a facilitator, more organizations began to reach out, asking her to lead training sessions or online narrative workshops.  

While maintaining a successful communications career, Quaye continued to build on the foundation of The Narrative Project, moving the initiative from small group discussions to organized public events such as social justice film screenings of “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” privilege walks, panel discussions and a “die-in” on the New Haven Green where protesters laid on the ground as if they were dead. 

As requests to partner with organizations grew, she transitioned The Narrative Project into a limited liability company (LLC) in 2017 to explore consulting work while juggling a new position in the communications department at Yale University. In 2019, she made the commitment to launch The Narrative Project as a formal public relations agency, rented office space in New Haven, resigned from Yale and hired her first employee. The rest, as they say, is history.  

In May, The Narrative Project was awarded a congressional citation from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in recognition of its anti-racist communications service. Politicians, community leaders and residents celebrated the project’s three years of community service during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the agency’s new 7,500-square-foot offices in downtown New Haven.  

Quaye said the agency’s future plans include advancing her anti-racist communications public relations model, RAISED, to the public. RAISED, which stands for research, act/acknowledge, interrogate, sample, enhance and deliver, was developed by The Narrative Project to create strategic, anti-racist public relations plans for their partners. In addition, Quaye and her team have their eyes set on expansion into Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, locations specifically targeted for problematic issues that impact communities of color and people from low-income backgrounds. 

 

Full circle from QU student to teacher 

Harvesting the social activism seeds planted at Quinnipiac, Quaye continues to give back to her alma mater by fostering meaningful conversations in the classroom and cultivating a culture of inclusion on campus and throughout the greater community.  

Today, Quaye has come full circle from student to teacher. This fall, she was invited to teach at Quinnipiac University and may soon be gracing the classrooms as an adjunct professor of public relations and journalism in the School of Communications. 

In this role, and through student fellowship opportunities with The Narrative Project, she is actively guiding future generations of students as a mentor, teacher and role model.  

“The policies that I created at The Narrative Project are rooted in the commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice that were emphasized during my time at Quinnipiac,” said Quaye. “During my journey, I think what has surprised me the most is the realization of just how valuable I can be to affect change in the world. While I work to propose a new model for public relations, these relationships I formed in college have proven invaluable to me. I’m forever grateful for my time at QU.” 

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