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Crystal C. Mercer's activism bleeds into promoting Arkansas businesses 

A Q&A with the new executive director of Local First Arkansas.

click to enlarge Crystal C. Mercer - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Crystal C. Mercer

As a Clinton School of Public Service student, you recently spent seven months in Ghana working on your international public service project. How did it feel to arrive there?

It was a true return. ... We survived the Middle Passage. We survived the inhumanity and injustice of slavery and Jim Crow. We are surviving to this very day, that undercurrent of racism, where you have to explain your existence in a world where you should just be. And I just got to be myself. It was so freeing. I usually feel like someone is choking me, because America is stressful and I'm angry most of the time. I'm angry that people aren't angry about what's happening. A week into living in Ghana, it felt like fingers were lifting from my throat, and I could breathe. I felt like I could speak freely. And when I walked into a room, I wasn't the only black person in the room. Or if I walked into a space, nobody questioned why I was there.

Has the cultural shift to being back in the States been difficult for you?

Yes. Ghana was deliciously black. ... We have a parallel story, as in Little Rock and Ghana, because of the Central High desegregation crisis of 1957. My late father, attorney Christopher C. Mercer, was the field secretary for the NAACP that year. Central desegregated in '57, Ghana gained her independence in '57, so I felt like instantly I was at home.

What are your responsibilities as the new executive director of Local First Arkansas, a nonprofit dedicated to creating and supporting an alliance of locally owned, independent businesses?

I have a lot to do, and I have a lot that I want to do. ... With my creative background, [I'm] creating signature programming. I want to introduce some merchandise that will help brand us better, and things that we can give as a gift to our membership, but [also] for other people to know who we are and what we do to build this sustainable community of local business owners. Whenever you go to a city or a town, that's what gives it its flavor. If you go to New Orleans, you know you're gonna eat some gumbo, have some beignets, listen to some jazz. If you go to Memphis, it's gonna be barbeque and blues. So when you go to a place, what does that place say to you? What is that place's signature? ... Local First Arkansas serves the whole state of Arkansas, so when I think about Arkansas, The Natural State, I think about lakes and rivers and historical markers and mom and pop shops and long dirt roads. That poetic, Southern charm, wanting to preserve that essence. People come through here ... they want to go to the River Market, or hang out in the Delta and go to the Delta Cultural Center [in Helena-West Helena] and sit in those huge rocking chairs and watch the river flow. They want to float the Buffalo. Things that are signature to our state, that are chill and peaceful.

What projects are you excited about for Local First?

Well, No. 1, including businesses of color. That's going to be a big push for me because I'm a woman of color, and just because I'm black doesn't mean that everything I have to do is all black, but black people will be a part of the conversation. And my team knows that, because I want to free black people, so the work that I do as an artist and an activist bleeds over into every aspect. Some really good advice that my friend Chauncey Holloman gave at the Black Women in Business panel was, "Bring all of the 'yous' to the table. Bring the you that you think people don't want because that may be the one thing that saves a business or changes the conversation."

What impact do you hope to make on the state?

I want to continue to make people feel at home and to know that Arkansas, even though she entered the Union as a slave state, this ain't no slave state. It's The Natural State. It's a beautiful state. And that's the state I want to be in, in my natural state. That's what I'm most excited about. I think who I am as a person is just going to add a lot of spunk and vigor to the organization, and my travels around the state and around the world will just inform more of what we can do to sustainably build our communities up.  

Does it feel strange to be back in your hometown after all your travels?

No, because I know that I can leave. Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, taught me [something] a long time ago. She said, "You don't have to hate a place to go. You can just go." She freed me. ... It feels good to be back because I love home. I left in love and I came back with that same love in my heart for Arkansas. I feel like I still will visit places and educate myself. I feel like in order to change the world, you have to see the world. For those who will never leave and continue to build this up from the ground level, you need some foot soldiers who will go out in the world and go get it. ... I will leave, and I can leave, because you don't have to hate a place to go.

Name: Crystal C. Mercer

Birthplace: Little Rock

Age: 35

Job: Executive director of Local First Arkansas, lead merchant and designer of Mercer Textile Mercantile, Clinton School of Public Service student

Volunteer jobs: Speaking at various organizations in the community, volunteering with Our House and the Little Rock School District

Hobbies: "Reading, cooking, gymming, staying hydrated and staying woke."

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