Q&A / Kevin Heffernan and Rise Collaborative/No Boundaries
Photo by kc kratt
He says he’s not out to save this city, but he and his partners have goals nearly as ambitious. Kevin Heffernan, who, with Drew Brown and Bridget Schaefer, cofounded Rise Collaborative and No Boundaries print production, is on a mission to get people to think differently, cultivate empathy and break down stereotypes. The West Seneca native, freelance content strategist, and social media manager, is one of a group of young people—twenty- to thirty-year-olds—who are putting their skills and experiences to work promoting, revealing, supporting, and celebrating the whole city of Buffalo, not just the parts most familiar within given social media bubbles. This means exploring the East Side, Riverside, Old First Ward, and The Valley. It means exposing problems and showcasing authentic voices to tell stories that inspire empathy, and solutions. Call him an activist-entrepreneur, but don’t call him anything less than dead serious.
Heffernan’s two-pronged approach to reenergizing and engaging Buffalo includes Rise Collaborative—which started in 2014 as an Instagram account and t-shirt sales business before expanding into party planning, blogging, video production, and more—as the fun, promotional, let’s-support-local-business track. No Boundaries—a semiannual newspaper and an ongoing blog, podcast, and video series—is the thoughtful platform for discussion of issues like homelessness and racial equality. Both ventures herald voices of an emerging leadership with new ways of reaching out.
This fall, you will unveil a third edition of No Boundaries, which has been picking up ex-pat subscribers from around the country. How did this happen?
I studied German and International Relations at Canisius College and had a chance while there to spend time in El Salvador and India—trips that opened up my eyes to a wider world and triggered my interest in social justice. Rise grew out of planning with friends Drew Brown and Bridget Schaefer; we wanted to do more to promote and realize a Buffalo renaissance, and formed a collaborative based on our skill sets. At the moment, we are all keeping our day jobs—Drew is marketing manager for Visit Buffalo Niagara, and Bridget is director of hospitality at Larkinville. I’m a freelance social media manager for several clients, and I also teach spinning classes at the Jewish Community Center and Revolution in Buffalo. We started out online promoting local businesses, small enterprises that we thought more people should hear about. It’s part of our vision for the city, which seemed poised, when we started all this three years ago, to finally move forward. We noticed all the momentum, the media attention, seemed to be on the same big developers and their projects. All good, but no one was really talking about small businesses, the ones worthy of promotion because they are truly risk-taking. Our take was that someone considering moving to Buffalo doesn’t really care that the old AM&A’s building is being turned into lofts. They want to know this is a fun, happening place. Our goal has been to provide a cool, authentic, different voice that appeals to our generation. We started featuring some of the new entrepreneurs in our blogs with short posts, fun photos, and laid-back language. We creatively promoted new businesses—for example, Billy Club, an Allentown restaurant, attracted a whole new following when we produced a step-by-step cocktail video that ended with an invitation to a party there. That night, they featured specially priced cocktails, with one dollar from each sold going to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. It was a cross-promotion that was clever and mutually beneficial, introducing a new venue—and it was fun!
You could have stopped at party-planning. Why venture into the newspaper business?
We wanted to do more. So our focus has been to ensure the city’s renaissance is more inclusive. We knew we needed help with that, so we reached out. Our first partner, for the first issue of No Boundaries, was Open Buffalo, a community movement that fosters equality and economic justice. They helped curate our content with a focus on social, racial, and economic issues. Our second issue was all about homelessness, a topic we explored in partnership with the Matt Urban Hope Center. We were previously white West Side residents; now we were talking authentically about East Side issues.
Everything you and your partners are doing—from planning special events to producing a steady stream of online and print content with a social justice slant—costs money. Tell us how that works.
We need Rise to promote No Boundaries. We’ve applied for some grants, and we are looking into corporate sponsorships. To produce more ambitious content, we need more experienced writers, and we have to pay for that. We have a new monthly podcast, Extra By No Boundaries, the work of Holly Kirkpatrick, a writer who approached us with a plan and some great ideas—her first podcast was about Buffalo veterans dealing with PTSD by playing sled hockey. Andrew Meyer is the engineer, and it is very professional, does not sound at all like something produced in somebody’s basement. We want to do the best we can. We try to walk this fine line in our mission: yes, this city is coming back, but we are still one of the poorest cities in the nation. We cannot ignore that. How do we create job opportunities and jobs with justice? How are women empowered in this city’s renaissance? These are issues to explore, and we are looking for innovative ways to fund that effort. We raise money through events; last year we threw a Halloween party at The Waiting Room on Delaware that sold out, 750 tickets at $50 each. It was a nineties party, hugely popular, so we’ll probably do it again. We had to pay for the venue, and we paid for a DJ and a live band, but our promotion budget was only $350.We made it work, and made some money for ourselves.
In fact, that was the first time we got to put some money in our personal bank accounts. But that was bonus income. We operate on sponsorship dollars, selling ad space, and some creative partnering. We get assistance with distribution of the newspaper from Canisius communication students, who get course credit for the work. Next up, we are hoping to do a video newscast. We want to tell more stories that aren’t being told, to highlight underserved neighborhoods. It just costs so much to produce video; for that we need corporate sponsors. Our work, and our delivery of it, is ever evolving. But it has to be, first and foremost, mission driven. We are in the very beginning stages of growing something bigger. One day, when we are the giant production company, we will be doing the hiring, and practice what we preach!
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.