Mercy Gives a Voice to Social Justice—One Story At a Time
Entrepreneurs take enormous risks. But few would have the gumption to create an anti-capitalist business in the home of capitalism. Think of it as a kinder company. In an age where everything is public, it’s a highwire act that could come crashing to the ground.
The company is not a utopian fantasy in a rural hippie commune. Mercy A. Quaye is the founder of The Narrative Project (TNP), a public relations and communications firm based in New Haven, Connecticut. She seeks to build a new way of working where employees are treated humanely, and the business makes money.
TNP is “Connecticut’s only anti-racist public relations firm” and is proud to be a “queer Black cis women-founded company.” The firm focuses on 12 areas that are among the most polarizing of our time: Education, Ending Poverty, the Environment, Food Justice, Gender Equality, Healthcare, Immigration, Justice System Reform, Police Brutality, Reproductive Rights, Restorative Economic Development and Systemic Racism.
Monday morning meetings and I are like water and oil; however, I make an exception for Mercy because it’s been difficult to find a time that works for her. When I reached out in June 2022, her firm was busy preparing for a two-week paid hiatus, starting the first week of July—the company has a second two-week break in December.
Our telephone conversation in late July begins with Mercy opening up about breaking up with a customer, for only the second time—no names were mentioned. She says, “We try to be really mindful of who we are signing on and who we call partners.” You can hear in her voice that she didn’t arrive at this decision lightly. Nonetheless, breakups are hard and necessary.
The Vetting Process
In 2015, TNP began as a platform for difficult conversations, eventually leading to consulting work in 2017. It was a side hustle while Mercy worked a full-time job during the day. Customers kept coming; the demand persuaded her to leave her communications job at Yale University in late 2019.
Mercy, 32, is a journalist, writer, editor, communicator and social justice advocate who is determined to build a company that reflects her values. As a Black woman raised in New Haven, the intersectionality is present in terms of her age, race, gender and socio-economic status. She wants to create a path that is equitable. In many ways, TNP is aspirational.
Yet, In the end, it is a business that requires balancing competing interests: attracting and keeping “partners” who pay the bills and meeting the constantly changing needs of its 14 employees, who do the work. Add in reinventing the staid public-relations client-customer model, and it’s enough to make you want two aspirin. It’s as if Mercy is spinning plates like a Beijing Acrobat Show, determined not to drop them.
What we are asking for is a new way of working.
Mercy says, “We are looking for organizations who want to partner with us to create a world where companies operate with community care in mind, where the transactional relationship between consultants and clients is completely done away with, and a world where diversity is not just accepted but is appreciated.
“What we are asking for is a new way of working,” Mercy says. She asks, "How do we work together and see the humanity in each other?” This is a profound, thought-provoking question, usually broached in a college philosophy class.
It starts with the vetting process, which has evolved for the firm over the past three years. The firm inquires to see if the partner’s mission is aligned with TNP, like a key fitting into the lock. It’s not simply a take-the-money-at-all-cost view. The work has to be mutually beneficial.
Furthermore, Mercy wants to ensure “people are fully read into how we work.” For her, “That has been the hardest bridge to cross. If folks come in,” she says, “with the expectation that we’re a regular agency, that we will just do what we’re told, the partnership is not going to work out well.”
Connecticut Voices for Children, Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCat), CT Community Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE), Take Action Running, and Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance are some of TNP’s partners.
On May 23, 2022, the third anniversary of the company’s founding on paper, the firm had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open its new 7,500-square-foot office headquarters in downtown New Haven, after outgrowing its 1,400-square-foot office.
Mercy calls her new headquarters “a millennial dream house”—a Disney for social consciousness. The location is close to the New Haven Green and City Hall, where demonstrations and press conferences occur.
It’s all part of the vision and focuses on humanity by elevating the employee. TNP offers unlimited paid personal time off, a hybrid model where staff work in the office three days a week and from home (or wherever) twice a week. There are biweekly staff discussions of James Baldwin’s books. Yes, it’s a different type of company.
The firm’s partners benefit too. There’s a plan in the future to move toward a flat-fee model, where companies pay a fee each month, and if they go over their allotted hours, the firm will provide those hours for free. In theory, the incentive for TNP to focus only on billable hours goes away. And the partners are happy because quality and service are emphasized.
A Happy Partner
John Taylor is the first executive director of the Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven, a charter school approved in the spring of 2014. He presides over a school with over 500 students, from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The academy had a major personnel issue that John describes as “stressful” in 2021. In a board meeting to handle the issue, one name came up: Mercy Quaye. John knew he had to talk to Mercy. “Ten minutes into our conversation, I understood why she was so commonly respected by everybody across our board. She’s amazing—incredibly wise for a person of her age. Her age blows me away, and how seasoned she is in this work.”
John, 57, a former Pittsburgh public school teacher, worked with Mercy and the team. He says, “You don’t even realize you need something until you need it, and it’s there.”
“She stands out in terms of her presentation,” he says. “It’s very clear to you that she’s an expert in what she does, and the level of confidence that she exudes, it’s contagious. I felt we were in great hands.”
Mercy “came to the rescue” and “controlled a narrative that needed to be controlled.” The firm works directly with the school on an ongoing basis. He no longer believes in his old philosophy of “suck it up and ride it out” when it comes to communications. He’s proactive because the stakes are high.
You don’t even realize you need something until you need it, and it’s there.
Mercy doesn’t describe herself as an accidental entrepreneur. She laughs and says, “I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent.”
She studied Islam and Arabic for years with her eyes on the Middle East. While in college, she was scheduled to go on a trip to Egypt, but the trip was canceled due to “political turmoil.”
When she graduated from college, her first job was hyperlocal journalism, paying only $25,000 per year—tuition at her alma mater, Quinnipiac University, was roughly $60,000 annually. She quickly realized the paychecks in journalism were tiny. The dream of being a foreign correspondent died.
Her reporting, journalist and media credentials have grown over the years. As a teenager, she freelanced at the New Haven Independent, the city’s hyperlocal digital newspaper, and worked for the Town Green. At 25, she was the director of communications for the New Haven Board of Education, which oversees the city’s schools.
On the side, Mercy developed workshops for clients and retreats in the early days of TNP. She discovered that “the work of communications and the work of anti-racist understanding were happening in silos.”
After years of building her bona fides in writing, journalism and communications, public relations would be an onramp to advocacy and better pay. “I saw this deep need that wasn’t being met. There was a disconnect between communications and building into the organizational antiracist practices.”
Mercy saw a need to bring it all together. “I wanted to see if there was a way that I could combine those two things and offer it to the market. It wasn’t planned in the long run for me to start an agency.” But she did.
There’s money in public relations. In 2022, there were almost 55,000 public relations firms in the U.S., based on IBIS World data. These firms are expected to generate $17.3 billion in revenue in 2022 with the industry growing roughly 2.5% annually from 2017 to 2022. TNP's revenue is approaching $1 million.
Mercy grew up in a Pentecostal church (no, her father was not a minister, which is a common misconception) where shouting and praise dancing were part of the experience. The word mercy was always heard in the church when she was a young kid.
I got a really acute awareness of what the name Mercy meant.
“I got a really acute awareness of what the name Mercy meant,” she says. “It is hard, I think, to separate my understanding of my name from where I’ve ended up in the world because so much is in a name.”
Mercy is one minute older than her twin sister, Jennifer Akuoko. The sisters have two older brothers, Nathan (the oldest) and Durrell (the second oldest). The family was raised by a father who immigrated from Ghana and a mother who was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her mother’s family of five siblings was part of the Great Migration.
The future couple met at the University of Bridgeport. Mercy’s mother was the first in her family to go to college. Her father, as an immigrant, believed in the power of education to advance in life. Later, the family moved to Georgia and lived “an American dream life,” according to Mercy.
That all changed when Mercy’s parents separated when she was four years old; the divorce came years later, when she was 15. The family moved back to Connecticut and lived with grandparents for a period. Division Street in New Haven in the 1990s and early 2000s was not an ideal place to grow up. The housing project Mercy lived in for a few years was referred to as the “blue dungeon” and was demolished years later to create new housing.
Things improved in 1996, when her mother, 26 at the time, bought a house in New Haven’s West River neighborhood on Judson Avenue, where she still lives today. The grandparents and mother’s siblings moved into the house. Mercy describes it as “the quintessential rise-up-through-the-ranks story.”
The Rivalry: Sister Love
Jennifer remembers Mercy writing in her journal, with the little lock and key across the front cover. “She loved those things. I hated those things because I hated writing.”
Like most siblings, their relationship was like a yo-yo. “There were times that we really got along, and there were times that we really didn’t,” Jennifer says. It was the typical competition most siblings go through.
“Mercy went through a couple of different iterations of like ‘Here’s what I want to be when I grow up.’ I will confirm that she did always want to be a writer,” says Jennifer, “but at one point, she wanted to be a poet, and she was doing spoken word for a really long time, which was really annoying because I had to listen to all of this spoken word, and then she wanted to be a songwriter.”
When Mercy was a teenager, she formed a gospel group with four or five other friends and her sister, Jennifer recalls. Mercy, 15 at the time, wrote the lyrics, and her friends played musical instruments. This would be a “relatively short-lived” experience of about a year. From about 16 or 17, Mercy was focused on being a journalist.
Mercy attended New Haven public schools from kindergarten to eighth grade. She attended Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, a magnet school, where she graduated in 2008. She pursued the Academy of Information Technology (AOIT) track at the school.
Jennifer remembers that Mercy ran track in high school and was involved in cheerleading, the yearbook and the drama and business clubs.
Her private life is not something she leads with, but there are no secrets. Mercy will celebrate six years of marriage to her partner this year. The couple met at an “outdoor store” in college. They have been together for ten years.
(Of all the things we talked about, we didn't spend any time discussing her personal life. This may have been by design on her part—the savvy journalist controlling her narrative.)
Jennifer has been married for five years and has two kids (a boy and a girl). She describes Mercy as a “very energetic auntie” who tries to spend as much time as possible with the kids. She takes them hiking, to the trampoline park, shopping, cooks [with them], and talks to them.
She’d come to my house and just sit with me and hold my hand and be like, what can I do for you in this moment.
When Jennifer went through rough times, Mercy was there for her. “She’d come to my house and just sit with me and hold my hand and be like, what can I do for you in this moment. What do you need?” Now in her thirties, Jennifer states, “I would consider Mercy one of my very best friends. She’s really a committed sister.”
Mercy’s work is rooted in the battle for justice. She’s not the first activist with this passion, and the past has many exemplary idols. She admires Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie, a Black woman who lived from 1917 to 1977, was a community organizer, leader in the civil rights movement, women’s rights and American voting activist.Her famous quote appears in Mercy’s emails: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
She admires Ericka Huggins, who lived in New Haven. Mercy says, “We’re talking about a young activist who wanted nothing else but to follow the tenets of the Black Panther, which was making sure everyone has food, and we’re talking about daycare.”
Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Toni Morrison are other people she respects.
In terms of activist contemporaries, Mercy mentions Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who participated in President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and was a co-founder of Campaign Zero, which is focused on ending police violence. DeRay McKesson is another person she likes. She closes with, “The fight for liberation never ends, and it certainly isn’t done now.”
Mercy created TNP to be a space where people’s humanity is honored. Jennifer believes that Mercy felt her humanity wasn’t honored when she was working for others. She built what she wished she had. A type of capitalism that values the humanity of workers, where they are valued and not used simply to make money—capitalism can be parasitic and extractive.
Capitalism is an economic system that is “me” versus “we,” leaving many people behind. The rising inequality in this country is an example of the downside. Mercy explains, “The system of capitalism needs someone to be on the bottom, in order for some people to be on top. It needs it and because of that, we can never truly trust that kind of system to make monumental change for the people on the bottom because the system needs them to stay there.
“If we even think about the phrase “essential worker,” often what we hear advocates and activists say, ‘Oh, they’re not saying you’re essential, they’re saying you’re disposable.’ And for me, that was never quite it. They are saying you’re essential. They’re saying your suffering is essential to their way of life. They’re saying that your station in life is essential to their way of life. That’s what capitalism requires.”
Expanding on her views of an anti-capitalist company, she explains, “I think BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals and individuals from low-income backgrounds are forced to settle for incrementalism in ways that no other community is forced to.”
A Friend’s Perspective
Ivelisse “Ivi” Morales, an Ansonia, Connecticut native, is the founder of Bombilla (bom-bee-yah), a mission-driven branding and design agency for social change, based in Oakland. She attended Hill Regional Career High School and was friends with Mercy and Jennifer. They graduated together in 2008.
Ivelisse, 33, has lived in the Bay area since 2014. Before that, she graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in communications. Like Mercy, she built her social venture from the ground up and admits the work of an entrepreneur is hard, especially working from home since 2018. Despite the challenges, revenue is approaching $500,000.
“I look up to Mercy a lot,” Ivelisse says, “because to me, she’s figured it out in the way she has been able to scale and grow. And she’s building out her senior-leadership team, delegating the responsibility and some of the decision-making.”
When I think of Mercy, I think of a badass boss.
The friends are now working together. Bombilla has been able to work with TNP to provide design services. In addition, Ivelisse was on the hiring committee that helped Mercy hire a new chief operating officer. “It was great to be able to learn from the experience as well as provide the perspective as an agency CEO in the interview process.”
“When I think of Mercy, I think of a badass boss. She’s very clear and confident. She comes from the world of investigative reporting, and she brings that energy. She asks really great questions. She’s intuitive, intelligent, [has] high awareness, and she has a great personality. She has all the ingredients of a great leader.”
It’s hard to guess what the life force is that drives Mercy. No one thing drives Mercy, from Jennifer’s perspective. “I don’t think there’s any one thing. I think it’s a combination of so many things. I think the craft itself drives her, and I feel really confident saying that because I’ve seen her hone this craft our entire freaking life.”
Social justice is about hope and a better tomorrow. Mercy says, “It is hard to hold onto hope these days because of so much tragedy in the news. So, what gives me hope is looking toward young people because I think at times when we are sick and tired and worried, and exhausted from decades of work, young people don’t have that same kind of exhaustion, and they have clarity of mind when it comes to what justice requires.
And if at times, my lenses ever get cloudy because of the amount of muck that I’ve had to go through, I can always hand them to the generation coming up right now and get inspiration for how to move forward.”
Mercy is doing her part to make society a better place. She says, “I do feel that responsibility, but I feel like everyone should feel that responsibility. I would have felt that responsibility if I was a young Black woman in America who didn’t run a company.
“But I feel doubly responsible now that I run a company. I would love for everyone to think about the world that they can influence and their tiny spheres of influence.”
Howard Thurman, theologian, educator and civil rights leader, is credited with saying: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
At a time when it is easier to turn away in disgust at what is happening in America, Mercy is carrying the torch of social justice as many activists have before her. She is fighting for what she believes and building her firm, one story at a time.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.