Beneath a church on a quiet street lined with bungalow-style homes and mature trees in Charlotte’s historic Camp Greene neighborhood, lies a new creative space and coffee shop buzzing with possibilities.
With the support of more than 30 corporate and community partners, local nonprofit Do Greater Charlotte has transformed the underutilized space under Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church into CRTV Lab at Shiloh, a high-tech creative hub for teens.
Every inch of the CRTV (pronounced “Creative”) Lab is packed with innovation and intention. The expansive 8,000-square-foot space includes rooms for workshops and meetings, a maker space, and four studios equipped for podcasting, photography, video and music production.
During school hours, the location functions as a coworking and meeting space for adults, and a full-service coffee shop for the community, called CRTV Lab Coffee. Revenue from the coffee shop and workspace rentals are reinvested in the organization to ensure space, technology and classes remain free for youth.
Developed in partnership with Enderly Coffee Co., the coffee shop also provides real-world business opportunities for students studying design, entrepreneurship and other fields to apply their new skills.
In 2019, Do Greater launched its Mobile CRTV Lab, a delivery truck turned mobile classroom that included broadband, iPads, laptops and other tech tools for underserved youth. But the pandemic, which isolated kids at home and raised concerns about social distancing, made it clear a larger, fully equipped space that could accommodate more kids was also needed.
The new location, which opened in November 2022, provides a permanent home for the organization and creative space for area youth.
From its programming and tech tools to the unique “creative collisions” it aims to foster between area youth and professionals, Do Greater is disrupting the status quo.
Targeting two Corridors of Opportunity
The CRTV Lab at Shiloh, located at 2400 Greenland Ave., is on the Freedom Drive/Wilkinson Boulevard corridor, one of six areas identified by the city of Charlotte as Corridors of Opportunity.
According to the Corridors of Opportunity Workforce Analysis, released in December 2021, the 2019 poverty rate along the Freedom, Wilkinson and West Boulevard corridors was more than twice the average rate in Charlotte and the highest among all Opportunity Corridors. The study also found:
- Rates of violent crime were three times higher in these corridors than the rest of Charlotte.
- Nearly 20% of youth ages 16-19 living in these areas were not enrolled in school or employed.
- About the same percentage of area youth ages 16-24 were unemployed.
It is those young people that Do Greater is trying to reach through its innovative programming, said CEO and founder William “Coach Mac” McNeely Jr.
“Our niche is working through what we call creative confidence,” he said. “And that’s really the ability for our kids to understand that their ideas matter and … can change the world.”
Technology provides the tools but takes a back seat to creativity, which remains the focus, he said.
A vision to provide access and build creative confidence
For McNeely, the inspiration behind Do Greater is personal on many levels. He grew up on Charlotte’s west side and as a youth attended Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church when it was still located on Bruns Avenue.
He saw how access to resources and opportunities affected his own trajectory and that of his siblings.
Attending school in the late 1970s and ‘80s, McNeely said they were part of the first generation to experience cross-town busing and benefit from efforts to desegregate schools after the Supreme Court’s Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling.
Up until then, his life had been bounded by the neighborhoods boundaries he grew up in around the Clanton Road area.
Raised in a single-parent home, McNeely said his mother tried her best to expose him and his siblings to new things, but it wasn’t easy. As they entered into south Charlotte schools, she advised them to take advantage of every opportunity they could — so they did.
McNeely and his siblings — two brothers and a sister — got involved in a variety of activities at South Mecklenburg High School, including music, sports, ROTC and student council. He said these experiences showed them what was possible.
“We got that confidence that, being exposed to these things, we can do it just like anybody else, and so we started doing it,” he said.
Before long, McNeely said the “four kids from the ‘hood” headed to major universities to continue their education. He believes it was the combination of access and confidence that made the difference for them.
Around 2015, McNeely, by then in his early 50s, started exploring ways he could do something meaningful to leave a legacy in the Charlotte community. Looking back, he realized that both professionally and as a volunteer — serving on nonprofit boards and coaching football — he had always focused on helping people, especially youth, reach their full potential.
McNeely worked at Apple as a market development executive serving K-12 and higher education clients and also spent several years teaching in middle schools with vastly different resources. He wondered how he could tap into those experiences to make a difference.
These thoughts were still percolating when he suddenly became ill.
In 2016, McNeely was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal illness that scars the lungs and makes breathing progressively more difficult. For the next three years, he carried multiple oxygen tanks with him — needing to stay connected with them 24/7 just to survive.
He stopped working, but instead of slowing down his volunteer work, he got more involved in the community.
At the end of 2018, McNeely’s situation became dire. In early 2019, he was admitted to Duke University Hospital for evaluation and the intense preparation required for a potential lung transplant. After a week of tests, his doctor told him he only had a couple of weeks to get approved before he would either be too weak for a transplant or pass away.
A few days after being added to the transplant list, McNeely got the call for his life-saving double lung transplant.
“I have a picture of myself being wheeled back into the operating room with an iPad on my lap, that they had to take from me, and it was all the plans for Do Greater after the surgery,” he said. “So, it was an understanding that, OK, I’m getting ready to go into this 15-hour surgery, but on the other side I already have the plans getting ready to be activated.”
The transplant gave him a second chance at life. Within a couple of months, he was back in Charlotte putting those ideas into action.
A transformative space for the creative community
Kelsey Van Dyke, Do Greater’s director of educational innovation and technology, said the new CRTV Lab has been transformative for the creative and entrepreneurial community on the west side.
“There’s not affordable space, necessarily, being offered,” she said. “As soon as students walk in, they’re like, ‘Whoa, this exists for me?’ [We’re] excited to be able to expand our offerings for them.”
Do Greater gets kids in the door with its programming, but what it offers goes beyond its classes and cool tech tools. Take The Art of DJing, for instance — a music education after-school program supporting young creators exploring their passion for music.
Do Greater partnered with BackSpinz Music Academy to present a 12-week curriculum to a cohort of middle school and high school kids. On a recent Thursday night, about 15 teens sat in front of laptops and digital controllers. With their headphones on, the room was absolutely silent. They were deeply immersed in practicing their technique blending and mixing music tracks before they’d be put to the test.
“This is it … your first paying gig right here today, if you’re the last one standing,” announced their instructor and BackSpinz founder Claude Whitfield Jr., waving a Visa gift card in the air.
Later, as kids came up to take their shot, Whitfield talked through technique and what they could expect when they actually DJ — from the table height to taking requests to dealing with stage fright that causes shaky hands.
The course gives participants the technical know-how behind DJing and music production, but it also takes things a step further. It delves into financial literacy and introduces them to other tools and skills needed to create a business, such as building a brand, marketing and setting up an accounting system.
It all aligns with Do Greater’s strategy, McNeely said, of providing creative opportunities through the lens of things kids already love to do, like fashion, sports, music and videography.
“That’s the sexy way of getting kids in here,” he said.
Once they are engaged, it opens up opportunities to help them develop other key “soft skills” that employers look for, he said, including strategic thinking, collaboration, innovation and creativity.
Since the CRTV Lab is also being used by corporate and community partners, students get the chance to observe and interact with professionals. One of Do Greater’s key objectives is seeing how often they can create opportunities for “creative collisions,” that is, bringing students into close proximity with professionals.
Plans are currently underway for Do Greater’s entrepreneurship cohort of teens to interact with adult professionals learning the same curriculum as part of the Creative Entrepreneurs Initiative organized by Charlotte is Creative, one of Do Greater’s most engaged community partners.
By intertwining those programs, McNeely said “kids can see what they are doing on paper … actually happening and being utilized in other people’s careers.”
Teens are also getting real-life professional experiences.
Northwest School of the Arts freshman Aspen Hamilton has only been coming to the CRTV Lab for a few weeks, but she’s already involved in two different initiatives. Part of the Thursday evening DJing cohort, she’s also working on a special graphic design project, along with three other high school students, to create T-shirts and other branding materials for Knothole Foundation.
The nonprofit recently redeveloped land on Tuckaseegee Road to create state-of-the-art athletic fields and an education center for underserved youth and hired the students as designers for its official dedication ceremony, as featured in Queen City Nerve’s March 8 issue.
It’s a paid gig for the teens, who are being mentored by local artist and designer Marcus Kiser, whose resume includes working with the NBA during the 2019 All-Star Weekend in Charlotte and designing an apparel collection for the Charlotte Hornets’ fan shop.
Hamilton said she’s glad her mom signed her up for the DJ course.
“It’s given me something to do after school ’cause, even though I go to an art school, we don’t have a lot of things to do after school club-wise … nothing really interested me too much, so I just haven’t done anything,” Hamilton said. “I just sit at home on my phone, and I was like, there’s a better way to spend my time.”
She’s looking forward to other opportunities, including learning about podcasting and using the CRTV Lab’s studio to record her own podcast someday. The tech available to pursue creative projects is all new to Hamilton, as she’s only used her phone or writing tools to bring her ideas to life.
“To finally have some equipment is really exciting,” she said, “and that’s why I really like Do Greater because it gives us chances, for people like me, who can’t really afford to buy it on their own but they can still get the high quality for whatever project they’re working on.”
Bringing new opportunities to the neighborhood
The CRTV Lab is also accessible to corporate partners and professionals with memberships, who use the space as a coworking site during school hours, allowing for Do Greater to carry out a sustainability model (pricing for rentals and co-working is still being beta-tested).
But some of the most enthusiastic responses have come from the general community, said Do Greater’s operations and events director Candice Kelly.
“Folks who walk in and [say], ‘I had no idea this was here but I need this and I need to tell my grandkids about this,’ they just want to be a part of everything,” she said.
They ask about donating, volunteering and participating in programming.
“We’ve been running as fast as we can to try to keep up,” Kelly said.
Stephanie Stenglein, president of the Historic Camp Greene Neighborhood Association, said Do Greater’s CRTV Lab provides a much-needed space for local meetings and events.
“I think people are blown away when they walk in,” she said. “[At] Shiloh Church, which we love, and has been there, we have the community garden, we have the little library. Then they walk into this really cool tech space with a full-fledged coffee shop. People are blown away, especially legacy neighbors, by how cool it is and that their neighborhood has something like this now. I mean, it’s pretty awesome.”
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, too. Stenglein said her group was pleased they could direct funds from a City of Charlotte Neighborhood Matching Grant to Do Greater to purchase three of the six 3D printers available at the CRTV Lab.
For McNeely and his team, the next challenge is building capacity with a new round of funding.
“We operate like a start up,” he said. “We don’t necessarily talk like a nonprofit.”
He needs more staff and program directors to meet the demand and serve more kids.
“Our vision” McNeely said, “is to have one of these in every Corridor of Opportunity.”
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