At ConnCORP Juneteenth, It's All In The Family

Jayla Anderson | June 21st, 2023

At ConnCORP Juneteenth, It's All In The Family

Black-owned businesses  |  Culture & Community  |  Hamden  |  Juneteenth  |  Arts & Culture  |  WNHH  |  Youth Arts Journalism Initiative  |  ConnCORP  |  Arts & Anti-racism


ConnCORP's Juneteenth & 5 Year Anniversary Committee. Jayla Anderson Photos.

With an anticipatory smile, Myles Tripp gazed into the crowd of entrepreneurs, families, and celebrators alike. “What is another name for Juneteenth?” he asked, looking around the room. The bright light of his phone glowed from his hand.

The crowd erupted in shouts as trivia participants competed in answering correctly—but it was too late. Attendee Kia Levey-Burden was already making her way to the stage, to claim the gift bag and gift card she had just won.

That was the scene at The Lab at ConnCORP (Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program) this past Saturday, as ConnCORP's Juneteenth & 5 Year Anniversary Committee headed a Juneteenth observance that doubled as a five-year anniversary for the organization.  From trivia and free food to an all-ages bouncy castle, the day was full of celebration for ConnCORP, which was born in 2018 and has weathered a global pandemic.

The Lab at ConnCORP, located at 496 Newhall St. in Hamden, was the location of the event. Over four hours, hundreds came out to experience Black-owned businesses, free food, educational games, crafting, dance, music and more. 


Happy winner Kia Levey-Burden.

“Everything came together naturally, and we weren’t going to let mother nature stop us,” said Tripp, director of audience development at ConnCORP. When it became clear to him that rain might spoil the afternoon, initially designed as a cookout, he moved the celebration into what he affectionately calls the Lab’s “cafegymatorium.” The mission of the event never changed. 

“The themes of the event are love, change, evolution, and abundance,” Tripp said. “We kept them in mind while planning the event.”

All of those filled the air as the “Cupid Shuffle” transitioned into the “Electric Slide” on a makeshift dance floor and bodies moved in celebration, regardless of their acquaintance with fellow dancers. It seemed that everyone, whether a newcomer or a longtime friend of the Lab, was a part of the ConnCORP family. 

“The freedom behind Juneteenth prompted us to make everything we offer free, and have a place to celebrate,” said community liaison Daniel Hunt, a fellow member of the Juneteenth & 5 Year Anniversary Committee. And celebrate they did. The building was electric as families and friends flocked in, intrigued by what the afternoon had to offer. 


Sharon McDuffie of Lady Pop Gourmet Popcorn. 

Scattered around the space, Black business owners manned their stations, proudly presenting their products. Each table had something new to offer—in one corner you could buy yourself a new purse, across the room you could find yourself a new tailor and stylist.

Though all the businesses have individual experiences with ConnCORP, their assessments of ConnCORP’s work in the community were often indistinguishable.

Along one wall stood Sharon McDuffie’s family business, Lady Pop Gourmet Popcorn.  McDuffie, who helms the business with her daughter Russhell and 7-year-old relative Joseph, said the business was a perfect fit for a collaboration with ConnCORP.

“We love ConnCORP,” the mother-daughter pair sang in unison. Saturday marked her first time with the organization, “and I love it.”

McDuffie didn’t always see herself going into the gourmet popcorn business, she said. Initially, she bought a popcorn machine to jumpstart a rental business. But she found herself putting the machine to use—a lot of use. In 2017 she turned the hobby into a business. 

“When I first started making it, the popcorn wasn’t very good,” she remembered with a laugh. “But I just kept going and now it’s very good.”

As she motioned to an array of popcorn, McDuffie seemed to embody what ConnCORP was looking for—ambitious Black business owners.  She joked that her ambition helped get her out of bed Saturday, to turn out fresh, seasoned batches of popcorn that would still be crisp and flavorful at the event. 


Down the line of businesses stood Kobéy Smith, the owner of Kobéy. Inspired by Smith’s own journey through mental health and wellness, the business sells bracelets and clothing items, and also produces a podcast. For Smith, who works full time as the innovation and entrepreneurship coordinator at Albertus Magnus College, it was a way to grow his own business dreams.

“Being an entrepreneur has always been a dream of mine, especially after watching ‘Shark Tank,’” Smith said. 

With one year of business beneath his belt, Smith also took Saturday as a chance to honor a year of collaboration with ConnCORP. “ConnCORP has been very supportive of my business,” he said. “They always invite me to events, and I’ve been able to build a relationship with them.”


Lillian Pearson of Elle Dot Kaye.

That was also true for Lillian Pearson, owner of Elle Dot Kay Styling & Design Company. Inspired by her own experience in menswear, Pearson is a personal stylist and tailor. From personalized shopping to designing custom pieces, she said she works with a mission and goal to center and celebrate all of her clients. 

“My goal is for my clients’ confidence and personal style to be connected,” Pearson said. “I want to take this opportunity to be different and produce pieces my clients can feel confident in.”

Constructing an all-inclusive, detail-oriented space for her clients is important to Pearson, she said. As a grant recipient and recent graduate from ConnCORP’s partnership with Quinnipiac University, she’s been able to hone her craft with support from the Lab. After meeting the Black Excellence Committee (now the Juneteenth & 5 Year Anniversary Committee) during last year’s fashion show and backpack giveaway, she was eager to return for another event. 

“ConnCORP has been absolutely amazing in supporting my business and expanding opportunities for me as a Black entrepreneur,” she said.


Amid the buzzing business, game tables and a crown-making station also filled the room. In a bouncy castle, kids bounced along to the music. Nearby, guests served themselves cotton candy and popcorn from machines that the committee had set up before guests arrived.

In the entrance hall outside, an array of cookout-inspired food provided by the culinary team at Orchid Café, which supports ConnCAT’s culinary arts students, waited for hungry attendees. 

The event also took time to celebrate ConnCORP’s last five years, which have included exponential growth and support of Black business at both the Lab and on Dixwell Avenue, where ConnCAT Place will soon replace a midcentury shopping plaza and former Elks Lodge.  

Founded by Erik Clemons and Carlton Highsmith in 2018 as an extension of their organization, the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), ConnCORP seeks to expand ConnCAT’s mission and provide opportunities to New Haven’s underserved residents.


ConnCORP CEO and Founder Erik Clemons. 

“ConnCORP was conceived out of wanting to create an impact and opportunity in New Haven,” Clemons, who is currently the chief executive officer, said. “Our mission is to aggressively address the poverty that is at the center of our ethos.” 

Part of that work is ConnCORP’s Economic Justice Fund (EJF). Through the EJF, ConnCORP has supported 10 local businesses within its first cohort of grant recipients, as well as a partnership between the Quinnipiac Entrepreneurship Academy and ConnCORP’s entrepreneurial program.

In that partnership, 18 small businesses owned by women and people of color have accelerated in skill and growth in the Greater New Haven-Hamden area. Making an appearance this past Saturday, seven of ConnCORP’s affiliate companies made a home at The Lab at ConnCORP. 

“At ConnCORP we like to keep it all in the family,” Tripp said. “Here you get a bit of everything.”

“Today’s Juneteenth event is about identifying and uplifting the possibility of community,” Clemons said. “The success of this event and the businesses we invest in is an outgrowth of the success of ConnCAT.” 

To listen to an episode of WNHH Community Radio's "Arts Respond" with ConnCORP's Myles Tripp, Daniel Hunt and Elaine Roper, click on the audio above. Jayla Anderson is a rising senior at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School and an alum of the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative.