Nicole McGee has made a career out of finding beauty in the small items most people discard.
With help from the CWRU Community Development Clinic, she launched a nonprofit business while playing a key role in revitalizing a Cleveland neighborhood.
In 2014, McGee and her business partner Devon Fegen-Herdman created Upcycle Parts Shop, a hybrid thrift and craft-supply store that takes materials that would otherwise go to a landfill and helps the community reimagine them as art.
“Upcycle Parts Shop was created with sustainability and the environment in mind,” said Fegen-Herdman. “Creative reuse centers like our store are all about waste diversion, creating and cultivating a secondhand market for discarded items. Since we opened our doors, we’ve repurposed 25 tons of material that would have become trash.”
For both McGee and Fegen-Herdman, their corner craft supply store serves an additional and equally important purpose.
“The reason we started Upcycle was to engage authentically with our community,” said McGee. “Our backgrounds are in community organizing and social work, so this shop is an expression of what is important to us and the St. Clair neighborhood.”
For the last five years, Upcycle Parts Shop has operated as a social enterprise under the wing of the St. Clair-Superior Development Corporation (SCSDC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the revitalization of the neighborhood by creating social and economic opportunities in the area. While Upcycle Parts Shop looks like a regular store, the central idea was to create a space where neighbors can gather together, tap into their creativity and build a sense of community.
“In the last few years, we’ve worked to create different community activities with our shop serving as a hub,” said Fegen-Herdman. “From Crafting with Cops, Pull Up a Chair St. Clair, free crafting classes and cookouts, we are always looking to come up with ideas that can help us engage with the community and bring the neighborhood together.”
Today, with help from the CWRU Law Community Development Clinic, McGee and Fegen-Herdman are ready to move out from under the wing of the SDSDC and become their own nonprofit organization.
“We were so fortunate to be incubated under SCSDC,” said McGee. “They allowed us to focus on our core business model and community impact without having to plan for so many of the aspects of a startup. We were both so new to this at the time that it wouldn’t have been possible to do this by ourselves, but now that we’re established and have a great team, we felt it was time to take the next step forward and go out on our own.”
Under the supervision of Professor Matthew Rossman, Wenxing Chi, Noah Kaim and Richard Urban spent their third year of law school helping to spin off Upcycle Parts Shop into its own nonprofit by performing a wide range of legal work that included filing articles of incorporation, applying for federal tax exempt status, reviewing the organization’s lease and preparing a separation agreement to transfer Upcycle’s operations to a different entity.
“It was a great experience for me,” said Chi. “They were such wonderful clients and passionate about what they want to achieve. Working under Matt’s guidance, I learned a lot about client engagement and the importance of developing good communication in an attorney-client relationship.”
In addition to the legal work of moving Upcycle into its own 501(c)(3), the clinic team was tasked to run the inaugural board meeting.
“The board hadn’t selected the directors yet, so we were put in charge of the first meeting,” said Kaim. “Obviously, this isn’t something that any of us had experience in, but Matt helped us every step of the way, running three or four practice rounds where he asked us a lot of tough questions. By the time the real meeting happened, we were all comfortable with what we were doing and it went really well.”
While the work to spin off Upcycle Parts Shop is still ongoing, McGee and Fegen-Herdman learned this summer that the IRS had approved Upcycle’s 501(c)(3) application for tax exemption, months earlier than expected. Professor Rossman believes the speedy approval is a testament to the quality of the research performed by the CDC’s legal interns, which also included Class of 2018 graduates James Oliver and Madison Melinek, and their careful preparation of the application. “At a time when many applications are languishing before the IRS, our client had a great result,” said Rossman. “I’m thrilled that our teams had the chance to experience first-hand the value added by capable and thoughtful legal representation.”
“The work the students have done to help us in the last year has been amazing,” said McGee. “They’ve handled so many tasks that would have required our full-time focus or extensive legal costs. The clinic does so much for this area. It is great to have partnerships like this that are dedicated to building a better community.”