In 1967, Sir Richard Branson launched Student magazine, an outlet for young people to have a say in global affairs. Student quickly became widely-read and inspired so many young people to speak up for what they believed in, share their passion, and engage in current affairs.
Nearly 50 years later, a lot has change. Some people seem to think that today’s young generation has lost the drive and energy to take to the streets and cultivate change, growth and cultural education. We disagree, and thanks to our partnership with Donda’s House, we are watching the youth seize the opportunity in creating an environment that inspires, empowers, challenges and produces tomorrow’s problem solvers.
Donda’s House, Inc. provides access to premium arts instruction to youth. As we all know, arts and music programs are routinely the first casualty in schools facing budget crises, specifically institutions in at-risk communities that directly benefit from access to safe environments and developmental opportunities.
The organization launched with the “Got Bars” program in 2013, and to date has served over 200 artists! “Got Bars” was created by Chicago rappers Rhymefest and Kanye West, that offered openmics, rap battles and other creative outlets for budding artists. That collaborative environment ushered in a new era of nonviolent and socially conscious music.
Dr. Donda West, who is remembered as the mother of Kanye West, but warmly regarded as a doctor of education, professor of English, curriculum designer, and founder of Donda’s House, always inspired students to fulfill their potential and inspired her son to be a fearless star.
When a selection of students were here a few months back for a photoshoot for the PROject US program, we had a chance to sit down with Donda’s House Executive Director, Donnie Smith to learn more!
VIRGIN AS A BRAND SHARES SIMILAR VALUES – WITH A FOCUS ON CULTIVATING CREATIVITY AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP. TELL US ABOUT THE PHOTOSHOOT EXPERIENCE AT THE HOTEL WITH YOUR STUDENTS.
As much as possible, we want to place our participants in actual environments, with realistic clients and challenges. Our PROject US Fashion Program hosted our Spring Photoshoot at Virgin Hotels Chicago. Students had to do all of the pre-planning which included putting together looks, mapping out where in the hotel they wanted to shoot, and developing a timeline including hair & makeup to manage the shoot. I’ll never forget one of the students saying they’d never been to a hotel before. And for many of the photographers, this was their first professional photoshoot!
Donda’s House is all about exposure and access, and we are so grateful to Virgin Hotels Chicago for allowing our students to shoot in such a stylized & beautiful location! The Virgin Brand represents the standard for us, and our students are directly connected!
WHY DO YOU THINK ARTS EDUCATION IS THE FIRST TO BE CUT IN SO MANY SCHOOLS?
Arts Education is the first to be cut in so many schools because it is not considered an essential component of youth development. Due to the popularity of technology, STEM is the current educational trend/focus, but we believe that the “A” (the arts) is missing. Research proves that youth who study the arts have significant academic gains in math, and they are better critical thinkers and problem solvers.
HOW DO WE CHANGE THE MINDS OF THOSE IN EDUCATION WHO MAKE THOSE DECISIONS? IS IT POSSIBLE, OR DO YOU THINK ARTS WILL ALWAYS BE THE FIRST TO GO?
Data! We have to continue to do the research to show the positive effects the arts have in the lives of young people. We also have to be creative in how we provide arts programming through strategic partnerships that place art in the hands of youth. Finally, we have to showcase the impact the arts have on our economy. The “starving artist” is a myth. Many adults are living out their dreams in the Creative Industries and the industries that serve them (marketing, graphic design, audio and sound engineering, animation etc). We have to better articulate our ecosystem and prove its value in society beyond altruism.
TELL US ABOUT A TYPICAL EXPERIENCE FOR A STUDENT AT DONDA’S. WHAT PATHS CAN THEY TAKE TO BE SUCCESSFUL?
Our participants’ first select an area they are interested in (music, tv & film or fashion) and then they participate in a 8 – 10 week course where they develop their artist skills and vision. Each of our programs culminates in a showcasing event, and students also learn about the “business of art” including marketing and financial literacy. Our goal is to give students the tools and resources they need (at no cost to them) to pursue their artistic and entrepreneurial goals. We consider ourselves the Creative “Little League.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR DONDA’S HOUSE?
This fall, we are preparing for AAHH! Fest, a Festival that we are co-producing with hip-hop artist Common where we are providing a platform for artists, employment and educational resources for youth and their families and a safe & engaging environment. Our headliners include Tink and Taylor Bennett and THE BEST of Chicago’s emerging artists. We are also hosting our “Got Bars” program for the first time this year and look forward to supporting a new cohort!
ANY PLANS FOR EXPANSION OUTSIDE OF CHICAGO?
We are planning to expand outside of Chicago soon. We are having great conversations with major artists in other cities. We know that income is a barrier to access arts for so many youth around the country and around the world. We also receive emails daily from youth across the country and around the world, who are eager to access our services and resources. We’re working on a digital platform that will debut in 2017 with our partner Contexture TV and will begin hosting events in other cities, ultimately leading to full-operational Donda’s Houses.WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR EXPERIENCE AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR?
My most rewarding experience is working directly with students. I used to be a High School Teacher so my heart lies in programming and direct-interaction with our participants. I host office-hours and one-on-one mentoring sessions with our artists and I have the opportunity to watch our artists go from idea to manifestation and it’s literally magic. To teach our participants how to have agency, how to be proactive and how to be disciplined, and watch them apply the concepts and lessons to their own lives is truly the greatest gift! I am certain that very soon, you will hear of and become familiar with most of the artists in our program because they are just that good. It’s only a matter of time!
Donda’s House is an official charity partner with Virgin Hotels, through the Kind Traveler platform, which allows travelers to support local and global charities and receive exclusive rates.
Photos from this blog post were shot from student photographers from PROject US. Bravo!