Alberta Wright grew up in Boston surrounded by the arts. Her dad was an artist, but without a way to make money creating art to support his family, he pursued carpentry. Her mother was also an artist, but supplemented her work with teaching as a way to make ends meet. In high school, Wright, by then a teen artist, participated in a program called Artists for Humanity, which empowers youth to explore the creative economy by paying them to show up, listen to their mentors and create art. “That experience changed how I look at the accessibility of art for young people,” she says. “In that space, kids from across the city, kids who would never talk in the hallways at school, were nerding out over color choice and all these artistic things. Their differences didn’t really matter.”
Fast-forward a few years and Wright found herself in New Orleans participating in Teach for America. In the public charter school where she worked, there was no formal arts program and yet she came across a lot of really creative young people. One, in particular, a student who had already been classified as one of the worst kids in school, showed up one day wearing a hand-stenciled hoodie featuring inappropriate graphics. “I knew my job was to say, ‘That’s not the uniform, you need to go home,’ but I cared if he made it, if he did the stencil, if he came up with the concept,” she recalls. “All the answers were yes, and that showed more motivation and problem-solving and creative thinking than I had ever seen from him before.”
Calling inequality in education one of the greatest human rights violations in our country, Wright decided she wanted there to be a place like Artists for Humanity in New Orleans. “[That student] needed a mentor, he needed to get paid, and he needed someone to teach him what’s appropriate and what’s not,” she says.
Soon, Young Creative Agency was born. She piloted the program in her classroom—the students were tasked with creating a flier for a local youth running organization—and then operated it as an after-school program. Since last summer, the program has run in partnership with Youth Empowerment Project, a local nonprofit that engages underserved young people through community-based education, mentoring and employment readiness programs.
“Unlike a lot of job training programs in the city, we are not focusing on HVAC, janitorial or hospitality, but a high-wage career path that is knowledge-based but that a lot of kids don’t even know exists,” she says. “We’re putting young people to work on real client jobs in order to teach them technical skills in design, videography, graphic design and photography, and the soft skills needed like collaboration, pitching and meeting deadlines to succeed.”
One cornerstone of the program is its inclusiveness. There is an array of racial, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic backgrounds represented in each cohort of 9-12 students, as well as among the staff and volunteer mentors.
“For me, it’s incredibly important that there is diversity in background in order to create that dynamism of growth,” Wright says. “It’s an important part of how we create community and how we talk about how big the world is and that plays into our creative process. One point I really want to make is that the people who design our world right now mostly look and think the same. We put a lot of emphasis around questioning norms and accepted truths. As with other things, older white males have made the rules for a long time; we need to create a space for that to change.”
Wright is sensitive to the fact that it’s not enough to just get a group of people from diverse backgrounds together. “As white people, diversity is this thing that we all feel we need to achieve, but there is a type of diversity that feels very tokenized to the people in the room who represent the minority,” she explains. “If that so-called diversity is so talked about and emphasized that it becomes the point, then that’s counteractive. It’s about creating a space where everyone feels safe and listened to and represented in such a way that they’re able to be themselves there, and the demographics of their identity isn’t the thing that has made their presence important, but rather just their ideas.”
Their ideas came to fruition in a recent design project for Ace Hotels, which hired Young Creative Agency to design a 12-month calendar, which would be displayed in guest rooms, depicting the real New Orleans. During the brainstorming session, a lot of tough imagery came up—violence, poverty and the like. “Our creative challenge was to depict that truth in a way that satisfied the client,” Wright says. “So we settled on, OK, those are the things that are happening, but where do we find the beauty in that?” The answer? In a pair of hairy legs wearing stiletto heels and in an owl, silently judging the activities taking place on Bourbon Street.
As Young Creative Agency closes in on its first year as a full-time program, Wright is already looking to the future. The startup’s participation in accelerators and incubators, as well as pitch competitions, like PitchNOLA: Community Solutions, which it won in January, help increase brand awareness that is leading to more paying work for its young designers. Additionally, Wright and her team are expanding services to include rebranding campaigns. “When we start heading into web design and motion graphic and media that companies have real need for, I see our ability to grow as enormous,” she says.