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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

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I was first put on to the Beat Making Lab through a friend of mine who thought I would find the project interesting. She was right. I was energized, inspired, and straight up wowed by the work professor and musician Pierce Freelon and his partner, co-teacher and producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) had created. 

Founded by Apple Juice Kid and Dr. Mark Katz at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and described as an "electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack" Beat Making Lab was first designed as a course for its students to learn the art of beat making. After Pierce took over for Dr. Mark Katz, he and Apple Juice Kid realized their curriculum had the potential to have a global impact. Through a crowd funding campaign, Beat Making Lab set off for Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo working with youth in community settings to teach them how to make beats and songs. 

Currently in collaboration with PBS, episodes are aired every Wednesday and detail the adventures in beat making as youth from Panama to Senegal to Fiji co-create songs using beat making technology as taught by Pierce and Apple Juice Kid. The results are beautifully shot and transportive episodes, dope beats, a real sense of community, and what looks like a whole lotta hard work and fun. 

How did you come up with the idea for the lab?

The Lab started as a class at the University of North Carolina where I've been teaching in the department of African and Afro American Studies since 2009. Over in the Music Department, Dr. Mark Katz (who is currently the chair of the department) and producer Apple Juice Kid founded the class as a 3-credit hour music and technology course in the Fall of 2011. Dr. Katz went on leave the following semester and he and Apple Juice asked me to co-teach the class instead. That's when the seed was planted for Beat Making Lab to grow into something bigger.

On a daily basis, Apple Juice Kid and I discussed the possibilities of taking the class and the curriculum off campus and into a community. We were in the midst of planning to build a community studio when our colleague in the department, Dr. Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, told us about an amazing community center in Democratic Republic of Congo. We had initially thought about building our community Lab locally, in Durham or Chapel Hill, but were intrigued by the prospect of taking the grassroots initiative abroad. There was no money to pay for the experiment, so AJK and I crowd-sourced funds through an Indiegogo campaign, with donations from the Department and the community. Once we hit the ground in Congo - we knew we'd started something that wasn't going to end anytime soon.

Why was this idea important to you? What impact were you hoping to make?

In the beginning, we didn't know what impact we were going to make. Check out our fundraising video. We called it "Carolina to Congo: a beat making lab experiment" because we literally didn't know what to expect. We knew that we had a wonderful resource and curriculum; and we knew we had a community that really wanted to learn how to make beats. Music is a great tool for dialogue, healing, expression and building community. I hope we were able to do some of that.

What has the process been like building the Beat Making Lab? What have been some of your challenges and successes?

Challenges have included cultural sensitivities around sampling, logistics of organizing large groups of students for 2-week sessions, language barriers and political conflicts in some of the countries we've worked. The experience has been humbling. In the past 6 months I've worked with students in five countries I've never been to before. I'm learning Swahili, Wolof, Spanish and French; and making beats with radically different demographics, from groups of all-women rappers, and traditional Fijian musicians. The process has been challenging, inspiring, fun and exhausting.

What similarities and differences do you notice from teaching students at Chapel Hill to students in the DRC or other areas you’ve traveled to? Are there cultural differences to learning these new skills?

Every group brings its own nuance to the table. In Congo, we were surrounded by rappers. It seemed like everyone could spit in several different languages and dialects. Our song Cho Cho Cho features emceeing and singing in English, Swahili, French and a fusion of the three. Panama, on the other hand, was very different. Many of our students were percussion players, and part of a live carnival band called Barrio Fino. They brought a different  atheistic, skill-set and approach to beat making. In Senegal we were working with an all women's ensemble of rappers, singers and producers called GOTAL. Unlike previous groups, they all knew each-other years before the actual workshop - so communication and collaboration was a walk in the park. Chapel Hill groups vary from semester to semester as well - demographically, skill-wise and culturally. You never know who you're working with until the first day of class.

Both of you worked together as co-teachers at Chapel Hill. How did traveling together expand your relationship? How have you two grown in your working relationship and friendship?

I've known Apple Juice for years as a musical collaborator but now we're business partners as well. We have a very different but complimentary skill sets that work well together; ie. I'm a rapper, he's a DJ - I'm a professor, he's a producer - I'm a writer, he's drummer. It's worked very well for us so far. We founded a company called ARTVSM - to merge the worlds of art and activism. This is the soul of Beat Making Lab and a common thread with everything that we want to do in life.

How has the process been of working on BML as partners? How similar/different are your working/creative style?

Great. The most important thing is that we're both on our grind. We both put in work - all the time; and that's exactly what it's taken to pop Beat Making Lab off.

What have you been most surprised by and inspired by in your travels?

Most surprised: the music. We've made some incredible beats and songs over the past several months and I couldn't be prouder of the work our students - many of whom are first time beat makers - have put in.

Most inspired: the model. We're attempting to build a sustainable community space, where the students teach each other and the music funds the workshops. Sometimes when I step back and access the implications of what we're trying to do, I'm inspired. And its not something we came up with on our own. It's been a community effort and we're proud to be a part of it.

A musician we interviewed in the past was quoted as saying, “I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn’t too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I’m hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I’m not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.”

What are your thoughts on this? From the web episodes, you’ve clearly succeeded in building a creative community. 

Two thoughts on this: 1. We encourage collaborative beat making. On the first day of class we make beats with our hands, beatboxing on tables, and creating sounds organically in a cypher. This sets a tone we like to maintain throughout the Lab. Students work in groups, sometimes 3 or 4 to a computer. Its not quite as individualist as he describes. 2. our best friend is the splitter. Five headphones inputs per computer. They come standard in every Beat Making Lab.

In one of your webisodes, you mention you are teaching the students but that you are also learning from them. What have these students taught you about the creative process?

How to improvise, how to listen, how to communicate effectively without sharing a native language with someone, the value of good leadership and collaboration.

How far do you see BML expanding? What is your vision for the future?

We hope to put our curriculum online for free, for anyone who wants to learn how to teach what we do. We want to create our own open source beat making software so anyone with the will can gear up and start making beats without paying for an expensive new software. Ultimately - we want kids everywhere to be able to make beats if they want to. That's the ultimate vision.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Saleem Reshamwala

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Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

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Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

When I think of my childhood, trees and grass aren't the first thing that come to mind. Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City, my Summertime childhood memories tend to invoke the stuff of urban 80’s movies including, but not limited to: the jingle of the impending arrival of the ice-cream truck, the gorgeous smell of spoiled garbage and hot pavement, Big Daddy Kane blasting out of boom boxes,  my brother and I playing exhilarating games of freeze tag with the neighborhood kids, catching fireflies and examining their florescent glow, and of course, mothers yelling out of their windows, “time to come inside"! - their shouts echoing off massively tall buildings.

As Zebi Williams, founder of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica says, “ [in Jamaica] the earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you.” Zebi's childhood involved more of Mother Nature than mine and her desire to return to her beloved hometown spawned by memories of her idyllic childhood, resulted in the creation of a summer youth camp.  At only 19 years old, and as a new mother, the Jamaican/Washington DC native started the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp ten years ago as a way to create a space for neighborhood children to learn about the arts and entrepreneurship in a fun, creative, open environment that teaches self-development, self-love, and the power of community. The humble and brilliant Zebi spoke with Project Inkblot about the effect of our environment on our creativity, her incredible volunteers/teaching artists, her vision for the camp, and why following your dreams as a parent is just as important for your children as it is for your soul. 

How did the idea for the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp start?

It started because I really wanted to go back to Jamaica. I was born in DC. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is American. I’m multicultural and biracial. When I was in third grade I moved back to Jamaica for a time and that’s the part of my life I remembered I love the most. From 8 to 13 years old I lived in this village up in the Blue Mountains. We had no paved roads, no light…and I lived in a house with 20 of my cousins and most of that time was spent outside. It was a small house, two bedrooms. I loved all of the imaginative play. We’d roast cashews, make our own fires, and I just loved it.

When I came back to America, I felt homesick. I always knew I would go back to Jamaica and that that would be a big part of life.  In college, I studied cultural anthropology with a focus on sustainable development for the Caribbean. I decided during my sophomore year that I wanted to go back to Jamaica and volunteer but I couldn’t find any volunteer opportunities. My mom was like, ‘well why don’t you start your own thing’? I always loved summer camps because I had my time in Jamaica where I was always in nature and then I had that time in America where I would be in summer camps. I felt like that was something I could do. I could create this summertime experience for kids in my hometown. I was 19 when I started the camp and I was feeling rebellious and going through my existential crisis -  reading Malcolm X and watching Life and Debt. I thought, I need to be out in the world doing something.

There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It’s something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

What’s Life and Debt?

Oh, you have to see it. It changed my life. It’s a movie about the IMF and the global economy and how the economy in Jamaica is basically owned by the IMF. Tourists come to Jamaica and all they see is this glossy image like, ‘yeah mon, no problem’. There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It's something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

From that film, I saw all of these big problems that were systematic and big and I thought, I don’t know how to affect those problems but what I can do, is I can offer a break. I can offer a time for the kids to step away and just be kids and have that same enjoyment. That’s basically what the camp is for them, a week vacation. I feel like that will have an affect on their development and their well-being.

How many kids do you accept into the program?

It’s in my hometown, where I grew up. We have 125 children so basically all of the children come. We’re basically raising a whole generation of children. What’s special about this is that everyone is getting the same education.

How did the vision for the camp develop?

The first year I went down, there was no real vision. I took a break and I came back five years later and at that time I had more of a focus. I knew the focus would be the arts because I knew all of these artists in Brooklyn and we really wanted to create a movement but I’m also an entrepreneur so it was like, arts and entrepreneurship. We have children from the age of 5 – 17. When they graduate from the program they become junior counselors and they go through a rite of passage. The oldest kids right now are 19 years old.

We place them in different African named tribes. A lot of Jamaicans don’t love their blackness or their Africaness. They’ll bleach their skin or think black is ugly or that being African is negative so I want them to know more about what African is. They get to know parts of the culture and it’s about loving yourself and all of the different layers of what that is; loving your history and where you came from, loving your flaws, and loving your talents. We have the tribe time when the kids are with counselors who are doing self-development activities with them and also taking them on hikes, going to the river, and having mentor time with them. They also get to go to art classes. The younger ones get to test out different art subjects. Maybe today they’ll do drumming and tomorrow they’ll take dancing. If you’re not exposed you may think well, I only like doing this because you haven’t tried enough things, you don’t know what your talent is. So we give them an opportunity to expand their horizons.

That sounds like such gratifying work. Is there a particular example that sticks out with a student?

There is this area in the community where people are kind of shunned. The community wouldn’t touch the kids from that community, they wouldn’t hold their hands, the kids weren’t really going to school. But with the camp we brought everyone together and we were like, you’re going to treat everyone with respect. There was this one girl who was from that community who was an amazing writer. She was ten years old and during lunch one day she came to me and said, ‘Zebi, I want to show you my poetry’. She was really quiet and the kids were always picking on her and so she felt down about herself.

This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us...all the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

She read her poems to me. Her poetry was amazing. This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us and we were able to show her that it was an amazing talent, by being her audience. We had a talent show that year and she got up on the stage and the adults got to see her perform. Now she’s our poet laureate. She’s written more books of poetry, she’s writing plays, she's writing songs. All the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. She’s going to a boarding school on a scholarship. And the adults were like ‘whoa’ they never got to see how talented their children are. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

Why do you think that is?

So many reasons.  I’m always having conversations about this. Why are we hiding our lights as adults? Why are we hiding our lights as children? Even this little girl, I see so much of myself in her. She’s at this stage where she knows herself but she’s not able to experience herself and I feel that same way. So sometimes it’s me feeling like I’m not a leader but knowing that I am a leader. You know you have a bright light but you’re not always able to experience your bright light. We have to learn to surround ourselves with people who see us. I’m grateful that as an adult I’m able to be around people who see me and want me to be myself because they believe in themselves.

When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like, you need to just focus on her. But I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be?

You have a ten-year old daughter, Zia. How does being a mother affect your work as an entrepreneur and your vision for the camp?

I’m learning the balance of being a mother and following my dreams but also respecting her vision of what she wants in her life. What’s great is that she’s a really bright, communicative, creative child so she loves it. She gets a lot of one-on-one attention from our teachers and volunteers so they’re like her aunts and uncles. She’s always raising her hand in meetings and contributing her viewpoint as a child. I had her so young and I was really career driven and have been since I was young. When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like you need to just focus on her but I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be? That’s a conflict that happens within my family and with the elders around me. Wanting me to be solely present to being her mother.

Being an entrepreneur and creating this program takes a lot of my time. It’s long hours and she has to be at the meetings and it’s a commitment that I’ve made. Maybe she’d rather be at the park playing with her friends or at home and she has to be at this meeting with me. But it’s important that she sees me following my dreams. It’s important for our future relationship because our relationship is going to be very long. When she wants to be her own woman, I don’t want to be there like wait - you’re all I have.  I want there to be a respectful and balanced relationship between the both of us. I see that as the long-term vision even though right now it can be challenging. She and I have a great relationship and she sees herself as the person who will be taking over the camp when she gets older and being the future director [laughs]. She looks up to me and that feels really important to me. And I look up to her! She’s around women who are transparent in their own development. She sees our struggles, she sees what we go through, and it’s not perfect. It’s very real. She’s surrounded by so many confident women so I feel good about that.

It sounds like you’ve created many lasting relationships with the volunteers. What it is about Jamaica, and the camp specifically that attracts so many teaching artists?

I think environments speak to who we are. There are environments that we’re made to be in so when you go back, it resonates with who you are. It’s like we’re a tribe of people who are not in our home. And then you gather and you’re like, ‘oh this is where I am supposed to be’. That happens a lot with my volunteers. They find their home in that space. It’s cool because I have a lot of volunteers who are from New York. They have such a desire to be in the county. A lot of my volunteers have been coming for five, six years because it becomes their community. They can really feel like they’re connecting to the environment and the people they want to connect to.

A lot of them are bringing their children and so their children now have a second home. I really enjoy seeing my friends’ children come down and seeing that they can have what I had. I had America but I also had this safe special place in Jamaica that kept me innocent and connected and rooted.

You speak about this sense of connection. What do you think they’re connecting to?

I hear over and over again that people feel like they’ve grown after their trip to Jamaica, like they have had an accelerated growth spurt. There’s an aliveness to the environment. At night, everything is talking and moving. The trees are singing and the stars are bright and you’re in this living organism. The earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you. You really slow down and you’re so observant. The volunteers go back to New York regenerated and able to give.

You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle...you’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

I imagine that has an impact on them creatively.

Exactly. You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle. It’s not America – there’s a more unpredictable, fluid rhythm. You’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

What do you envision for the future with Lil’ Ragamuffin? How big do you see this growing?

We’re building an arts and entrepreneurship center. Right now, we’re a center without walls. We don’t have a structure. Trees and rain affect our classes but we’re committed to the work. But we’ll have this arts center and the center will have year-long programming [instead of just one week] so it will be a space for other arts program in Jamaica. It will be a place for artist residencies. If you have a project you are working on, you can come down and work on that for a month and take that project into a space that encourages that creativity. I am also going to be working as a consultant for people to start camps where they’re from. I’ve had people from places like South Sudan, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic who want to create this camp model in their hometown. My one factor is that I want it to be someone who is from that location, so that it’s a local initiative supported by an international community. So those are the projects we’re looking to create but the Lil Raggamuffin camp is the engine that got that going.

It sounds like there's a part of you truly at peace with the process as opposed to just focusing on the end result.

I recently got the land to build the center and when I got that title, I had this huge feeling of accomplishment like, this mission is going to be accomplished and I will be able to step away at some point from the daily grind. Maybe that’s an illusion, maybe there’s more work that comes with it. It feels like a game. I’m really enjoying this whole process of problem solving and meeting people and having these serendipitous encounters – it’s such a part of my life.

I want to build it so there’s income coming in so I feel financially more at peace. Sometimes I think, sure if I would have chosen another path it would be easier. I would be making a lot more money and I could use my brilliance to make someone else money and have a simple 9- 5 and have weekends off but that’s not my path. I also feel like we have lots of lifetimes in our life. We’re not going to be doing one thing forever, especially now, when things are changing so fast. I see it as right now this is my life. I’m doing this in part of my lifetime and next I’ll be a film director, and next I’ll be a consultant traveling all of the time so it’s like, learn to be patient and play this part out.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Images provided by the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp

 

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Chris Guillebeau: The Dusty-Footed Traveling Entrepreneur

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Chris Guillebeau: The Dusty-Footed Traveling Entrepreneur

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When Projet Inkblot reached our first reader in Brunei Darussalam, we were floored, but first we had to look on a map to see exactly where that was. So imagine our utter amazement when we were first introduced to the work of Chris Guillebeau, a traveling entrepreneur, New York Times' best selling author, and blogger, who as of a few weeks ago, completed his goal to visit every single country in the world that he had the ability to visit. That's 193 countries in total! Chris connects with audiences in far reaching countries daily (that most people can't even pronounce, let alone know how to locate on a map), and offers readers brilliantly simple advice about running a business, living authentically, travel hacking, and the art of non-conformity--which is exactly what his blog is called.It's easy to envy someone with so many enormous accomplishments under his belt, and not see it as being attainable for oneself, but the truly inspiring thing about Chris is how much he cares about helping others achieve similarly bold goals. He does it by being transparent about his process, vulnerable to his loyal readers, and being an optimistic, accessible, and encouraging leader. He also gives pragmatic and action-oriented advice that is easy for even the most fear-ridden person to follow. Reading his blog posts and highly personalized newsletters, it's impossible not to be invigorated by his infectious spirit.

We were lucky to catch Chris right before he took his trip to his last of 193 countries, Norway. We were hoping to uncover his big secret to success, but what we found instead was the story of just a regular Portland dude who stayed persistent, consistent, and focused throughout the years to yield the results that he is able to show for today. Below is a mix of our Q&A, some of our favorite resources from his blog, and opportunities where you can also become a cyber-mentee of Chris' (like us), and join his international community of nonconforming adventurers. 

Did you have lots of people around you living unconventionally that you modeled yourself after, or who helped you identify the way that you wanted to live?

Not really, at least not the first part. I think you have to find people who see the world in a similar way as you. Fortunately, once you go looking for them, they’re not usually hard to find.

Was there a website, or websites that inspired you to create an online community for entrepreneurs and travelers?

No website, but I knew there were plenty of independent people out there who wanted something different. I hoped to contribute something positive that didn’t currently exist, at least not in the specific way that AONC became.

A must-have guide to starting your very own website/online platform:

279 Days to Overnight Success

How did you know that online was the format that you wanted to reach the world and inspire people?

Well, online is the only scalable way. I used to live in West Africa and had a great experience working individually with people, but if you want to reach people all over the world, you need some kind of platform. That's what I love about blogging—anyone can connect with a wide and disparate audience regardless of geography.

Here's a taste of what Chris covers on his blog

I reached out to you personally and asked for your help in asking for help, and being vulnerable. You basically told me to fear not! Which was both a good and bad answer for me. Bad because I wanted you to tell me a magical answer that would kill my fear, but good because you were absolutely right.  Did others give you tough love when you were just figuring out your direction?

I didn't mean it as tough love; I just meant you needn’t be afraid in asking for help. Most people are good and most people will provide whatever help you need, when you need it.

Are there ever periods where you don’t have sustained bursts of ideas and energy, which lead you to question your path?

Yes, and those are frustrating! There's no easy answer to this problem, but it does help to create a certain structure for your work. Knowing what you need to do but needing help getting started is a lot easier than not knowing what to do.

Deadlines help too: if I know I have to post every Monday and Thursday, I'll be sure to do so. If I know my book is due on a certain date and there are numerous people at the publisher who have scheduled time to work on it, I need to honor my commitment to them.

But as mentioned, I too get stuck sometimes.

Wait, he has an entire e-book to answer this question.

The Towe,

a guide to creative living

Everyone has a team. What does yours look like?

I have no employees and my team is pretty small. I do work with a couple of great designers and a genius developer. For the World Domination Summit, our annual event in Portland, we do have a growing group of part-time staff and volunteers that meets bi-monthly throughout the year, and then more often as we get closer to the big weekend in July.

Here's how to join Chris' 'small army of remarkable people'

When you first started out, did you have a target demographic that later changed as your work evolved?

No, I’ve never had a demographic at least in the traditional sense. Instead I have more of a psychographic, or people that identify based on shared values and ideals. They are all ages and backgrounds and come from more than 100 countries.

Chris just beta launched "Adventure Capital", a 12-month online teaching program for creative entrepreneurs

It seems like more and more people are taking the plunge and choosing to live ‘unconventionally’ now. What is special about our time where people are mustering up the courage seemingly more than ever before?

People have always been somewhat dissatisfied with traditional paths, but what's changed is that now there are far more alternatives than ever before. At the same time, there are also a lot more role models. Most people won't change their behavior based on something that an author or celebrity says—but when they see their friends, colleagues, or neighbors doing something new, some of them will feel personally inspired to make a change for themselves.

Unconventional guides to work, travel, and money

The $100 Startup is like a less cheesy, entrepreneurial Chicken Soup For the Soul, in that it uses so many great examples that anyone can refer to and feel reassured that the dream is possible for them. Was that book a one-shot deal, or will there be more like that to help people get their work off the ground?

I’m glad you liked it. I love writing books and hope to write many more. :)

Check out The $100 Startup, and explore the resources that accompany the book

Read Chris' debut book: The Art of Non-Conformity (based off of his blog)

What is one place in the world (that you traveled to) that you identified the most with, not necessarily culturally, but where you learned the most about yourself?

I like the qualification you included. Of all the places where I learned about myself, I'd certainly put Sierra Leone and Liberia (both in West Africa) at the top of the list. They aren't easy countries to travel in, but I had a great experience as a volunteer on a hospital ship. I continue to think of those places almost every day, even as I'm pursuing very different projects and doing different kinds of work.

Check out Chris' travel goals, and how he achiev

ed them

Do you plan on setting new travel goals for yourself after you reach 193 countries?

Yes, but they'll be different. I'm not interested in revisiting all 193 countries or going to the moon or anything like that. What I want to do is work much more closely with our community of unconventional people from around the world. I'll keep traveling, in other words, but in a more focused way than before.

Read Chris' reflections after his final country: "How Does It Feel To Visit Every Country?"

What is the single most memorable thing that a fan/supporter has ever expressed to you?

In different ways, people often express that reading AONC or The $100 Startup helps them to see that they are not alone. The first time I heard that statement, I knew I'd be doing this kind of work for a long time.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Chris Guillebeau

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We Dare You To Look Away: Andy VC on Photography and Human Rights

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We Dare You To Look Away: Andy VC on Photography and Human Rights

Documenting human rights violations around the world sounds like a pretty sobering job. While most of us in the "first "world become irate at the mention of a Monday morning conference call, Colombian photographer Andy Vanegas Canosa (Andy VC) has spent the last ten years traveling to places where the working and living conditions are inhumane, at best. Andy VC's images, particularly his close-ups, suck you in - making you feel instantly connected to the people he photographs on an intensely human level. The experience is both unsettling and beautiful. Through his subjects' eyes, he manages to exhibit both human dignity and suffering, often simultaneously. 

A recent second place winner of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, Andy VC continues to capture images that speak to the joy, sufferings, and resilience of human beings. Yes, I am a little obsessed. Yes, I could go on and on about his work but it basically means nothing until you actually see his photos. The former lawyer and self-taught photographer spoke with us about the psychological effects of his work, his love for Afghanistan, and the importance of illuminating societal ills.

When did you discover your love for photography?

My family are lawyers and so I studied law and went to Spain. I was very disappointed with the legal environment. I was working for the private and public sector and I found it to be a really corrupt system. I was deeply sad by that. I always liked photography, since I was a child, but we didn’t have the money to buy a camera. I was always surrounded by social issues because I grew up in Colombia. Twenty years ago it was a very difficult country, similar to how Mexico is now. I grew up in this kind of environment and this had an impact on me. When I discovered photography, it gave me a really strong tool to raise awareness. I always wanted to be a photographer. I found photography to be a great way to escape this world and to really give something to people.

How does photography brings awareness in a way that writing about something or creating a video doesn’t?

There are many ways to raise awareness. Photography is very fast. You can see a photo and it can raise so many emotions. I think that’s the power of photography.

I try to give some presence to the people who have been forgotten. The impact of this well, I cannot measure this. The main goal is to raise awareness so that people can open their eyes. These problems are there and they need solutions.

After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard.

You said in another interview that, 'I love what I do and I would not be able to picture myself doing something different. However, everything in life has a price. It is a profession that affects your life in ways nobody could expect.' Can you talk a bit about what you meant by this?

I receive many messages where people say things like, ‘wow what a wonderful life. You travel the world and take photos.’ It is amazing and it’s why I love my job. But the price is that every time you cover these social issues, it leaves scars. It’s a psychological effort. After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard. Also, your family is worried about you and sometimes I’m sad that my mother is sad or my brother is sad. They understand, but it’s not easy seeing your family worried about these things. It has a big price emotionally and psychologically that you may not have in another job.

Traveling is also good and amazing but it’s very difficult. At least, this is my point of view. You have to learn how to be with yourself and know yourself and know loneliness. It is a process and it takes time. It’s amazing and beautiful but some people are afraid of freedom.

In Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful.

Your photos are so deeply intimate, how do you create a relationship of trust so that people are comfortable with you taking their photo?

This is a process as well, in terms of how to approach people. I find when I go to these conflict areas; people are very nice and friendly. They always invite you to sit and talk with them. I always talk to people if I can; sometimes I can’t so I just interact with my body. Sure. I believe in body language. If you show you are nervous or afraid, people can feel that. Sometimes people say no and you have to respect that even if you know it will be an amazing picture. If people say no, it’s no. I have found that Colombia is the most difficult place I have worked. Some people will kill for nothing. I was working in a poor area of Bogota and it was scary. Even in Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful. So friendly, so inviting. They like to ask a lot of questions. Where do you come from? Where have you been? What are you doing here? Most of them have never seen a camera in their life.

Have you ever taken a photo of someone who has never seen their image captured in that way? What is their reaction?

Some people are like, how is it possible that I am inside this box? [laughs]. Most people become more relaxed and enjoy the process. I never force people to take pictures or direct them on how to pose. I just take the photos naturally. There is a moment for everything. I like my work to be natural.

To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works.

Your photos are so authentic and feel so natural. Do you have a process?

I wouldn’t be able to answer this question 100%. I never studied photography and never took classes. If you want to be a photographer you can just start taking pictures. It’s a process you learn day by day.

For these photos, it’s a mix of risk. Sometimes you have to take risks. And you have to be social. To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss [laughs]. After the first kiss, things go much better. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works. You can take pictures with any camera.

Can you talk some more about taking risks in your work?

If you are working with gangsters, many of them don’t like to take pictures so these people are very difficult to work with. There is a risk in going to them and a risk in asking if you can take a photo. Sometimes you don’t ask because of the situation. I was in Afghanistan and covering drug users. I was under a bridge and 800 people were using drugs, mostly heroin. People got very angry and were yelling and throwing stones so we had to leave.

What made you interested in covering drug use in Afghanistan? That’s not something highly covered in the American media.

I used to work for the United Nations in the office on drugs and crimes and I got to know a lot about drugs there and I got very interested in the topic. There are many drugs that people don’t know about and many ways to take them -  it’s crazy, it’s a different world. It’s interesting how it can run a country. Corruption exists a lot of time because of drugs. In Afghanistan there are more than a million people consuming drugs, it’s a social problem. It requires social mechanisms to solve it. Many NGO's try to work with drug users. The UN is involved. There’s a huge debate about whether drugs should be legalized.

The photo you have of the man on heroin is whoa – it’s so powerful. How did you take that photo?

Well, the man was extremely high. We have the responsibility to cover these problems that people are facing. I can write you a paper on what it is like for people to do heroin but if you don’t see it, it’s not the same. I try to allow people to feel some of these emotions. He’s not only high, he’s suffering. Being addicted to heroin is one of the saddest things you can see. This guy was in a center for rehabilitation. He had come that day and he was really high and in a special room waiting for the effects to go away. It is a very powerful image. Every time I see this image, I am like, wow.

Can you talk a bit more about some countries you’ve been to? Is there a place you've traveled to you found  particularly eye-opening?

The dumps in Mae Sot. It’s a border town in Thailand, there is a Burmese refugee camp but then there are other people who are illegal immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. So they live in Thailand but they are not refugees so they live in a dump and it’s a community of almost 100 people. They live under some inhumane conditions, you cannot even imagine. They live amongst poisonous snakes, dead animals and they live in mountains of garbage, literally. Imagine when it rains, the smell is absolutely impossible. There are many children playing all around and eating food from the garbage. It’s very sad. You face realities you can’t even imagine. Then you come home and your brother is asking for an iPhone and you’re like, c’mon.

When you return home or to “first world” countries how do you deal with that mentality after you’ve witnessed some of these sufferings?

It’s very difficult. Some people don’t understand. First, because people don’t understand the situation and they don’t understand what I do. After those experiences you just don’t care too much about materialistic things. You lose friends also because people don’t understand you and you don’t understand them or you do - but you don’t want to be a part of those things.

You open your eyes. You see things that people don’t see. You come home and your friends are frustrated about small things and you think, you are so lucky that you have the life you have. You shouldn’t complain. You start to see things in a different way. You’re growing up and everyone grows up. Everyone changes friends…it can be difficult.

What do you love about why you do what you do?

I’m very lucky. I love traveling but I’m lucky because I have a passport that allows me to do that. I have a Spanish and a Colombian passport. If I didn’t have the Spanish passport, I might not be so lucky to travel like I do. Traveling can be very cheap. You can travel in a very cheap way. Many people don’t even know you can spend less money than being at home. Everyday is a new adventure. If you want to move, you move. It makes you more tolerable. When you travel, there is a community that doesn’t exist anywhere. Sometimes you might meet up again with some people you met in Latin America who are now in India and it’s unplanned.

I have a friend I met traveling who once told me “traveling restores your faith in humanity.”

Yes, of course. The thing I really love is meeting people. All around the world you meet great people with great projects and interesting ideas and different ways to see life. I really enjoy hearing these different points of views about life. This is the thing I love most.

 Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credits: Andy VC

Click here to view more of Andy's work and to purchase prints.

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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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I met Bisco Smith (a.k.a. Brad) several years ago after having first been enamored with his visual art as a designer for one of my favorite music labels growing up, Definitive Jux, after my friend put me onto his work. I also admired the aerosol art that he adorned New York City walls with, his thoughtful lyricism as an emcee, his passion as a youth art educator. After just relocating to LA this past summer, Bisco, along with his creative partner (and girlfriend)--cinematographer and photographer Jasmine Hemery--banded together with a few other talented friends to bring their love of hip-hop and youth development to Israel as a vehicle to unify Israeli and Arab Israeli youth. There they used their hip-hop sensibility to teach mural painting, song-writing, and dance. In this joint interview with Bisc and Jasmine, we give you a glimpse into how their fleeting idea became a transcontinental art program, and how this Jack and Jacqueline-of-all-trades pair continuously push each other to the next level.

As U.S.-based multimedia artists, how did you develop an arts enrichment program in Israel? 

Bisc:I work with an organization called Arts By the People. They're based out of New Jersey, and I got involved with them via my friend Gus doing street art workshops. Gus connected me to this guy Paul who's got a lot of friends in Israel. We were driving around one day and we were just like, “It would be crazy to run this workshop in Israel,” and two weeks later Gus, Paul and I put together a PDF to get money--just breaking down what we wanted to do--and boom! He got us funding in a week. Okay, maybe not a week. It took a few steps, but he  reached out to one person, who reached out to another person, and maybe a few steps later, we got funding and we got a place to go to. It was a very fast process.

We then connected with Project Harmony, a program who works with a great organization in Israel called Hand In Hand. The umbrella that we went to Israel under is Hand In Hand, and inside of it was Arts By The People and Project Harmony. The airfare was privately funded for, and the accommodations were privately funded. We raised money for the materials, which were all donated by friends and family in a really quick matter of time. Between Hand-In-Hand, Arts By The People, and Project Harmony, and donors and friends and family, a lot of people got together to make it work. I went to do the street art workshop. Jasmine came to document everything, Gus planned to do hip-hop song writing, and our friend Renee Floresca came to teach dance.

How many kids did you work with? 

Bisc: We worked with about 50-60 youth. It fluctuated especially because Ramadan started around then. It was an English language summer camp that is run out of Hand In Hand, which is an English language school, so they teach in each classroom--they have one teacher who teaches Hebrew, and one teacher that speaks Arabic in each classroom. They use English as the common thread. It’s a mix of Jewish and Arab kids. Some from Palestine and some from Jerusalem. It’s very progressive and political. There are a few of those schools in Israel.

How does religion play a role in the day-to-day life of the Israeli youth that you worked with?

Bisc: In Israel, things are segregated by religion. I don’t know too much about the experiences of Christian and Muslim Arabs, vs. Jews, but pretty much, everyone is separated because religion is the key factor out there. Younger generations and more progressive people are changing stuff. Most of the parents of the kids that we worked with are artists or creative people. They function in not your everyday world.

Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion.

As Americans, did the actual experience of being there change your initial view of that region of the world? 

Jasmine: I feel like our experience was only formed through our actual journey out there. Initially, we went to Palestine, but we also saw The Holocaust Museum in Israel, and so understanding both perspectives changed what we thought. I think we ended the trip realizing that it's just such a complex situation beyond what we thought we knew. Both sides have views that are relatable. I left feeling much more empathetic to both sides. I think being in The States you have such a skewed perception that leans towards one end.

Bisc:Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion. Everyone goes to Israel for religion and politics. People don’t really go there for art, so our political knowledge was only what we hear on the internet and it was very skewed. I wasn’t scared by that. I was more focused on the kids than I was about the political climate.

Was working with the youth there challenging because of language or cultural barriers? 

Bisc:I don’t think so. The kids we worked with were very educated. I initially thought that we were going to go to a more underserved area. I think it was actually pretty privileged--not super rich and balling out--but the kids, even to be in a program like that you have to have a family that is doing pretty okay out there.

The kids just loved what we were doing. After the first day, we had their full attention, they were excited about it. I’d say, the age for me was the toughest part. We worked with some kids that were as young as nine, and I’m used to working with kids who are older than that. It was harder to do what I normally do--and I had to on the spot change my approach--but only because of their age, not because they were Israeli or Palestinian.

Jasmine:One of the things that struck us the most was that they had all of the same kid mannerisms as anywhere. Kids are kids no matter where they are from, but sometimes we did experience a language barrier.

Watch Words to the World: The Making of a Mural,a short documentary about the Israel youth project:

WORDS TO THE WORLD - The Making of a Mural from Little Giant on Vimeo.

How did the Israel project fit into the natural scope of your work? 

Jasmine: I feel that this fits into the evolution of our careers that will include more philanthropic causes, including service as part of our common work.

Bisc: I think it’s important to work with young people. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I have definitely been fortunate enough to give back through my work, and I’m sure that’s not going to stop, but I really want to work with all ages sharing these skills and crafts.

Why hip-hop?

I believe that hip-hop is great at breaking boundaries and uniting different ages and cultures, and bring them under one umbrella. Who knows?--Those kids could form an Arab-Jewish collaborative rap group, or slowly make their way to create change through the continuation of hip-hop--which is about unification.

To flip the script and talk about your working relationship, what other major work have you two collaborated on? 

Bisc:Jasmine hasbeen working on these shorts, and she’s been letting me help her assist direct, and do a lot of different stuff on that. I started working with her on her films, and I would score her movies. Then we did a project where it was my music, and she shot me a music video. This is the first time that we’ve travelled overseas and created a documentary piece. Definitely it’s just the first one. We’re both kind of hyped on doing more of it, and it’s a great opportunity for dope co-created projects. We’ve been doing that since day one.

How do you guys keep inspired and sustain your rhythm for creating, individually or in a partnership?

Jasmine: I think as an artist, you are inspired daily. It can be something as simple as someone crossing the street, that you just want to explore and dig deeper, whether it's in film or writing, or painting. I think my rhythm is just everyday life, allowing myself to be inspired to make something. And this guy here is super creative and multi-talented, so naturally in conversation, we’ll be listening to the same thing, and talking about it, and then we create something.

Bisc:We think on the same wavelength. I mean, we’ll both look at the same thing and say “that’s dope." For me, because I always work alone, we’ve had some struggles with Jasmine giving me real criticism and feedback, but it’s a lot of growing and a lot of learning. It’s working in a way that it’s only going to be iller. I think we push each other. I think that where I fall short, she steps in and makes it better. I think we really do fill in the space for each other where we aren’t as strong. It’s done very effortlessly. Say I’m writing something for a client--I’m not the best writer--I ask her, and she will change my perspective and make me better. Boom!

Jasmine: And I’m not the best talker [laughs].

Bisc:You’ll see that I like talking a lot, so I’ll talk for her. It works like that. It’s something creative where we both do for each other. Like when we are directing partners in film; I talk for her, I don’t mind talking where I’m telling people what to do or where to fall on set, and she’s the eye, and together we create a really good overall holistic and creative person. One more thing to add to are both of our goals. Right now I don’t have an ultimate goal, or there's absence of an overall goal. That’s something that I am struggling with in the present--not struggling with--but I think creatively, it’s something that I have to work towards because I have to see it in order to get there. She’s been helping me a lot with visualizing that imagery.

Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, “you can’t connect the dots going forward.” Right now, I just don’t know.

Did Israel fulfill any long standing goals that you had for your careers? 

Jasmine: In terms of traveling, I’ve always traveled and brought a camera and took to photographs, but now that I’m studying film, it was an opportunity to evolve my skills and try to do film, creating what is going to be a miniature documentary. I was trying to capture moments. It’s very different than just taking a photo. You’re capturing an elongated period of time. It was a really interesting experience.

Bisc: For me, I can’t specifically answer that. I don’t know. It’s weird for me to say it, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t really have a "thing." I just kind of take the art as it comes, and this just came to me. I just feel like I was fortunate to get the opportunity and I mean--I paint walls, and I come from that world for more than half of my life. I’ve been involved in that culture for a long time. It’s definitely a continuation of what I come from--the root to my art and creativity. It was also a continuation of being Jewish and coming from that as a whole. Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, "you can’t connect the dots going forward." Right now, I just don’t know.

On the surface it looks like you guys are living the dream. In your day-to-day reality, are there ever times where being in a creative profession is exhausting or unproductive? 

Jasmine: I definitely have creative blocks. For me, I have to force myself to sit there and work through it. Editing for me is really hard. I kind of have to just sit there and force myself to do it. It makes it easier to think in terms of projects. I try to do one project at a time.

Bisc: I don’t know man, for me, I just work. Somedays like today I didn’t do shit. I sat at this desk all day and I organized files. I did bullshit all day. Because I’m in a creative block right now…I don’t know, I guess it comes and goes, at the end I just have faith that everything comes my way, and I’ll make art and I’ll make money. There’s a lot of shit that I want to do. If I write it all out, like I did recently, it becomes overwhelming. I mean, our day-to-day, it’s pretty normal. We don’t stay up until the morning doing art and smoking weed and shit. I feel like I’m getting old, and I’m trying to be healthy. I’m just going to the gym and trying to eat well. It’s a balance between professionalism and artistry, business and personal, love and relationships, and regular life stuff too...

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photography and video by Jasmine Hemery

Check out Bisco's creative agency Daylight Curfew Creative, a creative agency that specializes in design, apparel, identity, instillation, web, video, and audio.

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Featured Interview - Food, Folks and Photography with Casey Kelbaugh's Slideluck

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Featured Interview - Food, Folks and Photography with Casey Kelbaugh's Slideluck

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Eating great food and taking in great art while simultaneously making friends around the world sounds like what I want to be when I grow up. A friend of mine introduced me to Slideluck  by describing it as "an art show…local photographers present their work on a big slideshow and everyone brings a dish to share...like a potluck dinner. They do it all around the world. Tonight it's in Brooklyn. Want to come?” I agreed, envisioning some store brought hummus laid out on a table next to a few lone photographs in someone's dank apartment. I was wrong. The Brooklyn Bridge provided the perfect backdrop to an open air warehouse in Dumbo filled with people, an abundance of food, and a large screen.  In fact, that particular event won a place in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records for the largest potluck ever thrown (479 dishes - dayum!).Inspired by his love for food, traveling and art, New York City resident and photographer Casey Kelbaugh, created Slideluck twelve years ago out of the DIY ethos of Seattle, Washington. Shaped out of a desire to build community and provide an artistic outlet for local photographers, Slideshow has evolved into a non-profit organization which produces international events centered around art and food. Kelbaugh and his team have traveled around the world; producing events in cities as diverse as Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Nairobi, Kenya, as well as various cities within the US.  In addition to producing events, the organization created a youth initiative to empower young people through photography as well as a green initiative, which focuses on making their events as close to zero waste as possible. Project Inkblot spoke with Casey about his love for traveling, the occasional exclusionary world of photography, and why there will probably not be a Slideluck in Dubai anytime soon.

When did you first develop a love for traveling?

Before I was doing Slideluck and before I was even a photographer, I was really into travel. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and I ended up living with two Italian architecture students who were about 6 yrs older than me. I was 19 at the time.  They had dinner parties almost every night and they taught me how to cook. I learned the power of bringing people together around food. There was jazz and food and wine and really interesting people coming together on a nightly basis. That started for me the love of travel and the love of cooking, and the idea that food could be this catalyst for bringing people together.

Is that where you became interested in photography, as well?

…I became interested in photography when I was traveling in Tokyo…I heard about a photo workshop; so I went to it and I thought, wow this is amazing. It’s immediate, you’re engaged, you can help create the moment, and it’s interactive...I spent a year there trying to learn the craft. I had plans to continue to travel around the world and then in one week, my camera was stolen, I ran out of money, and I got malaria, and I was like 'ok, time to go home to Seattle and re-group'…around 1999 I was starting my own career and that’s when I started to get frustrated by the lack of outlets to show my work.

Because you felt the photography world was exclusionary?

There are a lot of different photo worlds; the editorial world, shooting for magazines, there’s the commercial world, the fine art world, and there are very steep pyramids where there is no access…especially when you’re starting out. It’s like, ‘ok one day I’ll show at this gallery’ but how do I talk to people now and get feedback and show my work? So I created Slideluck in my tiny backyard in Seattle. About 50 people showed up and everyone was really jazzed and we had an old photo projector and some music. It went really well and people were like, ‘when’s the next one?’

Lots of people, when they are creating something with momentum, speak of that moment where they know they’re on to something big. Did you feel that way?

I felt a little bit of that leading up to it, but I had no idea I’d move to New York. I was thinking of doing something fun that allowed me to take control and do something for the people, not waiting for it to happen. There was a very amazing DIY spirit in the art community in Seattle and I think Slideluck grew out of that. It grew very slowly and organically and in three years we did 20 shows in Seattle. No press, no big nothing. It was all very underground.

I moved to NY for my photo career. Slideluck was a hobby. I got here and I felt that same kind of void but I thought, 'no one in New York is going to want to do a potluck dinner'...but we decided to do the first one in my apartment, and it was packed.

In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.

How many people showed up?

About 150 people, which was bigger than the biggest show we had had in Seattle. People were hungry for this kind of authentic engagement and for the opportunity to show their work and get feedback, and the content was very good. We were like, we’re definitely doing it again but we need a bigger place. We found a studio in Soho and it was a really beautiful space that was twice as big and twice as exciting…the energy was electric.

In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.

What do you think people were so excited about?

It all goes back to authenticity for me. You don’t just buy a ticket. You’re actually getting your hands dirty and making something you care about or making a family recipe and that makes you a bit more invested. So everyone is helping to build and create the night. And every night is unique because it’s always in a different location, the people are different, the theme is different, the food is different so every event is bound by this common structure…yet we’ve managed to maintain that backyard potluck vibe. It hasn’t taken on the art world pretension. It’s always been really warm and friendly.

Being able to travel through Slideluck must be a dream.

Yeah, I would say that. It’s different than backpacking. Backpacking is a fantastic way to get out and meet all of these interesting people but often you’re meeting people from all of these other countries and then you’re all on the outside looking in. The difference with this is that all of our growth has been by demand. So if a place like Tel Aviv or Bogota approaches us because they want to do a Slideluck, we build it together…it’s the most exciting way to travel because we go in and we’re building something that is totally new and everyone is so excited and we’re meeting all of these creative people. It’s not a one off - it becomes a part of the community. It’s been amazing. It’s changed my concept of what travel can be.

Have you found that certain cultures are more receptive or less receptive to the idea? Have you faced any obstacles in regards to that?

Well, in terms of reception, after every Slideluck someone will come up and say thank you so much we’ve never had something like this before and I guess you could say, that is the biggest reward. A Potluck is a Native American tradition – it’s called a “Potlatch” and it comes from the Seattle area actually, on the Northwest coast. The first year in Berlin this woman showed up with a head of lettuce and I’m like,' what’s this? And she’s like it’s a salad and I’m like, it’s not a salad, it’s a limp head of lettuce' [laughs]. Amsterdam was very interesting - we had a potluck curator and everyone arrived with dishes and everything was laid out so beautifully…I was talking to people and I was like, ‘do you all do a lot of potlucks?’ and they’re like ‘we’ve never heard of it [until now]' and they totally communicated what it was about but it was a brand new experience for everyone in the room, so that was interesting.

Then there was the Middle East; my dad lived in Dubai for a couple of years and I tried to have a Slideluck there and it’s just not going to happen.

Why?

Because, traditionally, [in many Middle Eastern cultures] when you host people you spend your last dime so that there is so much food that no one in a million years would ever be able to finish it, but to ask people to bring something is almost offensive. To say 'ok, come over but you have to bring stuff as well'…it just doesn’t fly.

Is that what you envision? A Slideluck in every city in the world?

I’d love to see it spread that way…we haven’t been able to accommodate it in that way. We’d love for it to be de-centralized so that more people are a part of it. We’re re-launching our website so that each city can have their own page. It will be a lot more accessible and easier to control.

This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward. I have made this project a priority for 12 years. Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy.

What have you learned from the process of creating this organization?

I think I had a tough time committing to what type of medium I wanted to work in, then what type of photographer I wanted to be, then whether I could stay in one place.  This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward.  I have made this project a priority for 12 years.  Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy.  There have been some very tough moments in this process – financially, emotionally, creatively – but throwing in the towel has never been an option.  I think the longer I stuck with it, the more crystallized this feeling was.

The other thing I have learned is that people are willing to go to great lengths for something they believe in.  At this particular moment, there are teams of individuals volunteering their time and resources to make Slidelucks happen in San Francisco, London, Bogotá, Dallas, Atlanta, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and Washington, DC.  All of whom are doing this on their own volition and because they want to make their community a better place.  The mere fact that this is happening blows my mind.

What were some of your favorite Slidelucks?

That’s hard. Nairobi was way up there…400 people showed up, beautiful weather. It was a really mixed, interesting crowd…the work was all local and we even had some paintings so we had a really older generation as well as young people. Panama City was also amazing, we were in the ruins of a 400 year-old church and it was in the old part of town and we were bbq’ing and we had a really packed house and great vibe. [Our] second show in Baltimore was phenomenal. We got this funky space and we had a really beautiful photo exhibition. There was a live Delta blues band afterwards, there was a bonfire. The work was great, the food was great. Someone set off 17,000 firecrackers. And then there was the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art also hanging out so it was a good mix.

To view photos from Slideluck Nairobi, click here.

It must be great to attract such a wide range of people who otherwise might not mix.

Oh yeah, totally. War photographers and fashion photographers…these people do not hang out. It’s a very mixed group…it just gets boring when it’s the same people. We did one in Toronto where we had really important curators who picked really important photographers. We didn’t do an open call due to a timing thing and it was the most boring show we’ve ever had. It was so predictable. Everyone had already worked together and it didn’t have that random element of chance and that excitement of opportunity.

Would you say that random aspect is what makes the events so good?

Yeah, I mean we’ll never do that again. There has to be an element of an open call. Sure, the curator can pick some of the artists but there has to be an opportunity for anyone to come out of the woodwork.

What do you want people to walk away with after a Slideluck event?

I want people to feel engaged and inspired and I think that’s a lot of what happens. People are energized. They walk away like, 'holy shit'. The events are very educational. You learn a lot about a lot of little worlds and what’s going on in the world during the show. So I think if people walk away feeling more grounded in their community and more connected, if they feel inspired creatively and intellectually, and if they’ve made new friends, then that’s the goal.

For more information on Casey Kelbaugh, click here.

For more information on Slideluck, click here.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Slideluck Potshow

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Feature Interview--Evita Robinson's Nomadness Travel Movement

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Feature Interview--Evita Robinson's Nomadness Travel Movement

Have you heard of Nomadness? Well if you haven't, you most definitely will soon. My boy brought Evita Robinson over to my place for a heated game night one evening over a year ago. He insisted adamantly that I talk to this woman, and upon officially meeting her over an impassioned game of Taboo, I totally got it. Evie Robbie, as her friends call her, is a goddess of world travel. In 2010 she created a travel web series, and by 2013 (at press time), she clocks in over 4000 members in her closed international travel group Nomadness Travel Tribe--a Facebook based online community for travel enthusiasts like us--and by "us" I mean the culture-curious, young adventurers who prefer off-the-beaten-path travel over big resorts. The biggest perk of being invited as a member to the Tribe is that you get dibs on the amazing trip packages that Evie organizes for the travel group to amazing destinations around the world. There is a very special bond that Tribe members get to experience when they are journeying together to foreign destinations. If you are about that life, check them outThis is a woman who walks the way she talks. By the time of this interview, she had been featured in Ebony and Clutch Magazine for Nomadness. It's near impossible NOT to believe her because her work is a reflection of her greatest passion, her truest higher self, and satisfies a huge void in the international travel community. All of that in mind, I couldn't bear to dwindle down this awesome interview because of the great take-aways that NEED to be shared.  Here I've broken it into two pieces--1) the Feature Interview below and 2) a Creative Resource piece, for budding entrepreneurs who can gain from Evie's dope advice. I promise, you won't want to miss it. 

How did you come up with the idea for NomadnessTV, the web series? 

I was out in Japan for a year. I had a year teaching contract out there, and ten months into teaching and seeing that no one from home was going to come out and visit me, I was like, "I get it.” It's a hella long flight and extremely expensive place to come visit. I then thought, I need to bring Japan to them, and decided the easiest way to do that was social media. It was cool to be able to share my experiences with friends and family, and let my mom know that I was alive. After a while of cutting little vignettes of my travel experiences, I started to touch into my actual network of people that I knew who worked in TV and media to pick their brains.

I realized when I was out there in Japan, before moving to Thailand for a little bit, there was no travel group or organization that I felt like I wanted to be part of. I thought they were dry and boring, and didn't feel like there were a lot of groups that I could relate to. There was nothing for any type of crowd that I came from, or anybody who looked like me. That was the same paradox that I was finding when I was traveling. As I was backpacking by myself, there weren't that many people of color out there. There were a lot of women traveling by themselves, which was interesting to me, because there are so many stigmas and preconceived fears of what it's like to be a woman out there traveling alone, especially backpacking. I  was learning a lot of new dynamic. Travel was something that I was interested in, but I didn't know that my entire career/life/business was going to soon be worked around it.

How did The Travel Tribe form?

I stay coming up with these crazy ideas. One day I was like, I can't find the community that I want to identify with, so I'm going to create it. I graduated in 2006, and when everybody else was looking for a job, I left. I moved to Paris, and I stayed half a summer with one of my best friends from high school. I did a filmmaking workshop with the New York Film Academy. It was really on that trip that I realized that the travel bug was in me. It bit me and lodged itself under my skin. I made a promise to myself to bridge travel with my love for TV, mass media, and my love for talking. I've always had a big mouth and an opinion to follow it. I wanted to bring those things together naturally.

The first NomadnessTV web episode aired online on February 26th 2010. I did not launch the Nomadness Travel Tribe until September 28, 2011. There was a nice buffer of time between the two, for me to think of the idea of creating a community. In the beginning, Nomadness was very me, me, me! It was very Evita oriented, which also stems from the fact of me always wanting my own travel show. Soon after, creating a community for other people became very important because it wasn't just about me, but it was about exploring the a bigger dialogue with people.

You earlier stated that other travel communities represented in the media don’t represent people like you. How would you go about defining who you are?

I was born in Albany. I Left there shortly after my parents split. I grew up in Poughkeepskie, New York, and I went to Iona college in New Rochelle. Right after graduating I dipped to Paris. I've been a Bronx resident for the last five or six years very intermittently between international travel, where I've been gone from a number of months to a year or more in a chunk of time. I've always come back to The Bronx. There's just an urban appeal that I always love. I'm apart of the hip-hop generation. I wanted to create something for people like me. I couldn't find anything that I felt was really gauging or effectively hitting that community and representing it well.

I'm educated. A lot of the people that I roll with are educated people. It's not hip-hop in the sense of your pants sagging, and you have no form of higher education. I want to represent hip-hop in a positive light. I didn't want to create "the black travel group." I tell people that all the time, and I stick by that. If anything, it's about people with an urban appeal, because I lived in Japan for a year, and I can show you urban that is very much not black. For the sake of media and a lot of entities, it all kind of gets clumped together, and I want to show that there is room for it all. There is differentiation, and there is a bigger umbrella, and I never want to pigeonhole myself. I think the demographic that we attract is natural, but I'm not trying to keep anyone out on a diversity realm. I feel like there is stuff that a lot of people from different walks of life can take from it.

Check out all of the episodes of NomadnessTV.

What is the number one factor that makes you interested in exploring different cultures?

It started right after I graduated from college. I am the only person in my family that does what I do. Most of my life I existed in a single parent household—just me, my mother, and my brother. We're not that close with my mother's side of the family, but we forged relationships with them as we got older. My grandmother is white and Western European on that side--I think mostly Irish, Italian, and Dutch. My mother's maiden name is German. My father's side of the family is African American, but there's a lot of Native American on both sides, and I just found out within the last 12 months that my grandma's last name is French, and we also have Indian in us too. I think that breeds a little--at least subconsciously--into why I'm so curious. It's a child-like quality that's never left. That fuels a lot of me wanting to see new places.

How were you bit by the travel bug? 

I went to a very affluent, very Caucasian school. I used to go to house parties and my very affluent friends would talk about how they spent the summer in Spain or Italy studying abroad, and things like that. I remember one day, I had had it. I made this silent promise to myself, and I said, "One day I'm going to be able to participate in these conversations. I don't know when. I don't know why, but I feel like I'm missing out on something." It's always funny now, because when I see those same people, they don't even want to talk about travel around me anymore. My stories blow them out of the water [laughter]. It's the little things that become your motivations.

How did your membership spread so fast and far?

I remember having conversations with one of my best friends who's in the Tribe, Stephanie O'Connor, I said, "I started this website, I want to create a social network. It's going to be like Facebook, but it's for travelers. She reminded me that, "It's just you." Again, I think grandiose. She told me, “Maybe you just want to start it as a Facebook group.” I hated Facebook groups. I only really pay attention to about four or five that I'm in. My whole thing was, I don't want just anybody in it. There's got to be some sense of exclusivity to it. That's where the whole idea of our members needing to get at least one passport stamp to even get in the group came about. We want the members to already understand the importance in it once they're invited, so they'll value it.

The Tribe started with a friend telling me that I was getting a little bit ahead of myself and to scale back a little. It ended up being a great resource, especially because my network through the web series was already fostered on Facebook.

How many countries are you represented in now?

At this point, we're approaching three dozen countries with people who are either from there, or are ex-pats and live there now. We have a huge saturation in the United States, which is probably our majority, but we have a number of people in UK, France, South Korea, Japan, and Brazil is one of our biggest hubs.

When I first met you, you invited me to a Tribe Meetup, and it was huge! Is that happening all over the world?

All over the world on a weekly basis. About four or five months ago, I was talking to the High Counsel, and we projected that it was going to get to a point where there's going to be something going on with the Tribe every single week. It's been like that for almost the last two months now. Literally there is something going on somewhere in the world at least once a week. I give them the freedom to create Meetups that are not micromanaged. There is usually a person in the region who wants to be the organizer. I think giving them that freedom, they cherish it and they really respect the movement, so they represent well.

What is it that you hope for Nomadness in 5 years?

I want Nomadness--this is going to happen this year actually--we have to get off of Facebook. The investor money and what I’m going for right now is twofold for 2013: to get us off of Facebook and into our own online entity that we are building right now, and for myself and high counsel and anyone else that comes on staff to be able to get paid for it so we’re living off of it, and it’s turning a profit. Another goal is to have the Nomadness merchandise in stores. I would love an H&M or Uniqlo placement. That’s a big thing for me, as well as television. Like I said, the Tribe is for everyone. The TV thing is a very personal goal for me, and something that I have been fighting for longer than any other aspect of Nomadness, and we’ve made some amazing headway in these first eight weeks of this year. I think we are going to have all of it by next year. I feel that 2013 is the year that Nomadness is going to blow up. I don’t want anybody ever to be able to think of travel and not think of Nomadness. Literally, we are going to flip this travel industry on its head. That’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s young and innovative. When I say young--I don’t even mean solely age. I mean energy. There’s just a youthfulness to these people regardless of age. It's the appeal of this location independent lifestyle, and people really taking back their lives.

I signed up for a lot of things with Nomadness, but what I didn’t sign up for was how many people in the course of a year put posts up talking about how inspired they are with the story that they’ve quit their 9-5 jobs and moved abroad. I’m like, I didn’t sign up for that. It’s one of those really cool side effects and I think it’s only going to get bigger, and it’s only going to get more inspiring and more powerful. I think going into 2013, we’re going to have more control, and we’re going to be in more places. That’s the goal well before 2015.

Wow. I totally believe you.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Evita Robinson

Check out Part II, The Unyielding Pursuit of a Travel Entrepreneur--Lessons From Evie Robie in Creative Resources.

 

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Featured Interview - Katie Wilson's Beats, Flights and Life

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Featured Interview - Katie Wilson's Beats, Flights and Life

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Remember your favorite high school teacher? He or she inspired you, motivated you, got all Dangerous Minds on your classroom and made you think that once you moved past your hormones, you could actually be the first woman/black/gay/transgendered/clown president? We have no doubt that Katie Wilson is that teacher to her students. A native of Canada, the New York City resident created the Global Studies Workshop with the City University of New York (CUNY) - a global exchange program that begins with an eight month long curriculum on the history of hip-hop before departing on a ten-day, life changing trip with her mostly Bronx born and bred students to Berlin, Germany. In addition to the cross-cultural experience, the students - both American and German – are all aspiring rappers, singers, and spoken word artists and are expected to collaborate and perform during their visit. CultureFphiles spoke to the brilliant and visionary Katie about the origins of the program, the social impact of hip-hop, and hearing Turkish German rap for the first time.

Tell us how the program started and what your involvement was.

I was having lunch with a professor from Fordham, Dr. Naison, and some of my colleagues. He was talking about this amazing half-German, half-American social worker in Berlin named Olad Adden who worked at the largest social service organization in Berlin for youth. Olad created a recording studio for young people focusing on rap and hip-hop. His project started to grow and he received funding from the Goethe Institute in Berlin to initiate [a foreign] exchange. Dr. Naison mentioned they were looking for an organization to host the American side so that the Germans would come to NYC and then six months later, the Americans would go to Germany. Dr. Naison started talking about it and I elbowed my way in and was like, ‘I’m doing it.’ I have a clear and evolving vision of the society I want to contribute to and this was an example of a serendipitous moment when a social interaction provided the opportunity to actually move in that direction.

What about the project piqued your interest?

I used to work as a wilderness guide. It was an international program based in California and I was taking kids whose parents paid a lot of money for 4-6 weeks abroad. I went to Fiji, Australia, Europe…all of this amazing stuff. I would do that during the summer and then I would work at CUNY Prep during the school year and I would think, damn, I want these students [CUNY Prep students] to have a similar experience.

Why did you want to share that experience with the CUNY Prep students?

[Because I saw] the impact on the students I worked with at the wilderness company. I’ve worked with teenagers for almost fifteen years and I see the types of transformation that happen between 16 – 20 years old. With the kids in the wilderness program, there was that experience of being abroad and understanding where they, as Americans, fit in a global spectrum.

Teenagers are asking questions like, 'Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I interested in? What am I good at?' That’s why I love working with teenagers because wherever they are experiencing the ages of 15-20 is going to answer those questions for them. So, a travel program is going to very concretely and powerfully inform the way they see themselves and the world.  I found it very frustrating that the [wilderness] experience was only accessible to students who could pay $5,000 for it.  My work in education has really been about addressing educational inequalities.

Were most of the students who you were working with during the wilderness program mostly affluent, white kids?

Yes - and the students at CUNY Prep were mostly low-income, students of color. I would say 80% of CUNY Prep students are from the Bronx with the remaining students being from Harlem and Washington Heights. Mostly Latino, African-American, African, Caribbean, and all low-income.

...a travel program is going to very concretely and powerfully inform the way they see themselves and the world. I found it very frustrating that the [wilderness] experience was only accessible to students who could pay $5,000 for it. My work in education has really been about addressing educational inequalities.

Tell us a little bit about the challenges you faced prior to leaving.

We left for Berlin in 2010 with six students. We were in Berlin for ten days. Honestly, I don’t think anyone actually believed it was going to happen…that we would pull it off.  We didn’t have funding for flights until three weeks before and I think I just had to say at some point, the money is going to come and then we finally got it. With the first group it was so powerful because we were scrambling to make it work. I partnered with a MC called Farbeond. So that first year, it was six kids and then we had two students who Farbeond worked with. It was a powerful first 48 hours where it set in like whoa, we’re actually here. This actually happened.  The amazing thing was that the kids bonded so much - they really congealed as a group. I saw them peeling away layers of who they need to be to survive in the Bronx and what their capacities are as artists and global citizens representing the US, the Bronx, themselves and CUNY Prep.

How important and instrumental were all of these relationships to building the program?

It’s all about relationship-building.  Especially in the field of education and youth development, relationships with colleagues with whom I am collaborating must be authentic.  I am humbled by how important my role as a mentor and teacher to young people really is; therefore, I approach collaborations very seriously.  We each have our individual talents and skills, but any project, business, or social movement is grounded in human beings working to communicate and collaborate with each other. We are social beings - we are dependent and connected - as families, communities, nations and as an entire planet. I think we forget that sometimes in psycho-individualistic NYC, but at the end of the day we need each other.

What was it like for the kids on a performance/artistic level. What was that experience like for them performing in Berlin?

Some of the students were performing for the first time ever in their lives. ]They were transformed by the experience of getting up on stage and performing their own work and their collaborative work for the first time in a different country.

It must have blew them away. 

Yeah, it took them a while to get used to hearing German rap. They were like,“what the hell are they saying?” and, “they are rapping so fast!” They were amazed by it but also, like “haha that sounds funny” [laughs]. There’s also a large Turkish population in Berlin so hearing a Turkish kid rapping in German who spoke English with a Middle Eastern accent…it was like, what?! And that’s amazing - that confusion and having your mind blown - that’s what it’s all about. The kids also couldn’t get over how supportive, friendly, and non-threatening the environments [they performed in] were as opposed to where they grew up in the Bronx.

It’s important for young people to see hip-hop performed in a non-machismo, unaggressive way.

Exactly - and music has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not. You can track historically, in this country, what’s happened in terms of social movements and what music has helped pushed that.  As I build the curriculum for this program, it’s important to analyze the history of hip-hop and where it comes from and where it’s going…and hip-hop has just become more interesting globally. That’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, 'oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself' and so we have to facilitate that process.

What specifically got you interested in teaching the kids about hip-hop? What drew you to the music and made you interested in incorporating it into the curriculum?

Something I always say is that I’m Canadian. I was raised in the suburbs in the country. I listened to hip-hop in the 90’s but I was more into reggae and rock. I’m not a super hip-hop head and I don’t purport to be a hip-hop expert. I think it’s actually a benefit in building this program because I’m coming from a youth development perspective and as an educator and I’m really about transformative education.

...music has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not...that’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, ‘oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself’ and so we have to facilitate that process.

My love for hip-hop music and culture has deepened over the past 15 years. To be an effective educator, it is essential to understand, give voice to, and build relationships with your students.  Youth culture is - and always has been - synonymous with the culture of music.  For the past 30 or so years, hip-hop has been a dominant sound in youth culture. Since the genre is also a complex culture, its impact is profound. It is not simply about enjoying the sound, it’s about a message and, in some cases, a resounding call for societal changes. Hip-hop messages range from simple to revolutionary to spiritual.  As an educator, exploring this global culture - its past, present and future messages with my students is a very important and powerful lesson.

Many of your students are from the Bronx, what were some of the major cultural differences you all experienced?

The history of WWII, Hitler and the presence of the Berlin Wall is pretty predominant and I think it’s intentional that you’re made aware of that history. I think that in the US, we’re not made aware of what has gone on [historically] and a lot of the students were like well, how come there isn’t that same aspect of playing homage? I thought it was so brilliant that the kids were pointing that out. We went to the concentration camps and took a train way out to the suburbs and there are tons of beautiful houses and then all of a sudden you’re at the end of a lane and there’s a museum and a whole concentration camp with tours.

Many of the students you work with come from challenging backgrounds. Do you feel they were more hopeful after they returned from Berlin?

That was a mixed bag – one of my biggest challenges with this program was [that the kids] said they felt safe, happy, and free traveling but then they return to their struggles. I want to work really hard to make sure this experience is transformed into a lasting experience.

How do you make that transition easier for them?

Both times I had two students who returned and were depressed because they returned to sleeping on the couch and not having enough food in the fridge and were really struggling.  Part of my work is to provide them with leadership roles and have them continue to see themselves as ambassadors and world citizens.  It’s not about the ten days only of being over there. It’s about building a global community. Most of the kids are in college and have managed to maintain academically which is something I’m a huge proponent of. The testament is that the kids who went in 2010, I would say 5 of the 6 students are incredibly successful right now. One is DJaying, the other won all of these spoken word contests and was in Paris, another girl really discovered her self as a singer [in Berlin]. Another student has started his own business…and these are like 20, 21 year-old students. I’m interested to see this next round of students and what will be some of their accomplishments.

Part of my work is to provide them [students] with leadership roles and have them continue to see themselves as ambassadors and world citizens. It’s not about the ten days only of being over there. It’s about building a global community.

It sounds like you’re giving your students tools to become better leaders.

Yes, a common vision I have in my work as an international wilderness instructor and as CUNY Prep's coordinator for the Bronx Berlin Program has been to guide my students in thinking critically about themselves, the US, the countries we visited, the inter-connectedness of the planet and the ways in which we can participate in the transformation of our world.

In my opinion, much of the US citizens' relationship to the global community is based in the notion that we are the greatest country on the planet and every other country is somehow lesser than. That is just not true and is an incredibly problematic perspective, especially for youth to adopt since the planet they are inheriting is rapidly globalizing.

What do you envision long-term for the program?

I’m still thinking about the possibilities. I just love how it worked out so organically and I don’t want to decide on some outcome of what it’s going to become and then shoot for that goal. Right now, my goal is making sure it’s solid at CUNY prep. I would love to find a grant to fund it. I’m really trying to make the program sustainable and formalize it programmatically. Hopefully, I’ll be able to create other abroad programs at CUNY Prep.

To find out more about the Bronx-Berlin project click here.

 Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Trey Wilder

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."

Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book. 

When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art.  When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas. 

Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:

At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters? 

The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.

You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?

My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.

Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?

Yeah, I party with them all the time.

You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art? 

As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.

You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?

I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?

It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...

If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?

Go batshit crayyyyzeee.

Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?

Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.

What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?

Real life people on the streeets are the best.

How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?

Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.

Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself? 

I paint food.

To see more of Sheryo's whimsical characters, visit her Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitterwhere all of the photos in this article were graciously borrowed from.

Words by Boyuan Gao

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