Fellows Friday with Gavin Sheppard

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Growing up amidst the violence of inner city Toronto, Gavin Sheppard started The Remix Project to catapult creative young people from troubled neighborhoods into lucrative careers. From presidential meetings to local crime scenes to celebrity parties, Gavin stays focused on finding new ways to keep The Remix Project evolving, and improving young people’s lives.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Gavin asks:

Do artists have a responsibility? And if so, what, in your opinion, is it?

Click here to respond!

Tell us about The Remix Project.

The Remix Project is a cultural incubator, working with young people from across the Greater Toronto Area. We work with young people whom we deem as absolutely brilliant, mind-blowing, amazing, creative people. But they have also been labeled a lot of other things in their lives, whether it’s at-risk, in conflict, or what have you.

What was your inspiration for The Remix Project?

Completely selfish, originally. When we started the program, I was still in high school. I started when I was 17 — just over 10 years ago. And really it came about from not wanting to be on the block anymore. This is Toronto, so when November comes around it’s really, really cold — absolutely brutal.

We started it as a drop-in program with turntables for public use, graffiti walls and open mics. Over the years, it started to evolve into something a lot more sophisticated. We have a program for the recording arts, the creative arts, the art of business, and something called Remix Projects, which is a social enterprise side of what we do. It’s the for-profit side of the program, and it hires some of our graduates and our alumni coming out of those different streams.

We hire people from the creative arts program, whether they’re graphic designers, photographers, or filmmakers. We hire from the art of business, whether they’re in event management or marketing or fashion, and from the recording arts program as producers, engineers, composers and artists themselves.

The young people graduate from these different streams, and then also have an opportunity to be hired by our for-profit side, Remix Projects. They work on campaigns for BMW Group, or Timex Group, or other companies who are looking to authentically plug into a youth demographic, and they get to use their expertise to help tap into a particular market.

You say you use hip-hop to reach the kids. How does that work?

For us it’s about popular culture. I happened to grow up in the hip-hop generation, and view that as my culture, whether popular or not. But for us, for Remix, and for our partner programs in different places around the world, it’s not always about hip-hop. It’s about popular culture.

Remix and Brazilian youth partners.

Popular culture is that Trojan Horse. It’s the ability to use music and culture to get past the defenses of young people who have kind of held up shields to every sort of social service or government-funded program around. The young people that we’re dealing with are frequently those who have been left outside of the systems, and also purposely stand outside of the systems, because of so many negative experiences.

So you need a way to be able to penetrate that. Hip-hop can be that gift, that Trojan Horse, that gives you the ability to get past the defenses they put up. Once you’ve gotten past that, and you give them that gift and they’re engaged, that’s when you can start to hit them with life skills. That means helping them develop everything from business etiquette to refining the natural raw talents they have. Whether it’s in graphic design — maybe they are really cool graffiti artists. Or maybe it’s as a music producer or an engineer, or something else.

You grew up in this same community as the kids you mentor. How did you develop the skills you teach?

A lot of trial and error. I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit for a long time. My family is definitely a large part of that. My mother is an artist, my father is a journalist and writer. So I grew up in the arts, but I didn’t really have an artistic bone myself. So it was kind of growing up with a love for the arts.

Past that, I started a clothing line when I was 16 with a couple of really good friends. I started managing a local rap group in about grade twelve. Those life experiences helped push me in certain directions. And eventually one of the artists I was managing got signed to Universal, through Maple Music, and the producers got Grammy-nominated. So it was a wealth of real-world experience, shooting music videos, doing all these different things, and having to learn through trial and error. You know, just me and my boys making it happen and realizing, man, there must be some way to pass this on to the next generation. It shouldn’t be as hard as it was for us.

Gavin Sheppard.

Our whole thing has been this idea that the talent has always existed up here in Toronto, Canada, but what hasn’t is the infrastructure. And so we need to develop not just skill training for the artists, but also to help develop an actual industry and infrastructure for them to enter into. Because you can’t tell someone to come in and work on this type of project, and not have any type of economic benefit or avenue for them.

You tell a kid, “Stop selling drugs” and they’re like, “Sure, pay my rent.” So you have to marry the kind of passion for what they’re doing with a meaningful way to generate some income that’s going to be able to support mom, maybe some little brothers and sisters, and especially themselves.

What are some of The Remix Project’s success stories?

There are a ridiculous amount of success stories. I’d love people to go to theremixproject.ca. First thing you see is one of the success stories, a girl named Chantle Beeso. She’s a girl who, when she first came to us, had the idea of starting a magazine. We were kind of like, “Alright, you’re 16. Really, you’re going to start a magazine in a six-month program?” And she just absolutely blew us away. She’s a young woman who comes from one of the “priority neighborhoods” out here, the Hood. She just has this incredible will and desire to do something. And she went about and started this magazine, she employed two other young people: she had a designer and a photographer from the program as well. She got a part-time job, she paid for the whole first pressing, and sure enough she came out with this magazine called BeSo Magazine, which is absolutely amazing.

But it didn’t stop there for her. We do workshops on the granting systems up here, and she applied to a foundation and was able to secure funding for three more issues of her magazine. With that, she employed ten young people from her community to be the writers, photographers, reviewers and graphic designers for her magazine.

She took that whole experience and then applied to university and got a $10,000 scholarship for journalism at Carlton.

We have so many stories like that. And there are a bunch of them online.

Have you seen any changes in the community at large as a result of the Remix Project?

Yeah, we’ve seen some changes in the community. We work all across the city, so we work with neighborhoods that have had historic problems with each other – very violent, a lot of deaths on each side. And we’ve always purposely located ourselves in neutral territory, where young people from across the city and all different neighborhoods can feel safe coming to. If truth be told, we actually could get a lot more funding if we were just located in one of the “priority neighborhoods” here in the city. But the reality is, we know as soon as we do that, then a whole bunch of other people will never show up because they just won’t feel safe getting there.

So we’re in this neutral space, and the cool thing that happens is that at first, I’m not going to say it’s all love, and everything is great, but people know that when they get in here, they’re here for a purpose. There’s 250 applicants usually, and we have 30 slots to fill. The first day we say, “Look around. These people in this room are your peers. These are the best of the best. These are the other people out of the 250 that made it to the top 30, so it’s not just about this class that you’re seeing here right now, but these are the faces you’re probably going to see for the next 5, 10, 15 years.” We set it up to start building relationships in that way. But what we found is that the most driving force is always an economic one.

For example, you start with some kids, they’ll be in a recording studio, one kid will have his session, the other is outside and he’s just listening but won’t really let himself enjoy it because he’s like, “Well, that guy’s from a rival turf.” But after a while that respect level starts to grow because of the artistry.

The most important part is when we go in and say, “Hey, man, why don’t you do a collaboration with that guy over there.” And they’ll be like, “Ah, I don’t know, I don’t know.” And we say, “Well, look at it this way: you got your mix tape, you’re hustling your CD in the neighborhood and it’s cool because you’re making your sales, but if you get him on it, then you can go to that neighborhood, where you never could before. Now you just doubled your potential market base.”

As soon as you start talking in that way, people are way more receptive. Just simple micro economic type stuff, but as soon as you start speaking in that language, that’s when it gets interesting, and they’ll go over and start talking. Next thing you know, they start doing records.

And the cool thing about that — aside from those kids making a relationship — is now, what we’ve literally seen over the last couple years, is a difference in the way problems are handled between neighborhoods. Before, if someone gets shot or something goes wrong in my neighborhood, we jump in and spray up your block, we shoot up your neighborhood.

But one of the really great things that’s starting to happen that we actually didn’t plan for – I can’t take credit for it, but it’s been really cool — is now there’s a phone call, at least, first. That doesn’t mean that things get solved. It doesn’t mean that it stops the violence from happening all the time. But at least now there’s a line of communication. They at least have someone they can talk to on the other side, and have someone that can help mediate different things, and try to get perspective and context that never happened before. So that’s one of the most exciting things that’s been happening in terms of changes in the community.

These new lines of communication that are opening up that can only exist because of arts and culture. That was the only common thread.

You love “Entourage,” “West Wing” and “The Wire” and have said your life is sometimes a mash-up of the three. What do you mean by that?

I said that right after I got the opportunity to go on State visits with our (now former) Governor General of Canada, who is our head of state. We went through Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica, and we were in Presidential Palaces, literally having lunch with the President. And then I’d come back to being on the phone with somebody from back home, and they’d be like “Yo, this guy just got shot, this guy’s in court right now…” you know what I mean? Crazy stuff that is just our everyday lives at home.

There’s also been this creative, incredible Renaissance in Toronto in terms of our arts and culture industry. Drake, for example, recorded his second mix tape here. His producer is the guy who ran our recording program for two years, and he’s now on our Board. His tour DJ is a graduate from Remix and is touring all over the world, his social media person is another Remix person, so we’re very close to that circle.

Grammy-nominated Melanie Fiona and a guitar she autographed for Remix.

So our worlds were just this insane place, where one minute you’re in a party with the Who’s Who of the entertainment industry, and the next minute you’re responding to different young people in the courts, and you’re going to court, acting as unofficial grief counselors over someone who’s brother just got shot, and then the next week having lunch with the President of Mexico, and talking international politics, and trade relations, and what it means for temporary work visas for Mexican workers in the Canadian context, and then back to the Hood.

So I felt like I was in the middle of this crazy mash-up of “Entourage,” “The West Wing,” and “The Wire.” And that was my everyday reality.

Jamie Hector of “The Wire” with Gavin.

Do you have big future plans for The Remix Project?

Definitely. We’re constantly looking for big new ideas. We just had a film premier of a new film program we just ran a pilot of. It’s partnered with Team Seven and Temple Street Productions. We’re looking to take this film program much further, instituting it as a full-time, regular stream initiative.

But the long-term vision for Remix is to continue its programming, but to also open an alternative school. It would be an alternative boarding school that’s based around arts and culture.

There’s a school up here called Upper Canada College, which is where the elite send their kids, like an Ivy League high school. We want to be the Upper Canada College for the Hood. That’s the vision.

What we’ve recognized is that we’re doing a lot of amazing things here, but that program is only from 3 to 9 pm Monday to Friday. So at 9pm, people go home. And in the Hood, most of the shit happens at night. And we’re not open on the weekends, which is the number two time when shit happens.

The Remix Project gives people something to focus on, something to be passionate about, and also something to have hope towards, which will keep them out of bullshit. They’re not going to get caught up in something when they have something to look forward to, and that they feel is meaningful and true. But … at the same time, the reality is, if you are one of those kids trying to be positive and to “make it”, oftentimes your boys are still caught up in things, and your loyalty is that you’ve got to “ride” when it’s time to ride. How do you say “no”? And so, I’m really interested in this idea of an alternative boarding school that’s focused around arts and culture, but still teaching all the other courses that need to be taught. Think Freedom Writers meets The Boys of Baraka.

What’s the one improvement you’d like to see in the public education system?

I would just like to see more arts programming. I don’t just mean more painting classes, but I’d like to see more creative ways of teaching the existing subjects as well. So, geography, history, etc. But just understanding that there are so many different types of learners. And that the current system is really set up for one type. There have been improvements for sure, but there haven’t been sweeping policy changes.

I think we have to recognize and be very honest with ourselves that we’re never going to serve everybody equally well. Because there are just so many different types of people, and only so many hours in a day. But I think it’s just like democracy. It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s always something you work towards.

I think our teachers need a lot more support. I used to just hate on the education system all the time, but as I’ve matured a little bit, I’ve recognized that I think our teachers need a lot more support. And I think they also need the leeway to do things that they’re recognizing are going to be effective in their classroom. Because I think our teachers are the best ones to know how to institute policy objectives on the ground.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

My advice for someone who is taking their social enterprise to the next level would definitely be to plan. Think ahead. Do a market scan of what type of services are being offered, and then, depending on if you are a non-profit looking to start the for-profit side, or whether you’re just looking to start a social enterprise, my advice would vary.

If you’re a non-profit looking to start a social enterprise, my number one thing that I would say is make sure that you don’t sacrifice your programming for the sake of starting the enterprise. Because at the end of the day, the programming is what you’re passionate about, it’s the reason why you do what you do, and it’s also the key service that your community is accessing and is probably in need of.

While self-sustainability is a beautiful dream, and it can be actualized, it’s also a very hard road. Most start-ups lose money for the first couple years. You’re going to have to have the right support around you. But it can also really drag you away from what your vision is in terms of community programming and the services that you’re offering. You get so caught up in trying to make this thing profitable, that to sustain it, the non-profit suffers.

I would say, just be very, very honest with yourself in terms of what your expectations are, what’s realistic in terms of the market for your product or service, and is the investment of time and energy and resources worth the return. Because if you’re just becoming sustainable as a for-profit entity, and you’re really only turning over a couple thousand every month, outside of your sustainability as a for-profit, then is it really worth what you’re doing? You probably could have spent those hours a lot more profitably somewhere else.

My number one thing would just be, “Is it worth it?” Because right now it’s a hot topic, it’s a big trend. And it can be worth it, and it can be profitable, but it’s only going to be for a very small number of people. And otherwise it’s just going to bastardize your vision and hurt the services that your community counts on.

Has the TED Fellowship helped your work at all?

Definitely. It’s definitely improved my confidence. I’m not someone who did well in the formal education system. I think I finished high school, but I still don’t have a diploma, because I kind of bounced around between a couple schools. So to be recognized on the level as a TED Fellow was extremely satisfying, rewarding and beautiful. And it really helped shore up my own self-doubt when I’m in different circles. Whether it’s with university professors, or MBAs, city officials or people at the UN. People start talking and it’s, “Oh, Remix, great! Where did you go to school?” And I’m like, “I, uh, didn’t go to school.” And immediately people’s perceptions change.

You and I and the person reading this can say, “Well, that’s bullshit, it’s not about that.” But the reality is, of course it’s about that when you’re in those circles and in those environments. So to have this badge of honor of being a TED Fellow has shored up my confidence, and I think pushed me to walk into circles that I would have been shy to otherwise.

I found that experience really driven home at the actual TED Conference. You know, when you have that word “Fellow” on your badge, it just opened up so many doors. People were so receptive and I started to be able to connect with individuals I never thought I would have connected with before. I realized the human element, the common bond between the two of us. It just drove home the points that I’ve known, but didn’t necessarily have the confidence to act upon.

And to be honest, the workshops we did on public speaking and presentations and whatnot, those were actually helpful, too, I can’t lie. As much as I feel like I’ve done enough public speaking in my life already, I picked up a lot of good tips, and it was really cool.

What can readers do to help the lives of underprivileged young people?

I would love for people to check out the work we’re doing. Not because I’m looking for some kind of support, but because I think it’s really interesting, and really cool, and really fun. And I think more than that, the young people we’re working with are just so cool and brilliant, you’ll just get a kick out of it.

Outside of that, I’d say if there is one request I’d have of readers, it would be that if you can find a way to include a young person in the work that you’re doing, or through a mentorship or a shadowing, or just letting someone come into your environment for a day, I would really encourage you to do that.

People think just bringing somebody for a day to work is not really doing much, it’s just so surface-level. But honestly, the exposure, just the awareness that you can bring to a young person’s life through having them come with you for one day to a different work environment and getting them out of their own environment is huge. The impact is massive.

For a lot of kids from the neighborhoods that we work in, a summer job is the older guy on the block giving you some cocaine and saying, “Split it up, bring it back, let’s make it work.”

A lot of kids that grow up in more affluent communities have the ability and luxury to get a summer job at an accounting firm or a law firm, or something like that. Even if it’s just getting coffee and it’s a bullshit job, it’s that social circle that you’re put into, and it’s also an understanding that this is accessible, and this is a reality. Those sort of experiences are invaluable for kids like the ones from neighborhoods we serve.