Artists for Humanity – Small Biz Stories, Episode 4

Meet Jason Talbot, co-founder of Artists for Humanity. Jason shares his views on how to transform ideas, individuals, and the greater community.

Small Biz Stories tells the story of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet — small business owners.

You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

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You can also read the transcript below:

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Jason: I could feel it happening to my mind, to myself, to my self-image, to my vision for my future that I wanted to continue. I wanted to have an art show in that gallery every weekend for the rest of my life, because it felt that good. And that’s why we do it, because it makes that effort worth something.

Dave: If you own a small business, you’re probably familiar with this feeling. There’s a moment when all the hard work and sacrifice you’ve put into something finally pays off. You feel a true sense of accomplishment.

As any small business owner can tell you, you’ll need hard work, focus, and discipline to take full advantage of the opportunities available to you.

Today, Jason Talbot, co-founder of Artists for Humanity, shares how a strong work ethic has the power to transform your idea, self-image, and community.

More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Dave: Artists for Humanity is a nonprofit that started off with an idea: to address the lack of arts experiences in Boston’s Public schools by employing urban teens to provide creative services to clients within the local business community. Jason has been involved in this program since the beginning — first as a student of the program, and today as a co-founder and Special Projects Director for the organization.

Dave: So I guess let’s look at the history starting there. You’re in a unique position where that you’re kind of a product of the program, I guess, before it was a program, right?

Jason: Yeah, yeah.

Dave: Tell us a little bit about how that all started.

Jason: Well, Artists for Humanity, it started in a real organic way. Susan Rodgerson, our executive director, saw what was going on in the Boston Public School System. Saw art programs being slashed and really took it upon herself in a real entrepreneurial way to make sure the young people got the enrichment that art brings to their lives. And she wanted to make sure that there was art in schools, that kids had that experience. And so she had this plan to paint a big, giant painting with a bunch of kids and sell it off to a corporation for lobby art to then fund the next painting. In a cyclical way be able to make sure that there was an art program for kids. And I was one of the kids that worked on that very first piece. She came to my junior high, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, and we worked and we started painting this painting together. And there were a group of six of us, but we were art minded, we were art focused. Our teachers knew that we were into art. The principal knew we were into art. We drew together, we doodled together, we all had a love for spray paint. She saw that we kind of rose, she saw our leadership, and after that project we continued to work together.

Dave: Artists for Humanity gave this small group a transformative and meaningful experience. For the first time, Jason and his fellow students had a place to call their own and began to feel truly accepted.

What impact do you think that’s had on your life?

Jason: Wow. It’s totally changed my life. It’s totally shaped my path. See, growing up, there wasn’t much of a future.

Dave: Yeah.

Jason: It was both real and it was both imposed. So there was violence in my neighborhood, I was the victim of violence, attacks. And then in the newspaper every Monday there was a tally of how many kids got murdered in my neighborhood or on my block and it was just like . . . So I was in danger but it was even amplified by the media. And it really gave me the impression that I had a bleak future but also the people around me, my teachers and the other people in the community, that I was expendable. I think here at Artists for Humanity there’s a total shift where the message is 100% different where, “Hey, guess what? You are not hooked into any future. You can shape your own fate and destiny. And the best tool to shape your destiny is hard work and focus and discipline.” And Susan had the highest expectations of us. She knew that if we worked hard, if we were focused, we could accomplish amazing things. We had done it way back at the King School and every time a client came to us with a job we put 100% into it and ended up with some really great accomplishments.

And I got really hooked on accomplishments. I just loved working with my team, I loved the whole process where even when we were working at the eleventh hour and everything was . . . We had issues and problems and drama. We would fight through, we would solve those problems, and then we would end up . . . It just made that success even more sweet and wonderful. It bonded our relationships even better. And even in the end I even got more connected with my education and looking for opportunities and dreaming about an awesome career for myself. So being in this building, working in this facility, working with these projects and this community, it was absolutely transformative.

Dave: One of the most important values for Artists for Humanity is that ideas can come from anywhere. Students know that their opinions will be taken seriously and they’re not afraid to try something new that’s never been done before.

Dave: What would you say, then, makes Artists for Humanity different from say another youth program that’s out there?

Jason: Well, we’re different not just from any youth program, we’re just different.

Dave: Okay.

Jason: Because we listen and we respond. And there’s a point where somebody says, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea.” And everybody else is like, “Oh, but we planned to do this.” And that idea gets left on the table, it gets swept under the rug, it’s on the cutting room floor and who knows what. But I think this is a place where that idea gets put to work. I think that’s the difference. If government ran like that, if corporations ran like that, if car companies ran like that, then we would constantly build, evolve, innovate. There’s room here for that. Again, our organization started with this very simple idea, but since then it has built . . . We have added layer after layer after layer. Every time we see an opportunity, every time there’s a program to develop, or a service we can provide for our teams we just pull it on in.

Dave: Right.

Jason: And add it to the organization. So I mean hey, are we an artist organization? Of course, art is our medium, it’s our vehicle. With that we’re able to tack on all this positivity, all this enrichment for our teens, for our staff, for our community, and of course for our clients.

Dave: Yeah. Why is that? This idea of listening and then evolving based on what the problems are, why is that so important to you and to the organization?

Jason: Well, somehow I feel like it just makes sense. I think that there’s a . . . When you’re working with a team you need a plan. You need to have some guidelines. You need to have an easy way to make sure everybody’s on the same page and that everybody’s able to communicate. But when you let that plan restrict you, or that curriculum restrict you, or the guidelines restrict you then you lose a lot. And here our focus is on creativity. It’s on problem-solving. It’s on innovating. And so we have to give our young people the opportunity to do that, and in doing that, and our staff people there an opportunity to innovate and have ideas. And so to do that we have to be a little bit flexible. We have to be able to hear and make things happen and react. As well as be thoughtful and plan things out. And that kind of is tough for a lot of people to juggle. There’s a juggling going on with all that we do here. Whether it’s the experience to mentor and the innocent mentee, protege, we’re balancing those things, those two, into a beautiful piece of artwork or beautiful project, a commission for our clients. And there are benefits to be added by both people in that arrangement.

Dave: This unique approach makes Artists for Humanity a popular place for students looking for work, as well as creative opportunities. As the organization continues to expand, Jason and his team work hard to maintain the same level of commitment to personal and community development that existed when the program was only 6 students.

Dave: So when you started it was just a small group of you, right?

Jason: Yeah.

Dave: And so where are you now? Like in terms of staff, and how big have you grown since those early days?

Jason: Yeah. So right now we’ve got about 145 kids employed. That’s about how many we can stuff into the building. We’re actually gonna ramp it up this summer to about 150. Throughout the year we’ve probably employed about 250 kids this year. And then we have about 30 staff members who are in support of that, but we wanna ramp that up. We’re looking to double youth employment. We’re looking to activate our space all day long. We’re looking to add new programming, all with the focus on building community, having people work together, share each others’ resources, and also make the most of the resources here in the city. We’ve always been an after-school program, but we want to activate our space during the day, as well. We wanna bring in, maybe kids who were recently graduated or dropped out or were looking for opportunities. There’s been a shift in America to build infrastructure, invest in our cities, our towns, our bridges, our systems, our infrastructure, and we want to train that next level of young people that are going to be able to take those jobs and those opportunities.

And so activating our space during the day, having kids learn the trades and the vocations, so that if there are opportunities out there then our young people, who are under resourced, under served, living below the poverty line, that they’re able to meet those opportunities and chisel out a real positive, successful future for themselves. It’s important to us. It’s important to our city. It’s important to our country. So if we can model that the way we modeled green design when we built our building then I think we’ll be doing something really good that goes beyond the walls of our facility.

Dave: The space Jason is referring to is The EpiCenter. Designed with energy sustainability in mind, the award-winning EpiCenter is the first building in Boston to achieve LEED certification. With impressive gallery space, art studios, and offices, the facility has become the organization’s home, as well as a popular rental space for weddings and events. But beyond that, the EpiCenter is the perfect example of the long-lasting impact Artists for Humanity makes on its students. Here’s Jason on the building’s background.

Jason: We opened this building in 2004.

Dave: And it’s just you guys, right?

Jason: Yep. Yep. Yep.

Dave: All right. And so what was it like? What was that move like? Coming into this space?

Jason: Well, it was an amazing feeling. We had this beautiful facility. But we programmed it for what we envisioned Artists for Humanity people . . . We couldn’t have anticipated what it would be like to have our own facility and how that would increase the opportunities for us, increase our visibility. Let our funders, our supporters, our clients, the teams all know that we were solid, that we were liquid, and that we were gonna be here for a long time.

Dave: Yeah.

Jason: It really added a bit of credibility to what we were doing and then, of course, to have such a cutting edge facility, such a green facility. It really helped people take a notice of us and pay attention to what we were doing.

Dave: Did you have it built?

Jason: We built it from scratch. Even that was like another . . . We were able to inject positivity into that because one of my other guys, one of the original Artist alumni that was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School with me, after graduating high school went off to Risley, became an architect, and he was actually on the team designing and building this building. But it doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t stop there, because then he opened an architecture studio here with a bunch of kids and they were able to help design architectural features that actually went into the building. And from that program we have like four or five kids who are in architecture careers right now because they had that experience. Because they had that exposure.

Dave: Artists for Humanity purposely exposes their students to new experiences and people. Getting them out into the art and business community makes them more mindful of their future and gives them a sense of accomplishment they often haven’t yet experienced.

Dave: Yeah. You mentioned a bit earlier about the events that you guys have, especially after you’ve finished a project you’ll bring everybody together. Why are those events so important? And any other events that you run for that matter.

Jason: Well, I guess it’s all about community. It’s all about people coming together. It’s not like Boston is at a lack for resources. This is a world-class city. People come here from all over the world to do business, to learn, and to educate. It’s that there is a population here that doesn’t have access. And so the more we can bring people together the more we can distribute all of these resources. The more that we can have people understand each other’s cultures and work together to get stuff done. And we model that and we want to make sure that if we do this amazing, awesome mural that we just don’t passively sit around and wait for people to check it out and pat us on the back. We wanna invite everyone.

And so the more that we can facilitate, the more that we can exemplify, I think it serves us and it serves our participants. So yeah, we’re gonna throw some confetti in the air and cheer, cut a ribbon. And you know what? That’s when it all is driven home. One of our early endeavors was a gallery show. We worked as a studio, we worked on paintings, we produced this body of work to be shown at the Nielsen Gallery on Newbury Street. And we worked hard and we produced a lot of artwork and it was great. And under normal circumstances, in a normal class, I would have got an A or B based on my effort, but here we put those paintings in that gallery, and I stood in that gallery.

And people came in and they asked me about my work, and they were astonished by what we were able to do. And I was introduced to this whole community, this place I had never been. I didn’t understand it, it was beautiful to me. I could feel it happening to my mind, to myself, to my self-image, to my vision for my future that I wanted to continue. I wanted to have an art show in that gallery every weekend for the rest of my life, because it felt that good. And that’s why we do it, because it makes that effort worth something. Yeah, an A and an A+ is pretty great, that’s a pretty good celebration. But let me tell you when that flashing cameras, when you’re standing next to Deval Patrick it’s like, “All right. This is something. All right, this is something special.”

Dave: Yeah.

Jason: And that happened. We were at Vertex, down the street. They had opened their new building. We had produced this series of coffee tables where we cut and composed their collateral material with these beautiful designs on these tables, set them in resin, and when they unveiled their building they put one of them on stage with the CEO, the founder, and Deval, and I think Marty Walsh was there, too. And then two of our kids. And it’s like those kids, they still feel like big shots from that.

Dave: How do you guys get the word out about these things? Either the events you’re running to those audiences that you’re trying to reach but also just about the program. How do you get the word out about that?

Jason: Yeah, sure. So we do have our evangelists, our happy customers. They’re always out there toting Artists for Humanity but one thing that’s a great added value to what we do is that there is this back story. Yeah, okay, you’ve got a bunch of beautiful paintings on your wall, but guess what? They were done by teenagers and so there’s always that social media component. So we like to document kids working on projects. We like to share that type of information with clients, give them a little something to Tweet out there or post it at folks Facebook page. Or even inter-office communications. It’s one of those things that make people feel proud of their workplace because patronizing Artists for Humanity really is, it’s kind of community building.

Dave: Jason and his team rely on social media and email marketing to communicate with their audience, which has quickly become another outlet for students to give their input and showcase their work.

We have our own Facebook page. That’s a great network for us, it’s really helped us stay in contact with our alumni. And we have an event, we e-blast it out, and we do use Constant Contact. We’re always able to tell who opens what and the effectiveness of our correspondence, that’s always great for us. But it’s also though, what’s funny is as social media has become this bigger beast, our kids are the experts.

Jason: It’s something that we’re actually hoping we can market out there to our clients. We actually have started, in our video studio, doing square videos for Instagram.

Dave: Instagram, yeah.

Jason: And just getting the word out there and being cutting edge. Using that young, contemporary youth voice that we have here, the early adopters, to help our clients achieve their goals.

Jason: Well, everything we do is about building community. So the more that we can get the word out there, the more that we can bring people together, the more that people know what’s going on at Artists for Humanity the better. And so we’re willing to go . . . If we had a messenger pigeon that would come back we’d send it that way, we’d send the message. But email is a great way to do it. We’ve got a huge contact list of interested parties and so being able to be consistently reaching out to those people, reminding them of this awesome thing, letting them know we have an idea or we’re gonna throw an event.

Dave:  Being able to easily communicate with their audience has also helped the organization overcome its biggest challenge: fundraising.

Jason: Well, one of our earliest challenges was the fact that Arts for Humanity was six boys. And so it was a small program and sometimes for funders it was tough for them to see the impact there. What’s the point of funding an organization with four guys in it? And so we struggled with that. But that struggle, I’ve gotta say it was a blessing, because what funding we couldn’t find in foundations we decided, “Well, okay, let’s go earn it. Let’s go earn some money. Let’s go earn some money to pay the rent so we can keep the doors open.” And that’s really what helped us develop this model where we’re working for clients, providing services. It was literally to keep the doors open in the beginning. So that was a blessing and a curse. It helped shape us. If you couldn’t ask for it, if you couldn’t get it through philanthropy then we were willing to earn that money. And that earned revenue has always been the thing that has helped us get through those tough times with the economy or the stock market or funding shifts and changes. It’s a fickle market and so as long as we’re able to say, “Hey, let’s go. There’s somebody over there that needs something done.” And if we can rally the troops and go make that happen and earn some money, then we can keep doing what we love to do.

Dave: With so many areas of focus, I was curious how Artists for Humanity gauges their success, and how they’ve kept going strong for almost 25 years.

Jason: What is success? I guess it’s just when our city is a better place. When kids who need opportunities, when kids who want to participate, if they’re included and in Boston. And we wanna make opportunities here in our organization but we also wanna make sure that there are places, that there are companies, that there are other organizations that will accept and hire our participants after the fact. And that our participants are there in leadership roles, doing their best to make Boston a better place.

Dave: Yeah. So looking forward, right? Looking forward and really thinking back on the lessons you’ve learned through the years. What would you say is the most important thing that keeps both you personally going and the organization moving forward?

Jason: What keeps me going is making things. I like to make stuff. It’s just, yeah I can go to the mall and I can buy stuff. But I like making things. That is so much fun when you just take a pile of crap and then you turn it around and it’s a sculpture or it’s a beautiful bust or it’s a little pouch for my knick-knacks. I do a lot of origami so even I have this flat sheet of paper and then a couple minutes later it’s a horse or a gorilla. That to me is just . . . It’s what makes us humans. I think that is so empowering, is so much fun, it’s just so great. Or driving down the street I see a mural I painted. That’s like, “That’s it.” And so then, when you can gather a group of 10 or 15 awesome people and rather than just hang out or rather than just going to dinner or something, make something. Make something bigger than I can make by myself. Make something that’s important, make something that changes peoples’ lives, that inspires people.

Dave: Part of the organization’s success comes from their view on mistakes. The artist mindset is so central to the organization that challenges are seen as part of the creative process, rather than a stumbling block.

Jason: Well, I guess mistakes are good. I think as artists, and maybe there’s a philosophy or something, but when I started painting or with our kids, it’s all about mistakes. It’s all about just get something going. Make something happen. Put something down. And then fix it up a lot. You know what I mean? Then add some details and then put some focus in some areas and then it’ll be awesome. “Hey, guys, you’ve got cameras. Just shoot, shoot, shoot.” We’ll edit out the bad ones later. We’ll chop that maybe into something that’s interesting, that’s digestible later. But just go at it. I think the mistake is inaction. The mistake is fear. Be loose, be brave, make things happen, and leave yourself some time to fix it up.

Dave: What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your experience so far?

Jason: It’s tough, because my initial reaction to that question is to say that hard work pays off. It seems so inherent but it’s not. Because for our kids the message is “Play the lottery and get rich quick.” Or sing a song and you’ll be a billionaire.” Or “Play that sport really good.” It’s not about hard work. Our kids, our role models aren’t doing that, that part of the story isn’t being told. And then in school it’s like work real hard and here is . . . The difference between hard working and not hard working, it’s a B and a C. And it’s like so arbitrary, but I think in the studios you gotta do some hard stuff. This work isn’t easy. To make a really great product for your client on budget, on time, is extremely difficult. It can be stressful. It can be an uphill battle sometimes. But if you work through it, if you’re focused, disciplined, then some amazing things can happen. I don’t think that lesson took for me until I was in these studios and I saw that.

Dave: These are the lessons Artists for Humanity instills in their students every day. While Jason would never say that success comes easy, he and his organization are showing students the impact of hard work, focus, and discipline.

These are the same values that can positively impact your own business and community.

In closing, I asked Jason about the future of Artists for Humanity — his expectations are higher than ever.

Jason: Wow. Well, right now we’re really working to expand our facility. We wanna triple our square footage and build beyond LEED platinum. We’re going for energy positive this time with the new expansion of our facility. So I mean I wanna just continue to innovate. I wanna continue . . . I want this place to be that place where new ideas are coming from. Where people with great ideas are going to to flesh them out. I just wanna continue to be a resource and a model for how we all can get together, work together, and make things happen.

Dave: We appreciate you listening and would love to hear what you think of the show. Your feedback is important to us, so please go to iTunes or Stitcher right now and leave us a review.

Small Biz Stories is produced by myself, Dave Charest Shaun Cronin and Miranda Paquet. You can contact us at podcast@constantcontact.com

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

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