‘We saw so much potential in them’: AKQA and dfrntpigeon make a difference to Portland’s homeless youth

12 years ago, Nike donated screen printing equipment to New Avenues for Youth, a Portland, Oregon-based organization dedicated to supporting at-risk and homeless youth. It was then that New Avenues INK, a design and screen printing business, took root and helped shape the future for youth who may not originally have had a chance.

Owned and operated by the organization, the goal was (and is) to provide job training and real-world experience. For years, the business clicked along successfully. But there was still more room to offer even more experience and opportunity to these young people. Through a grant from the Nike Community Impact Fund (NCIF) and others, a pilot project called The INKubator arose, connecting youth to the creative elements of graphic design.

To Jessica Elkan, director of development for New Avenues for Youth – which has been operating since 1997 – this opened up a new world of possibilities.

“[We asked ourselves] how can we tap into the really incredible artistic talents that many of our youth have? How could they turn their art into an essential revenue source for them? New Avenues is all about helping youth exit street life, and ending youth homelessness, and we know that one of the biggest pathways to that is through education and career,” said Elkan.

AKQA Portland also saw an opportunity to initially get involved in a highly meaningful way — a depth that goes much deeper than just teaching basic skills and mentoring.

“[New Avenues for Youth] knew that they had really talented youth. They were reaching out to agencies in the area for more mentorship,” said Ginny Golden, AKQA Portland group creative director. “We started getting to know the youth, and we saw so much potential in them, and that's really where the idea came up to create a self-sustaining business model to teach self-sufficiency.”

Bringing together natural talent and a business that would endure, AKQA again saw something bigger happening.

“[We said], ‘you’ve got the screen printing technology. We can help with the mentorship. We can bring the industry expertise. You guys bring the talent. We can really make some magic here. We can create a business.’ And that business has ended up employing and training these youth to have brighter futures,” noted Golden.

The idea became dfrntpigeon — taking the screen printing business one step further, getting youth more intimately involved in design and the business of fashion. It’s wider launch debuted with a bespoke t-shirt line and pop-up shop last week at Design Week Portland (DWP), where designs for New Avenues supporters, Lardo, Sizzle Pie, Deschutes Brewery and DWP graced the walls and sales table at the Ace Hotel, based on briefs created by each.

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One particular design for Lardo, featuring a scantily clad pig (pork is one of Lardo’s things), caught the fancy of Golden.

“[The pig has] curves in all the right places. It was such a beautiful, artistic drawing that the artist brought in from the very beginning.”

Dfrntpigeon takes its name and inspiration from the birds that often are cast as dirty street animals. According to Golden, the artists used the word “filthy” to describe pigeons — and the sad perception that homeless people fall into the same category. However, Golden pointed out that there is “beauty in that imperfection and that’s what the heart and soul of the brand is all about, that true beauty isn’t perfect.”

While the youth were initially wary of the dedication by AKQA, the project ultimately received an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“They were a little skeptical because probably, at so many points in their lives, they had been let down, and rightfully so, we knew we couldn't let them down,” said Golden. “That’s where a lot of our passion was — to just drive this and make it a success for them. They showed up, every week. They had done their homework we asked them to do. They put 110% into this.”

Golden also noted that something bigger was happening, where worlds were opening up and being shared.

“When they showed up (to the pop-up shop launch), all their friends and family came. I was asking them what their next designs were going to be, and they were like, ‘we're already thinking about it in our head, and we're already sketching things out.’ The way we look at it is this is really just the beginning. We want the youth that we have now to keep contributing, but we want to bring more youth into the program as well.”

For both AKQA and New Avenues of Youth, the long view of the brand is bright. The intention is to evolve into a full-fledged youth apparel line that is designed to generate revenue to fulfill New Avenue’s mission of ending homelessness and, according to Elkan, “putting money in the pockets of young people so they can exit street life.” Additionally, Elkan and Golden hope that it’s a platform for sharing creativity and expression, showcasing the talents of homeless youth and shining a brighter spotlight on New Avenue’s mission.

Long-term ambition aside, there are clear, immediate goals that the brand can enable.

“For many of our youth that are experiencing homelessness, a large percentage of them have seen a huge amount of adversity,” said Elkan. “The majority of them have experienced abuse, neglect, trauma, many of them have spent time in the child welfare system and identify as LGBTQ, and have not had a safe place to call home. I think it's all about using the networks from the designers that are coming in, it's about building confidence. It's about saying, ‘wow, this makes me feel good, I am good at this, and now I want to pursue a degree, or I want to go to PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), or I want to try for that job.’ Our hope is that we will employ youth full-time within dfrntpigeon. Youth will be able to be kind of contract designers and submit designs to the brand — but we also hope to employ youth full-time within the brand, so they can really have true ownership over what we are doing.”

For their parts, AKQA and Golden are fully committed to dfrntpigeon’s evolution and see tremendous reward in stepping out from the daily routine to make a tangible difference in Portland.

“My job can be very stressful,” said Golden. “But when I go to those mentoring sessions, all of that just falls away. It just becomes totally insignificant. You’re really dealing with relationships. It's so much more real and tangible.”

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