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How Wieden-founded Caldera has been walking the diversity talk for 20 years

The story of how Caldera – an organization dedicated to connecting the arts with underserved students in Oregon and founded by Wieden+Kennedy's Dan Wieden a little over 20 years ago – came to being is surprisingly simple.

“I remember walking into [the W+K] office when we first came in here and there was probably only about 150 people or so,” recalled Wieden. “I looked at them and went, ‘You know, these are a whole bunch of white, middle-class people here.’ I thought, ‘nice, wonderful people. I love them, but the whole industry is the same thing’.”

That spark, the understanding that there was an opportunity to get from idea to action, started a journey that has had continual impact. As the industry itself grapples with equality and diversity, Wieden knew that true, honest creativity and talent can come from anywhere — and especially from places that others may overlook. It was certainly accurate, understanding that his agency was creating work for young, often urban audiences. With that in mind, Wieden began the journey to change the look of the agency and look of the market and continues to drive the point home, above the diversity rhetoric in advertising and business in general.

“That's where I decided we needed to get some young kids and get them tuned into creativity and find a way,” said Wieden. “We know what creativity does. It lifts you right up, and it explodes inside you and makes something really special happen. We just started taking some amazing young children that have been in really difficult situations. They just fell in love with each other, and this has been going on for 20 years.”

It’s all about love

At its core, Caldera’s youth program comprises two main components: a summer camp in Central Oregon at Camp Caldera and a year-round arts education program throughout Oregon.

The summer camp is steeped in arts and environmental curriculum that includes working with professional teaching artists, environmental specialists and mentors. The camp brings more than 150 youth from Portland and Central Oregon together to the 116 acres of Camp Caldera, nestled next to Blue Lake, which was created from an actual caldera created by a volcano thousands of years ago.

The year-round program brings in middle school students, identified from low-income schools and districts in Portland and Central Oregon and, like the camp, continues a similar curriculum and also helps build self-confidence and a sense of community. Caldera works with the students for seven years, though high school and into early adulthood.

But, digging deeper, one finds it is much more than just a summer camp or an arts program. (Disclosure: I am a Caldera supporter and have visited the camp.) What happens at Caldera is transformative for both the campers, teachers and mentors all based in a very simple principle: love.

“I know when I go there, I feel like a better person,” said Tricia Snell, Caldera’s executive director. “I feel like a more loving person, I slow down. I'm a little bit more mindful, and I think everybody feels that way.”

As Wieden, known as Papa Bear at camp (all campers and staff have camp names), puts it, one of Caldera’s crowning accomplishments is “probably the inability for love to disappear".

One specific story of love sticks with Snell, when she was in the process of interviewing for the job with Wieden more than nine years ago. At the end of each camp, all of the kids take a stone from a basket and share what they are going to take home from the camp to their real lives.

“The first person who stood up was a 14-year-old girl and she said, ‘I'm going to take home that I was loved here.’ It still makes me emotional to think about it,” recalled Snell, whose camp name is Flute, due to her music degree. “I was stunned that she had the strength to say that, publicly, at that age. [At that point] I got it. It wasn't really the arts or the environment, or all the other stuff, that I was thinking about which is there, but it was really what she said. It's coming from the Caldera community and then carrying it back to wherever you are.”

Disruption and connection

The organization, funded in part by the National Endowment of the Arts, was very much a family affair in the early days

“I have a big, wonderful family of my own,” said Wieden. “To attach these young children into my family as well as theirs, it felt really good. In the beginning, everybody was there helping run the place. [We were] the only people that [were] running the place.”

After the first camp, some mentors weren’t exactly sure that the camp would continue as there was plenty to learn from the maiden effort. But, to the ever-positive Wieden, as Snell put it, “There was never any question in his mind that it was going to keep going.”

Much like the agency that bears his name with co-founder David Kennedy, Caldera’s evolution was up for both growth and interpretation, affectionately known as the “slime mold” method, finding its own intelligence and shape, and not always in predictable ways, combined with honest disruption.

“It's boring if it isn't for disruption,” noted Wieden.

But the vision, bringing together youth from both the city and country to create, has evolved into each child becoming what Snell refers to as change agents — kids going back to their communities and being positive influences and armed with skills to help them reach beyond what even the students believe is possible.

A number of alumni come back as mentors and staff and have found their ways in life in careers both in and out of the arts and advertising. Alumni have attended four-year colleges, including on scholarship, some on full rides. Teachers, fire fighters, social agency leaders are a few of the careers alumni have chosen.

Snell attributes the continued engagement to a profound connection that all feel.

"It's all about feeling connected to the Caldera community and still gaining strength from that connection,” said Snell. “Our staff sustain that, certainly Dan sustains it. We've had teaching artists who've been with us for 20 years. We have a mixture of ongoing, long-term caring adults, involved in the program with new people who come in and stir us up. Getting back to the disruption piece, you need both.”

Indeed, the creative world has benefited as well with Caldera alumni working in film, photography and advertising. Relationships that have grown out of the agency include long-time client Nike and, of course, W+K Portland has been the beneficiary as well, with the agency taking on a more active role in engaging students in the creative industry and vice-versa.

“One of Dan's visions was that mixture of creative industry with our youth. Wieden+Kennedy [is] our amazing champion,” said Snell, who will be leaving her position in the spring to pursue her literary career. “We're talking about bringing more of the Wieden+Kennedy staff in to work with our youth — and in a very intentional way, not just to come in for an hour — [but rather] training them to work with our particular youth and [building] long-term mentoring relationships. They're yearning for it, and want it, and have been asking us for more [of that].”

At first, Wieden was a little nervous about having kids come to the agency to work with the staff, but those thoughts were quickly assuaged when he saw the dynamic at play.

“It is a very interesting, unpredictable place. If it wasn't that, we wouldn't be a very good advertising agency,” said Wieden. “The kids have come in and they've gotten to know people, we've gotten to know them. I think it has given them a sense of their own abilities that they didn't really realize they had. They were in an environment that was very giving, very unpredictable, just like camp. In fact, [it’s] probably a little more wild at camp. It also gave to the agency. There's almost a family sensibility.”

Learning for the next 20 years

As far as the future of Caldera is concerned, a deep foundation has been built and the organization has received some well-deserved accolades, including being a recipient of a 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2015, presented to Snell and student representative Alena Nore by Michelle Obama at the White House that recognizes the top youth arts programs in the nation.

“We were really honored, obviously, for everybody. For the youth, for the staff, the founders, the board…everybody who made us,” said Snell. “It was just a really uplifting feeling. At the same time, we got connected to the other people who got the award and we met all the other versions of Caldera. All very different, but they're all youth programs that are infused with arts and creativity.”

Those connections helped Snell see the distinct need in communities for programs like Caldera but, despite the obvious challenges in funding of arts in schools, she also saw that each had the “same kind of spirit” in providing education and opportunity.

“I think that one of the things I've learned is that there's no end to the love,” said Snell.

It’s also about learning from each other, chronicled on film after the very first camp at Caldera when Wieden told the kids, “I don’t know if you’ve learned anything, but we learned a lot.” A prescient observation, and one that will likely continue to carry Caldera another 20 years and beyond.

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