Educational nonprofit Big Thought received a $100,000 grant Tuesday from AT&T Inc. intended to boost its Creative Solutions program, which uses creativity and imagination to help youth in the Dallas County juvenile justice system chart a new path.
Dallas-based Big Thought provides young people with access to creative learning experiences through in-school, out-of-school, and community partnerships that foster emotional and social well-being. “As components of youth development, we have to start there,” Big Thought President and CEO Byron Sanders says.
Sanders acknowledged on Tuesday the impact of the partnership with AT&T during a check presentation ceremony at Big Thought’s Dallas office.
“Last year, we had a conversation with AT&T, and AT&T made an investment,” Sanders says. “[That $50,000] was an early investment in our work, particularly our work which is about youth voice and agency in young people—about investing in young people from marginalized communities so they can get to the next level in their lives.”
This year’s $100,000 gift from AT&T is the largest that Big Thought has received from the company.
While presenting the check, Ty Bledsoe, assistant vice president for external affairs at AT&T, says the Dallas-headquartered telecom company knew how important Sanders and Big Thought was for the community. “Byron Sanders is a community builder and a rainmaker,” he says. “[This] is about real change.”
Sanders recalled what AT&T told the nonprofit last year: “[They] said, we will be looking at potentially even doing more.This is a confirmation of what AT&T promised back then, with the ‘doing more’ part from AT&T making an investment in Creative Solutions.”
It’s meaningful that the investment “is distinctly in an area where we’re showing that creativity is part of the cake as opposed to the icing. With the young people who have come to us from the juvenile department, many times they are youth that a lot of people have written off,” a Big Thought staffer notes.
Big Thought’s Creative Solutions works with young people who come through the Dallas County juvenile system and need an opportunity. U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D)-Dallas, who was also at the ceremony, commends it as a worthwhile endeavor.
“You’re dealing with young people who’ve not had the opportunity, many times, to have people that care about them and give them this attention,” Johnson says. “Just think of what results we can get from young people who want to do well. We have resources, and we have companies like AT&T willing to address this.”
The nonprofit has partnered with the Dallas County Juvenile Department and Southern Methodist University for more than 25 years to provide job training to adjudicated young people through the arts.
“We’re working with kids who have so much inside, and they need an opportunity to first discover their own voice and then bring that voice out [through the workforce],” Sanders says. “The young people are actually getting paid over the course of the summer: a stipend to be a working artist here in Dallas.”
Through the program, young people are enabled to express themselves in a safe space. The youth gain skills associated with job and college readiness such as teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication.
They work with professional artist mentors to create original theater and visual art for public audiences, and receive a stipend at the completion of the program.
The Dallas County Juvenile Department, which has the lowest recidivism rate in the state has attributed that fact, in part, to the success of Creative Solutions. Sanders noted that Creative Solutions likely has the lowest recidivism rates among any of the programs that work with young people “who are coming from the juvenile system—11 percent average, in an area where usually without a program, you’re looking at 60 to 80 percent re-entering the [criminal justice] system.”
Sanders touted the work of Erin Offord, senior director of programs at Big Thought, and her staff for helping young people before they enter the juvenile justice system.
“Erin has worked alongside our phenomenal teaching artists and the Creative Solutions staff to make it come to fruition,” Sanders says. “Her vision is taking our concepts and methodologies to new and different places to pre-adjudicated settings. So, before we’re waiting for a young person to get incarcerated, we are bringing them those same tools and resources from Creative Solutions.”
It’s about seeing the ‘inner them’ in youth, Dallas official says
Roger Taylor, manager of probation services for the Dallas County Juvenile Services Department, says that Creative Solutions has had a positive impact on everyone involved with the program.
Dallas County Juvenile Services tries to emulate Creative Solutions with all of its contract programs, he says, because the effort is “all about exposure, giving these kids an opportunity to be exposed to something different, something that they never even thought that they had within them.”
Creative Solutions helps the young people cope with their family lives, with their environment, their school—because of the arts. The youth are able to express themselves “in a more positive way as opposed to anger and hostility and violence,” Taylor says. “And that’s what we’re all about. We’re all about investing in our children … we have to invest in them and forgive them for the incidents they’ve done.”
Big Thought “sees beyond their incidents and sees the ‘inner them’ to bring out the best,” Taylor says.
The investment from AT&T empowers Big Thought to launch a new part of Creative Solutions—the position of Opportunity Advisor, which Big Thought recently posted. The role will impact the trajectory of what success looks likes for the youth, Sanders says. “It’s about what happens when they get out of the program. Just like students get a college counselor, these youth will have an Opportunity Advisor.”
“The Opportunity Advisor role will [be how we will] now hold ourselves accountable,” Sanders says. “But it’s not just for what the young people are not doing: They’re not reoffending. They’re not coming back in—that’s fine. What we’re now holding ourselves accountable for is for what young people are on their way to do—with the goals they have identified for themselves.”
He says the Opportunity Advisor’s role is “about being part of their future so they can live their best, truest, most authentic life.”
Sanders says the Opportunity Advisor will connect young people to resources and will case manage them, along with their families, to help those goals come alive—“whether they want to go to college, whether they want to get into an accredited certification, like becoming an electrician or a phlebotomist, or all of these different careers in STEM, the arts, business, whatever.”
Bringing happiness, while addressing an issue
At the event, Rep. Johnson said the work Creative Solutions does is in everyone’s best interest.
“What we’re doing here [is about the] young people you’re working with, but it has to do with all of us,” she says. “Because all of us are better when we have a great community of positiveness and achievement. … You’re bringing happiness not only to these young people but to yourself and to the community.”
Bledsoe and AT&T recognize just how much the program helps transform the community.
“There are two different kinds of folks [we like] to work with—rainmakers and community members,” Bledsoe says. “And, we have both of them here.”
“The presentation comes just days after Big Thought CEO Byron Sanders had the opportunity to meet with President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton to discuss the Creative Solutions program and the many young people in DFW it has impacted,” the organizer said in an email to Dallas Innovates. President Bush and President Clinton were in Dallas 5th anniversary of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, of which Byron Sanders is a 2017 graduate.
All photos taken by Rachel Walters.
Quincy Preston and Alex Edwards contributed to this report.
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