AT&T’s $100K Grant Bolsters Big Thought’s Creative Solutions Program

Creative Solutions works with young people who come to the nonprofit through the Dallas County juvenile system with the aim of bettering their lives and the community. The nonprofit has posted a new position—Opportunity Advisor—someone who will be a part of the young people’s future so they can “live their best, truest, most authentic life.”

From left: Roger Taylor, manager of probation services for the Dallas County Juvenile Services Department; Byron Sanders, Big Thought President and CEO; U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D)-Dallas; and Ty Bledsoe, assistant vice president for external affairs at AT&T; Erin Offord, senior director of programs at Big Thought. [Photo: Rachel Walters]

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.”

Big Thought

Byron Sanders talks during the check presentation ceremony alongside U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Ty Bledsoe of AT&T. [Photo: Rachel Walters]

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

Almost all of the art in Big Thought’s office was created by students in the Creative Solutions program. This cookie jar inspired by “Where The Wild Things Are” was a part of a partnership with SMU. The teens read works by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, then explored the visual characterization and translated it into three-dimensional ceramic works.

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.”

Creative Solutions

Self-portraits painted on self-constructed wood panels by a group of 14 to 17 year olds were also apart of the SMU and Creative Solutions program. The students learned about masks of different cultures—while thinking about their own identities—then expressed their ideas through clay.

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.”

From left: Roger Taylor, manager of probation services for the Dallas County Juvenile Services Department; Byron Sanders, Big Thought President and CEO; U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D)-Dallas; and Ty Bledsoe, assistant vice president for external affairs at AT&T.

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.

Big Thought Creative Solutions

Each beach, mountain, and building that sits in this utopian city was handmade to reflect the Creative Solutions students’ dreams, personality, and imagination. The ceramics were crafted and glazed and the tiles were broken and reassembled, all over the course of a seven-week art-intensive job skills training program at SMU.

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.”

Big Thought

A student-crafted painting hung in the Big Thought office says, “find education, not occupation.”

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.

Photo gallery

All photos taken by Rachel Walters.

Big Thought Creative Solutions

Big Thought CEO and President Byron Sanders showed his excitement during the ceremony by ringing the artful chime, which was made by a Creative Solutions teaching artist by using thousands of dots of nail polish. It’s a tradition when the office has good news or a big announcement. “This will qualify,” Sanders said. “So we’re gonna ring the bell, and talk a little bit about the organization that this investment is going towards and the work we do with the Dallas County system.” U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, right, also celebrated the grant.

Jose Manuel Garcia II (who goes by “Bone”) had his first interactions with Big Thought as a young teen in Creative Solutions. He had gotten in trouble for graffiti “tagging,” and no one actually told him he was creating art, according to a staffer. Through the summer intensive program, Bone learned how to hone his craft and share his voice through art. He returned to the Creative Solutions program for several summers, first as an alumni participant and then as a peer mentor, helping Big Thought scale internationally.

As a young adult, Bone moved cross-country to enroll in the prestigious Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Now he’s one of the professional teaching artists working with students in the visual gallery this year and is an acclaimed muralist and working artist. Bone was featured along with other successful alumni in a commemorative book celebrating Big Thought’s 20th anniversary.

Self-portraits painted on self-constructed wood panels were made by a group of 13- to 17-year-olds. Students worked in pairs to take photos of each other and then painted the pose or feature they found the most compelling.

Big Thought Creative Solutions

The medieval castle is actually a fountain crafted by Creative Solutions students at SMU in 2013. Students first started with pinch pots, cups, and plates, and then constructed molds of the eventual fountain they were to create.

Quincy Preston and Alex Edwards contributed to this report.

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