Creative Heroes: My Junior Achievement Class

12 12 2016

My Creative Heroes blog has been silent for several months. This past summer and fall my city has gone through trials and tribulations of biblical proportions. While I did not suffer a loved one’s murder or lose my home to a flood, I felt my community’s pain. I wanted to be part of solving the problems and healing the racial divide in Baton Rouge. I only realize in hindsight that I was given a gift to do just that, when I casually agreed to teach a Junior Achievement class. The students in that class are my Creative Heroes. 

ja-intro

I was given the entrepreneur curriculum for a high school business class by Junior Achievement (JA). The high schoolers learn about starting a business, create a product, and actually pitch it—like Shark Tank—in a competition with other schools. I was given a school that is closest to my home and work.

I quickly learned my school had spotty internet service, no software in which to create their product, no equipment for the students to film the required commercial. There’s no communications lab, there’s no theater program, there’s no speech department. It has none of the resources the private and magnet schools have, which is who we’d be pitching against.

What my students had was me. A middle-age, white woman, who had to acknowledge to herself that my comfortable, privileged life, was as foreign to my brown and black students, as their life was to me. And since the summer shooting of Alton Sterling, the racial divide in our community was strong.

JA paired me with a great, caring, experienced teacher. Her most important piece of advice was what the students needed most was for someone to show up. Many of those students don’t have adults in their lives that show up for them. They were also starting a month late, due to the flood. Many of them were still displaced from their homes and their lives had no normalcy. School was the one steady thing and for some it was their only hot meal of the day.

To understand the class I was assigned, is to understand one of the students I wanted on the Pitch team. She had come to class a few weeks after we started and her attendance was as spotty as the school’s internet connection. But when she was there, she was fully engaged. She participated with enthusiasm and was always throwing out new creative ideas when few in the class would speak. I learned that she had a transportation problem. She didn’t live on the bus route and no one would bring her to school. I didn’t see her the last five classes I taught.

Trying to understand how to best teach my students, my personal goal was to show the student’s career possibilities that they might not even know were a possibility. I consider myself a creativity expert, so I wanted them to learn and understand the creative side of learning; to know that there were jobs in marketing, advertising, graphic design, writing, video and more. I’m like a dog with a bone when I get my teeth into a project, I don’t let go. Showing up was something I knew I could do. I also knew I could recruit professional friends to help, including friends who were more relatable to the students than me. Every one I asked, showed up for the class.

The class came up with a solid product, The Education Change Card. It would collect your change at check out and then you could go back to participating stores and get discounts on educational products (school supplies, uniforms, computers, etc.) when you were ready to cash it in. After the horrendous summer, all the students wanted to create something that helped our community.

The Pitch
The day of the Pitch came. Two of the six students on the Pitch team did not show up; one had been suspended the day before and the other one—the strongest presenter— was a no show. One brave, unprepared, young woman took their place and the team of six became a team of five. I frantically pulled them into a corner and practiced as much as could be crammed in the 20 minutes before it was show time.

I’d like to have a fairy tale ending to this story. What quickly became apparent was the schools with the most-haves were crushing the schools that were the have-nots. And the school with the most-haves, was the school that won. The winning team did a great job. They were poised, confident, and they had a pitch with all the bells and whistles. My team looked like a young JV team up against the seasoned pros.

Lessons Learned
My final class was a wrap-up after the pitch event. I wanted them to focus on all they had learned and accomplished. What I quickly realized was that I was more upset about the inequity of the teams than they were. None of these students had ever spoken before a crowd and no one passed out or threw up! Everyone on the Pitch team said they would get up and present again if given the opportunity. They were so proud of working through the fear of public speaking. They also said they’d return next year to mentor the next year’s class. These students had rarely, if ever, worked in a group before. They learned about the creative process, and brainstorming, and the give and take of reaching group consensus. The learned how to take an idea and turn it into something real.

They got a glimmer of a different way to view the world and they learned of job possibilities they did not know existed. They learned about resources in our community that are available to them. They learned that success takes hard work. We talked about the advantages the winning team had and they understood how hard that team had worked outside of class. One student said that the winning team seemed so much older. I explained that what they saw was confidence, and confidence came with hard work and practice, practice, practice.

They learned that there are adults who wanted them to succeed and who would show up for them.

And they learned the importance of showing up for themselves.

I was reminded that the best product doesn’t always succeed in the marketplace. The best candidate doesn’t always win. Great businesses and great people often fail. There are big lessons to learn when we fail. But we learn those lessons and we move forward and we continue to show up.

Check out the video clip of my students talking about creativity and what they learned.

ja-student

Special thanks to these pros for showing up:
Debra Wilkerson (the class teacher who taught me a lot)
Kevin McQuarn
Natasha Walker
Casey Phillips
Luke St. John McKnight
Becky Vance
Melinda Walsh
Jennifer Scripps and Junior Achievement
AAF-Baton Rouge

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CREATIVE HEROES: Jonathan Palmisano

15 06 2016

Jonathan’s creative reputation as The Lunchbox Doodle Guy preceded my getting to know him. I’ve since learned he’s funny and is always up for an adventure. He’s someone you can count on and his son is his top priority. I admire that he has managed to combine his creativity with parenting. He is a Creative Hero.

Jon header

Jonathan was always drawing as a child and always felt love and support from his parents. He became very good at drawing dinosaurs, sharks and monster trucks. While his love for dinosaurs was strong, he also knew from early on that he probably wasn’t going to pursue a career as a paleontologist. He has a sweet memory of his mom putting hand-written notes in his lunchbox. Looking back he doesn’t remember the specific messages, but remembers the love and connection it gave him. When he became a father he wanted to give his son something similar. He began drawing cartoons on his son’s lunchbox napkins when his son was too young to read.

His son is now nine and feels that creative connection to his dad every day. He now saves those napkins from his lunchbox and brings them home for his napkin collection. Jonathan plans to continue the tradition as long as his son wants him to.

Jonand napkins

Jonathan believes it’s the small things that make a difference. It’s also small steps that take us on unexpected journeys. It was after a friend’s encouragement that Jonathan started posting his napkins online. He was surprised by the enthusiastic response and discovered other parents who wanted to share their similar connections. He now communicates with a creative community of parents from around the world. In another unexpected turn, the lunchbox doodles will be featured at an upcoming gallery opening.

napkins

A sampling of favorite napkins

son's napkin

Jonathan’s son’s napkin drawing

This dad draws, paints and plays music. Being creative is in the marrow of his bones. He nurtures his own creativity and shares it with his son. They play music together, as well as video games. They go to art galleries and love to do collaborative drawing, where they take turns drawing where ever their imaginations lead them. I see gentle parenting with Jonathan and his son. He asks his son’s opinion, he listens and he guides. And I see a child who is thriving.

It is indeed the small things that matter. Parenting is hard. When we are in the midst of child-rearing and working—that day in and day out chore of getting the must-do’s done—it is a challenge to find the time to take care of our own creativity. I celebrate my friend for finding a way to infuse parenting with his unique creative spirit. He and his son are living fully creative lives. That’s why Jonathan Palmisano is a Creative Hero.

CREATIVE HEROES VIDEO

 

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CREATIVE HEROES: Jade Th’ng

17 04 2016

When I started this series my idea was simple; interview people who were living fully creative lives. I often say our lives make sense in hindsight. That’s especially true when you reflect back on your life as a creative journey. The interviews, so far, have been people looking back on long, adventurous journeys. This interview is someone at the beginning of their adult journey.

jade cover

Jade Th’ng is a talented, smart, beautiful woman in her mid twenties. As a child she preferred crafts to dolls and Office Depot with its endless supply of markers, pens and pencils, to Toys R Us. She would be the last one to finish when working on a group creative project, paying attention to the tiniest details. She was drawn to music. She says it has it own language; one that all musicians—around the world and throughout the centuries—understand. She also always loved the sound of applause. Her audience could be just her parents when 4-year old Jade sang the entire Sound of Music score to keep from going to bed to 17-year old Jade performing an oboe concerto in front of a full theater.

Crafts

Creative projects

As a teen she was still creating; sewing and making jewelry, painting and drawing, baking and decorating cupcakes. She started a jewelry business with her mom called Nekkid Girls Designs. I know all this, because I’m that mom. Both her father and I are graphic designers, so she grew up in a home where creativity and making things were just what we did.

Performing

Always performing

Jade entered college as a music major. She hit a roadblock her sophomore year when she recognized she was not thriving. This future of being a musician did not fill her with passion and her grades suffered. Changing majors was a hard, tear-filled decision. She meandered for a while and it took her 6 years to graduate. She ended up with a liberal arts degree with three seemingly unrelated concentrations; Italian, film, and communication. Her Nana never understood and kept asking when Jade was going to cook her an Italian meal, since she was studying Italian.

jewelry

Jade made her first pair of earrings at nine. She’s still making jewelry.

Learning Italian allowed her to be an au pair in Italy one summer for the only daughter of a pair of doctors. She polished her writing skills with a quirky and funny blog chronicling her adventures called “Twenty-One in Tuscany”. Her jewelry making skills creatively connected her to the strong Italian mother in a way that nothing else did. She also returned home with a wonderful authentic lasagna recipe and her  Bellini’s now make brunch a memorable event. So her Italian did make her a good Italian cook, which pleased her Nana.

Italy

Jade in Italy from a summer as an au pair. She brought a great lasagna and Bellini recipe home.

Student jobs included waiting tables, bartending, and working in production on TV commercial sets. Her sewing skills put her in the wardrobe department and she once made a caveman costume for a small budget commercial. Her attention to detail led her to assisting Louisiana’s top food stylist for several national commercial brands.

In her meandering she took a class that ignited a new passion—screenwriting. She discovered while her classmates were all writing dramas; she had a talent for writing comedy. She once filmed me for a mockumentary to talk about the evils of Comic Sans (my own personal nemesis).

After graduating, she knew she wanted to pursue comedy and set her sights on Chicago. She studied comedians she admired, like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. What many of these comedians shared was learning comedy and improv in the windy city, Chicago—1000 miles away from the sleepy, southern city she grew up in. So off Jade went last summer, to what is her unofficial graduate school. She’s taking comedy classes at the renowned iO Theater, she’s honing her writing skills, she’s getting her work produced on stage, and she’s waiting tables to pay the bills. She has also found a creative tribe of friends who are creating their own art while starting their own adult lives.

I know one day all her skills will fuse together. It will make sense in hindsight. I don’t know where her journey is going to take her, but I do know that creativity will always be a part of her life. She is making her dreams happen. She is living a fully creative life. That is why Jade, my baby girl, is a creative hero. She will always have my applause.

Click here to watch an extended conversation with Jade (be sure to watch the very end—it’s the best part).

screen shot

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CREATIVE HEROES: Raymond Strother

24 03 2016

Ray and my sweetie’s friendship goes back decades. While he was down from his Montana mountains and in Louisiana, I grabbed him for a conversation for my Creative Heroes series. A creative hero is someone who lives a fully creative life and Ray teaches us all how to do that. Ray believes that creativity is about seeing the world differently and breaking the rules to create something unique.

ray art

Ray has lived a big life. He’s gotten the powerful elected. He’s a renowned author. He’s piloted planes. He’s taught at Harvard and is an esteemed professor at the small Louisiana university that kicked him out when he was a student for his political views. He is still married to his high school sweetheart and together they have traveled the world. Their home houses a stunning, eclectic art collection from their life together. His musical tastes go from opera to rap. He is a master woodcrafter and can bake a damn good loaf of bread. He is a true renaissance man.

It took breaking the rules for Ray to break out of the life he was born in the blue collar, oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas where neither parent graduated from high school. As a young adult he learned to embrace a new direction when faced with a roadblock. After it was “suggested” by the small town university president that he transfer to the more “liberal” LSU in Baton Rouge, Ray packed up his new bride and moved. Having lost his track scholarship in the process, he knew he could write and became a Journalism major. The seeds of his professional life had been planted.

His life proves that all things one learns are useful. A student job of sorting the printing letterforms gave him an understanding of typography, which evolved into an understanding of design. A teacher taught him the basics of photography and he created a studio in the unused attic of LSU’s journalism building. These learned skills would eventually lead him into writing and directing commercials when he entered the political advertising world.

His understanding of living a working class life drove his life mission of trying to make the world a better place. From Ray’s Wikipedia page, “My father taught me that you had to stand on the picket line … and you had to get involved in politics — because people like us had no other choice. So I became a political consultant. It was a calling like the ministry.”

Knowing himself well enough to know that his personality was not suited to being a politician, he used his creative skill set to help people he believed in get elected. It was Ray’s fearlessness, insatiable curiosity and hard work ethic that propelled him on his own creative journey that eventually led him to being a top political consultant based in Washington DC, the most powerful city in the world.

Creativity is the spark of God
Ray does not believe creativity ever grows out of a committee decision. His creativity grows out of solitude. He isolated himself to write his novels. He fell in love with the rugged majesty of Montana while working on a political campaign there. The locals thought he was crazy when he bought the vertical slope of a mountain. Thinking differently allowed him to create a mountain retreat built on that impossibly steep slope, which he named Heroes Ranch.

Hero's

Hero’s Ranch, the Strother’s Montana mountain retreat

Wise Chair

His decades of experience have turned him into a sought after professor. The university that once kicked him out now has an honored chair for him. It’s called the Wise Chair. Ray believes creativity grows most intensely when youth and passion are combined.

“Creativity is the spark of God,” Ray said. What a blessing that a few teachers saw that spark in Ray’s early life. Today he see’s that spark in his students. He is still helping change the world by turning those sparks into creative fire. He is a creative hero.

Click here to watch an extended video conversation with Ray.

Ray video

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CREATIVE HEROES: The Birth of an Idea

31 01 2016

•creative art

I’m filled with creative energy as I start the New Year. I’m in the process of giving birth to a new idea. It’s about living a creative life. Since this idea is in the birthing process, I’m not sure what this idea will grow up to be.

This baby idea is about how small details full of creative energy can grow into a full life experience. Those experiences make a richer and joyful life. Sometimes the seed of that experience grows out of a difficult time.

Our lives make sense in hindsight. This baby idea has been 10 years in the making and has grown from a time when my professional life was going to shit.

Ten years ago, I had a new, young, smart boss who didn’t like my design style—I’m an art director in an in-house corporate setting—she felt I was an old dinosaur. She told me I would not make another round of budget cuts and should consider a job in sales. Eventually all she allowed me to create were flyers that went on the inside of bathroom stalls (really the shits).

I then believed I was no longer hirable and I began to seriously ponder on what did I want to do in this upcoming new chapter. I was freshly divorced and responsible for my aging mother and my teen daughter, so I didn’t feel free to walk away from a job with great benefits, where I had invested a dozen years. This is what propelled me through the next decade of living a fully creative life.

Whereas my boss saw me as a dinosaur, my professional organization saw me as someone with experience and asked me to be on their Board of Directors. I used this experience to grow my life in new directions. I started to face my fears and pushed myself into doing things that made me uncomfortable, like public speaking.

I eventually became the President of my club and that young boss followed her own ambitious rise up the corporate ladder and left the company. As I regained confidence, I wanted to share my life experience with others and created workshops on creativity. I knew firsthand how fragile it could be and that the creative spirit needs to be nurtured and encouraged to thrive.

While my day job improved, I still needed a place for my creative voice to be heard unedited. So I created this blog, My Creative Journey and a side business with my sweetie, which we named Greenview Designs. I’m about to audition for a performance play called Listen to Your Mother, where I’ll read a story I’ve written that grew out of this blog. That’s something I couldn’t have imagined doing a decade ago.

Today I’m a designer, a writer, a marketer, a speaker, a teacher and in a loving relationship. This all grew out of embracing fear. It has been a creative journey of many small steps that has me living a full, creative, joyful life.

My baby idea is to record others who are living creative lives, people who inspire me. This blog is going to hold their stories and Greenview Designs is going to create videos. I’m calling this series Creative Heroes.

So welcome to my baby idea. I hope you’ll enjoy watching it grow. Let’s see where this journey takes us.

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