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Roger Allen of Fresh Artists: “Be willing to fail but learn from it each time”

Be willing to fail but learn from it each time.This is a really hard one. Society insists on teaching kids from a young age that failure is inherently bad. Failure can lead to amazing things. New directions and innovative new ideas come as result of self-reflection after a failure. Art beckons kids to stand back, […]

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Be willing to fail but learn from it each time.
This is a really hard one. Society insists on teaching kids from a young age that failure is inherently bad. Failure can lead to amazing things. New directions and innovative new ideas come as result of self-reflection after a failure. Art beckons kids to stand back, assess the situation and start over to make something new, better and more exciting than the world has seen before.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Allen.

Growing up in Philadelphia’s suburbs, Allen bailed out of a tidy school and into a newly minted, turbulent, inner-city educational maelstrom of design and culture clashing and found purpose that changed his life. After experiencing the chaos and inequity of urban public education first-hand, Allen went on to cut his teeth in the fields of Environmental Graphic Design and Industrial Design, and after spending 15 years in the field, he wanted a change. He went on to co-found Fresh Artists, an award-winning nonprofit to empower low-income K-12 public school children through their art, returning to his mission for a life of purpose. He designed a new paradigm of lateral philanthropy by inviting children in failing public schools to take impactful action to repair them.

www.freshartists.org


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My brother and I grew up in the suburbs outside Philadelphia with parents who embraced curiosity and wonder. I spent most of my childhood outside, building tree house forts, running through the woods and playing in streams. Curiosity and a sense of adventure were embedded in our upbringing. From an early age, our parents taught us to fix what was broken, create meaningful change and help others. Things didn’t always work out the way I thought they would. I fell out of trees, ended up with piles of parts that would not reassemble, and found myself understanding that the solution is not always easy. Failures were embraced as lessons on how to do better the next time, how to admit when you were wrong, and how to find a new road ahead. I was more into making things than I was studying about how to make those things. I was from the school of “When in doubt, figure it out.” It mostly worked out for me, but I had to read the directions a few times along my journey.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

The dire situation in most low-income communities is the of lack of access to a quality public education. We saw hundreds of thousands of children in underfunded schools without basic art supplies. We passionately believe that art teaches resilience, creative problem solving, grit, collaboration, self-awareness, rebounding from failure and 21st-century job skills…all useful attributes of an impactful, engaged and fulfilled citizen. We also know that you have to give kids the proper, quality art materials to learn and practice how to make art. Fresh Artists delivers literally tons of art supplies and innovative art programs to schools in great need, but with a twist…we do it in partnership with the children themselves. We designed a way to empower vulnerable children to use their art to change their world and the way they see themselves.

Fresh Artists was founded on the core belief that being creative and philanthropic has the power not only to repair systemic injustices in the world around them, but also to bring meaning and purpose into your own life. Fresh Artists’ children become philanthropists and their gifts of artwork raise funds to fuel robust art education in schools struggling with cuts to art budgets. We seek to level the playing field in public education by delivering access to tools and programs like those abundant in more well-funded communities. The shocking difference in Fresh Artists is that the children in under-resourced schools are also change-makers.

By amplifying children’s voices through their artwork, we are advocating for quality public education for all children. And as change makers, our young artist-philanthropists are building their own self-confidence and resilience, preparing them for lives as “habitual givers” and capable contributors to the public good.

Fresh Artists invites children to donate their selected artwork to help other children. The children are catalytic donors in this new lateral philanthropic model. Then Fresh Artists accepts corporate donations to fund the delivery of art programs and supplies to severely underfunded public schools throughout America. As a thank-you from the children, donors receive their choice of large, high-quality reproductions of the children’s art for installation in their workplaces. Fresh Artists is a unique circle of philanthropy where the children’s’ art fulfills a real business need while raising funds for future art making in poor schools. Receiving public validation for their gifts prompts young artists to see themselves as talented, capable and generous, with the ability to affect positive change.

Fresh Artists has curated an ever-growing collection of over 2,300 artworks by talented K-12 students from across the country. Since our founding in 2008, we estimate we have impacted the lives of millions of young people and delivered the value of more than 2.5M dollars in goods and art programs to art classrooms, reaching children in every state.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

In tenth grade, I realized that my suburban school wasn’t the right fit for me. At a super-early age, I realized that “making stuff” was a core part of who I was. When I told the school’s guidance counselor I that wanted to go to art school — they asked “Why would you want to do that? Artists don’t make a living wage.” I knew better. I could see the rising future and power of the creative economy. I pivoted and found a high school that fit my passion — a new design-centric charter school started by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in center city Philadelphia. This seemed to be the path I was looking for, but man, it was a rocky road!

I was one of the first students to walk through the door when it opened. Saying the school was “half baked” was an understatement. I walked into a brilliant idea that was executed in the poorest possible way. It wasn’t their fault, they weren’t equipped with the right tools to design a school. The school building wasn’t finished, classes were held in hallways, and to make things more interesting, most of the students who appeared on the first day had been pushed-out of the traditional public school system. I was in shock; my upbringing hadn’t prepared me for the road I was about to travel. But it was the best move and deepest lesson in my life. The school started broken. I decided to stay and, with eyes wide open, traded a traditional education for the chance to help fix it.

During my junior and senior years, I helped to re-vision, rebuild and provision the school, building partnerships with the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, frog design, IDEO, the artist Sol LeWitt, and the architect Rafael Vinoly. I learned that art and design can be woven into the fabric of education and be a powerful influence to attract, engage and inspire disenfranchised young people to explore and cultivate their impact and purpose in the world. But most importantly, I found my purpose. My old school didn’t need me. This school did. The refrain of purpose has been my salvation, my center and my song since then.

Fresh Artists was created as a way to invite vulnerable children into this family of purpose. Kids like making art but usually see no real purpose in it. They commonly believe the refrigerator door is the last stop for their artwork. Art teachers tell us stories about young artist-philanthropists standing a little taller, kids becoming more academically engaged or more outgoing and confident when they see something they made, and gave to others, make a difference for their peers. We hear stories about kids having better attendance or taking leadership roles in class after having been painfully shy and withdrawn. Being part of Fresh Artists is a turning point for many kids. Trajectories have been altered.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Our trigger was recognizing convergence. Tons of people have great ideas, interesting inventions and elegant solutions. People are usually too wrapped up in life to be able to implement their big ideas, encumbered by jobs, self-doubt and general life. Implementable “Aha Moments” are followed by being in the right place at the right time coupled with a gritty sense of “Why not?” After an attempt at the traditional higher-education system, I came back to Philly, and ironically, landed a junior designer job at an environmental graphic design firm designing wayfinding. Barbara (Co-Founder of Fresh Artists) and I continued doing a lot of volunteer work spun off from our placemaking success at the design-based high school. The new Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools hired us to bring “the face of the children” into his new Education Center, the former printing plant for the Philadelphia Inquirer. This massive 850,000 square foot building would consolidate many small, isolated District offices around the city into a centralized, efficient headquarters for, what at the time was the fifth-largest school district in America. He said he wanted to see kids’ art everywhere throughout this enormous building “to inspire employees to know who they were here to serve.” No budget and a published ribbon-cutting looming large — we had our work cut out for us. He asked for our ideas and without really thinking, I blurted out “digital.” I went on to explain that the traditional artwork being made in the classroom was the wrong scale for a building with 20-foot ceilings. We needed to make this art huge and impactful.

My job experience working in the Environmental Design field with wide-format digital printers prompted the answer. Scan and enlarge selected student art quickly to fill the newly carved out central atrium and multiple, vast floors of cube farms and conference rooms. Every day, as we were installing the vibrantly colored reproductions, another electrical contractor would lose his mind over the shocking beauty of a kindergartener’s enormous “summer garden” or the 9th grader’s complicated abstract, begging “how can I buy one of those?” For months, we brushed them off, saying they weren’t for sale. Then the economic bubble burst in 2008. The School District saw its budget begin to evaporate. A little at first, then as the downturn went on, millions of dollars came out of the District’s budget. The new building that we had been decorating was being emptied, just months after having moved in. It was scary. Funding for the arts is always scarce in public education but the art teachers’ annual budget of 83 cents per child disappeared. Art teachers were expected to self-fund their art classes through bake-sales, online fundraisers and by dipping into their own grocery money. I was heart-broken. Art teachers were my most trusted adults growing up.

We knew people loved this amplified artwork and wanted it in their offices. What began as a simple, innovative solution for a place-making emergency, became a sensation. One night, after “Can I buy one of those?” again from a phone contractor working near our installation of a 6th grader’s rendition of Michelangelo’s Pieta, we took a coffee break, spread out the pocketsful of business cards forced on us over the past seven months and pondered “What if…?”We knew three things were true: There is an endless supply of stunning kids’ art in the world (abundance),there are tens of thousands of schools with a lack of arts funding (need),and there are vast expanses of bare, white corporate office walls (opportunity). What if we start a nonprofit and invite public school children to become artist-philanthropists that help other children in underfunded schools? We’ll curate a strong collection of art images with permission from the kids and their families to reproduce them for a purpose. Companies will make a donation to our nonprofit and then receive photographic reproductions as thank-you gifts. The proceeds will deliver art supplies back into the schools-in-need. It’s a unique circle of philanthropy where children’s art fulfills a business need while raising funds for future art-making in severely underfunded public schools. Seeing something broken and recognizing we had stumbled on an answer to fix it turned our lives around and Fresh Artists was born.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Honestly, starting a nonprofit with an entirely new model was a bit daunting, but we felt from the start that this had the potential of being successful and impactful. My co-founder had a successful career in managing collections of major fine art museums and knew a lot of people in the arts. I had hands-on experience in digital printing and graphic design. We had a two-year proof-of-concept in the highly successful, public installation of scaled-up children’s art in the school district’s headquarters. We subscribed to the theory that when you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. We invested 18 months in research and built a strong case for something we believed in. We put together a super rough business plan and tested it with everyone we could talk into reading it. Over time, that rough plan turned into a polished road map. We got to work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When you work with thousands of talented and generous children, it’s hard to pin-point a single interesting story. Every young person we interact with brings a special story. That said, meeting one particular student clearly stands out for me. The Head of School invited us to visit Philadelphia’s HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy to see their annual art show. This residential specialty school is over 150 years old and one of the finest of its kind in the country. They have a robust art-making program in which all of the children actively participate. They didn’t need art supplies but they needed access for their children to be able to give back. These children have multiple, serious challenges to their speech and movement. Not knowing what to expect, we entered the school and were knocked over by a single, brilliantly executed abstract on an easel in the middle of the empty reception room. The artist was a 16-year old with the talent and exuberance of a young Rauschenberg. Unable to walk or speak, through the ingenuity of her art teacher, this student painted a work of art worthy of a spot in the Museum of Modern Art. To date, her art, donated to Fresh Artists in 2009, is the most chosen piece in the collection of more than 2,300 pieces. It has been installed in over 50 corporations and has raised enough money to deliver a one-hour watercolor lesson to over 300,000 children in underfunded schools. The family has visited many corporate installations to see her work on display and their excitement and pride in this student’s extraordinary accomplishments never wanes. She understands that she is a contributor in the world, a person with purpose. As someone who has spent all of her years needing others to care for her, she now is empowered as a care-giver for thousands of other children who have watercolor lessons because of her talent and generosity.

Every young person who crosses our path brings us joy, hope and a sense of purpose.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Almost too many to recall! There have been so many little missteps over the years. I truly believe that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. The one that keeps playing in my head over the years and has had the biggest impact on our organization happened in our second year, when we were just starting to pick up speed.

We had been working with a local digital printer who fabricated all the reproductions of the students’ artwork. We worked out a deal with them that they would give us their deepest discount, just above breaking even, and we would get behind their “paying” clients. They used our business to fill in the gaps between larger jobs. It was a perfect relationship. We had flexible deadlines back then, got a good price, and they made a few bucks and could maintain staffing levels during their slow times. It was perfect until it wasn’t. They had just finished printing one of our biggest jobs on a Friday afternoon and we had plans to pick up the prints Monday morning. When we arrived, we found the lights out and the doors padlocked. Confused and slightly panicky, we called the owner, a person we had become close friends with over the years. Turns out, the parent company in Barcelona made the decision to close down the operation and padlocked the doors that Friday, without warning. We were stuck without a print vendor and without the artwork for the upcoming installation. It wasn’t good.

I then had the second Aha Moment of Fresh Artists. I remembered we had developed a small teaching workshop for demonstrating wide-format printing to high school students with some of the same equipment that our print vendor used to fabricate the students’ reproductions. We had everything we needed to pick up the production. Why didn’t we think of this before?!

Sometimes it takes a seemingly major catastrophe to not just get outside the box, but to toss the box out altogether. This “disaster” turned out to be a defining moment for the future of the organization. We quickly became highly proficient in print production and went on to develop a sophisticated state-of-the-art print studio with multiple format capabilities, all thanks to our family of friends in the wide-format print industry!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Fresh Artists and I wouldn’t be where we are today without all the astonishing support we’ve received from the Specialty Graphics Imaging Association, now rebranded as Printing United Alliance. We’ve been fortunate to have a group of wide-format printing industry leaders from companies like Canon Solutions America, Inc., behind us from the very beginning. They saw what we were trying to do with their technology and jumped right in with equipment, expertise, consumables and support.

Many see Fresh Artists as poster children for the future of the industry, especially in the area of gender and cultural diversity. It’s because of these fine corporations that we are able to produce the stunning art reproductions in-house, increasing our margins and helping us to build a state-of-the-art printing facility that introduces kids from underfunded public schools to this intriguing technology and the myriad careers it supports. For example, Canon Solutions America, Inc., just delivered two of their state-of-the-art wide-format printers to our studio — a roll-to-roll and a direct-to-substrate flatbed machine — which will enable us to more than triple our production of reproductions for our turnkey Corporate Art Program. This visionary adoption by the wide-format digital industry provides essential links in the circle of philanthropy that differentiates Fresh Artists from all other nonprofits.

I must also mention the slew of wonderful, dedicated educators and administrators of the schools we support. We have learned so much from them, especially the thousands of Art teachers who are truly the unsung heroes of public education. We have empirical proof from hundreds of children-now-grownups that beloved art teachers and their encouragement of creative expression are often the reason thousands of kids stay in school!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Those of us who work with students in underfunded public schools don’t like to tell stories about particular individuals because it is “outing” the young person who is being described. Instead, to be respectful of our young artist-philanthropists, we ask them to tell us how they feel Fresh Artists impacted them, in their own words:

  • As a young person I know what it is like to harbor so many confusing feelings and too often I find I cannot put those feelings into words. However, art has been a lifesaving outlet and has helped me express those feelings in a healthy way. But not every child is as fortunate as you and me. A lot of children do not possess the tools they need to express themselves. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be without Prisma colored pencils or acrylic paint! Expression is so vital for our youth. When children cannot put their feelings into words and do not possess the vocabulary to talk about them, art is a great outlet that can even save a child’s emotional health. As simple as it may seem, art supplies are the fundamental tools of expression. Children living less fortunate lives find an escape in art classrooms where they are safe to vent their feelings through making art. Expressing feelings in a positive way aids healthy development in children. I thank you for recognizing the importance of art education and the role it plays in my life and the lives of other children.” (Grade 11)
  • “Being chosen to be a Fresh Artist is the most important thing that happened to me. Before I was just an ordinary kid. Other kids got chosen for grades, basketball, being popular. Not me. They were Rocky Road and Rum Raisin. I was Vanilla. But you chose my art, and told me I was powerful. You said I could make a difference. None of those guys are powerful. Just flashy. I got work to do, making more art. Thank you for choosing me.” (Grade 10)
  • “I have had so much help in my life. I need to give back. My art is the perfect way. Through it, Fresh Artists will keep giving and giving — maybe for 50 years. Maybe for 100 years. Maybe forever. This makes me feel good.” (Grade 9)

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First and foremost, equitably fund art education. It has the power to engage children emotionally, gives them a safe space to experiment and fail, to learn about themselves and collaborate with others around them. Kids need access to divergent ways of thinking, to different cultures, ideas, aesthetics and values. Education with equitable access to resources exposes children to the greater world around them in a way that builds curiosity, critical problem solving and tolerance.

Second, bring service and purpose into education.

Third, bring vocational education, internships and entrepreneurship into education to offer real-world experiences and useful skills that can propel children forward in their lives.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be willing to fail but learn from it each time. 
    This is a really hard one. Society insists on teaching kids from a young age that failure is inherently bad. Failure can lead to amazing things. New directions and innovative new ideas come as result of self-reflection after a failure. Art beckons kids to stand back, assess the situation and start over to make something new, better and more exciting than the world has seen before.
  2. Almost no one will say “no” to a young person asking to treat you to a cup of coffee. 
    Early on in my life, my mom taught me a simple lesson. Almost no one will say no to a free cup of coffee. If there is someone out there who can help you, provide insight to an idea, or set you on a new path, tell them you’d like to take them for a quick cup of coffee. Many times in my life when I need help or advice, buying a cup of coffee for someone I respected led to wonderful advice, a useful introduction and a breakthrough resolution to a difficult challenge.
  3. Accept that you cannot do it all and surround yourself with people who are there to help.
    You can’t do or know everything. The best thing you can do to bring your idea to the world is to surround yourself with people who believe in the mission and fill in the gaps where you lack experience, time, or insight.
  4. When there is more than one solution to a problem, pick the most elegant one. 
    Social issues are complex and there is never one answer to the problem. The most elegant solution usually is a hybrid of multiple solutions that share a common thread. Finding these can be difficult but the reward of a smartly designed solution to a complex problem is huge.
  5. An often and honest “thank you” goes a long way.
    Don’t be afraid to say it with wild abandon. People want to feel seen and appreciated for the hard work they do. This is one I’m still learning every day.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Finding a mission or a cause to work towards that has a deep personal meaning can give you a life full of purpose, excitement and satisfaction. It gives you an automatic, comfortable arena in which to work, a goal to shoot for, and a wonderful feeling of being part of something bigger than you. That mission will be different for everyone. It can stem from past experiences or future goals but make sure it’s for the benefit of others, in whatever capacity. Although I’ve chosen to work in the nonprofit sector, I am a great admirer of the B-Corp movement in the corporate world. There is no business that cannot be improved by adding a dose of kindness, care of people, and stewardship of our planet.

Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d have to say David Kelley, founder of the global design and innovation company IDEO. I met Mr. Kelley at a Summer Design Institute at the Cooper Hewitt when I was a teen and then again on a tour of IDEO while in Palo Alto, California, doing college visits. He was gracious enough to give a young designer-wannabe a tour of his amazing agency and to drop a few sage words of wisdom on me. These encounters were small acts in his life, but they have been the driving force in who I am today and the work I have chosen to do. I’d love to take him to lunch, tell him how much he has inspired me, thank him and once again pick the brain of one of design thinking’s most influential thought leaders!

How can our readers follow you online?

I’d love people to find out more about Fresh Artists online at www.freshartists.org or continue the conversation on Instagram at @freshartists.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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