Prior to studying at Yale as a World Fellow, The Remix Project co-founder and TEDx speaker Gavin Sheppard dropped out of high school once (he returned to complete his studies). He spent a few of his subsequent years in the entertainment industry in internships with a couple of Canadian music label executives. During this time, he helped manage recording artists such as Hip-hop/R&B production group Tone Mason and Toronto rapper Rochester. Simultaneously, he was giving back to the community by connecting his musicians with street teams, graphic designers, photographers, and videographers from "priority neighborhoods" -- where he noticed the relationships were symbiotic and each artist could feed and inspire the others.
Then Sheppard lost a friend to The Summer of the Gun. "If you can't keep your friends alive, what's the point?" Gavin Sheppard asks me quietly.
This loss, coupled with an opportunity for Sheppard to gain a significant amount of funding for a community project, forced him to take a step back and create a more wide-reaching solution. Focusing all his efforts on creating The Remix Project, an organization dedicated to help youth from disadvantaged, marginalized and under-served communities channel their energies into the arts, and business of pop culture, he and his team put together a program which would invest much more deeply in youth from "priority" neighborhoods.
Students originally would be paired up with mentors in six month programs -- now extended to nine months -- and develop goals, plans, and milestones. Pop culture served as a Trojan Horse to pique the curiosity of students for Sheppard's academy. Each of the skills that these youth were picking up fed each other - graphic designers made visuals such as album covers, street teams promoted music, videographers made videos, and recording artists made music.
Consider the change in Mike Tyson's life after meeting his trainer, Cus D'Amato. The difference here is scale, and type of development: Sheppard is equally focused on each youth's personal development as he is in their artistic and professional development. While a large part of the learning at The Remix Project is experiential, Sheppard has been implementing mandatory structured classes on topics such as financial literacy -- and various essential life skills that aren't taught in formal education.
Additionally, Sheppard isn't keen on simply propelling one or two successes out of Toronto into the world, like D'Amato's singular focus on Tyson; instead, he has invested in a wide base of talent, and is looking to grow the Toronto-based and Chicago-based communities, or ecosystems, as wholes. His belief is that growing the communities will naturally enhance each city's artists and increase their chances of success.
Although most of his efforts have been focused on building The Remix Project, he has recently also diverted some of his energy towards his own creative endeavors. "In high school, the only course I took outside of the mandatory ones was a screenwriting course," said Sheppard.
He and his team of collaborators have created Welcome to Rawluck, a transmedia story of a dystopian future where issues such as revitalization and housing are taken to extremes. Sheppard explains, "Sometimes people are even more honest in fiction, because we have a veil between us, and we can say what we want to say. It allows us to examine what could be in exciting ways."
As a non-fiction writer, and mostly non-fiction reader (and not exactly the most philosophical individual), that was an interesting point to reflect on. While the first four episodes are available online, Sheppard hopes to continue the narrative either as a short film, or as a television series.
My conversation with Gavin Sheppard touched on many subjects: in addition to the profile, we talked about Toronto's emerging identity, his challenges in managing youth expectations and funding, and his belief in meritocracy -- and how he plans to level the starting line for everyone. Admittedly, it's a bit overwhelming, and I can't shake the feeling that this interview and profile is the beginning of a larger story.
One of the great things that artists and journalists can strive to do is bring awareness to an issue and make viewers, or readers, empathetic for the social cause (what Scott McCloud may call an "iconoclast"). Those compelling emotions could be the engine to drive change. Sheppard's vision and collaborations have propelled him one step further; with The Remix Project, he and his team have gone ahead and created the solution to drive change, by investing deeply in individual members of the next generation.