Youth Design Center (YDC) is beginning the year with momentum on its side.

The Brownsville-based organization was announced in December as one of 50 Black-led community nonprofits nationwide to receive a $300,000 multi-year grant from Microsoft as part of the tech giant’s community skills program.

“We are proud to partner with Microsoft to steward this investment in 360 young people over the next three years,” Quardean Lewis-Allen, founder and CEO of YDC, said. “Our collective futures are rooted in their success.”

YDC in action. Photo: Supplied.

The announcement came shortly after the organization was chosen, alongside Lower Eastside Girls Club and Ghetto Film School, to partner with Today at Apple for a virtual workshop series in March. YDC is currently recruiting fifteen East Brooklyn 15-18 year olds for the 14-week program, where young people will collaborate using arts, film, photography and coding to create their vision for the future of New York City.

The program will then conclude with a cross-borough festival presenting their work, as well as a virtual presentation.

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These high-profile partnerships are the culmination of a year of extraordinary hard work.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, YDC was faced with the challenge of pulling off its regular programming without its physical space, and doing so in a neighborhood with less access to technology and that was being hit disproportionately hard by the virus.

For Program Director Brittany Bellinger the questions quickly changed from, ‘how do we distribute laptops and WiFi hot-spots to our youth?’ to, ‘how do we carry out our programs online?’. “We always wanted to go virtual and then 2020 was the push for just that,” she said.

YDC in action. Photo: Supplied.

YDC started by hosting free virtual lessons on subjects like photo enhancement, HTML and logo design, often creating two versions of the class — one using Adobe and another using free alternatives.

Then, after the city slashed the Summer Youth Employment Program in the wake of the pandemic cutting 40,000 youth jobs, Bellinger knew YDC needed to find a way to fill in the gaps. Partnering with America On Tech, the team created a series of summer tech camps teaching 12-19 year olds how to code. Structured like a regular work week, the 75 youth participants worked 40 hours coding over the one week program and were all paid for their time. One graduate even developed a website for his barber shortly after the completion of the camp.

YDC in action. Photo: Supplied.

The year continued on with a 10-week architecture and lighting apprenticeship for 20 young people, the building of two mobile ‘healing sanctuaries’ for the community and a social justice and art partnership with the Mayor’s Action Plan, which led to the painting of a Black Lives Matter mural on the YDC building.

“It was hard. Brownsville and East New York were hit very hard, but throughout that we were able to connect with these young people even if it was just virtually,” Bellinger said.

These efforts, in addition to years of well documented community work, are likely a big reason Microsoft chose them out of its large pool of applicants. When asked what they will do with the grant money, Bellinger said it was too early to tell, but one thing she would like to see was a more robust system for supporting alumni.

“I want them to feel that we are not just a safe space, but a resourceful space for you to continue on with no matter what age and what place you are in your career,” she said.

There are also always hopes to continue to grow the organization’s reach.

“We worked with hundreds of kids last year but can we work with thousands?” she wondered. “These are my dreams.”

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Jackson Ferrari Ibelle

Jackson Ferrari Ibelle is a Providence, RI native who has lived in Crown Heights since 2019. He is a Northeastern University graduate and splits his time between writing for BK Reader and working as a...

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