As the global economic downturn continues to wash away the slough of convention, new institutions are being put together to allow new perspectives to emerge and define new social norms. In Toronto, such a movement is surfacing – The Remix Project. A nonprofit organization that inspires more than preaches, The Remix Project serves as a guiding light for hundreds of underprivileged youth and uses a nonconventional approach to their methodology. Theyâ€™ve recently aligned with global fashion icon Marc Ecko Watches as part of its â€˜I Am Unlimitedâ€™ campaign. We spoke with Gavin Sheppard, Founder / Operating Director of The Remix Project regarding the ups and downs of saving the world one teen at a time.
â€œRemix is not just a program in the city of Toronto, it is a movement, it is an idea, a philosophy; a way of life that anyone can subscribe to.â€
Format: For those who donâ€™t know, how did the Marc Ecko Watches partnership come about?
Gavin Sheppard: The partnership came about through the chair of our board of directors, the lovely and talented Ms. Daniella Etienne. Basically, the marketing manager of Marc Ecko Watches, Jesse Jones â€“ definitely one of the rising young business execs to watch in Canada (no pun intended) â€“ approached Daniella casting around for ideas with individuals who she thought embodied unlimited potential. He made it clear he didnâ€™t want to highlight the traditional type of athlete, entertainer, whatever but to do something different. She suggested myself and showed him some footage of The Remix Projectâ€™s first exchange down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (www.remixtorio.com) and I guess he was sold off that.
Format: Is your organization part of the â€˜I Am Unlimitedâ€™ campaign? Or are you the sole representative?
Gavin Sheppard: Well the piece focuses around â€˜my storyâ€™ or at least a fraction of it, but you canâ€™t begin to tell even that fraction of my story without Remix playing an integral part of it. Remix is not just a program in the city of Toronto, it is a movement, it is an idea, a philosophy; a way of life that anyone can subscribe to. It is my life and the life of those closest to me as well.
Format: As an organization that uses media/arts/entrepreneurship as drivers for those involved, do you feel that those areas supersede the traditional means of accomplishing oneâ€™s goal?
Gavin Sheppard: I feel that these areas have become intricately tied to the accomplishing of ones goals. Even if you are working for a large corporate that has nothing to do with the arts you are constantly challenged and needed to think creatively to problem solve, use various forms of media and have a strong streak of independent thought and the ability to self-start and make it happen if you are really going to anywhere within that structure.
With that said, however, the young people we are working with are generally eschewing the route of big corporate structure and are instead blazing their own paths through the concrete jungle we live in. They are slowly but surely building the infrastructure that this city has lacked in terms of making sure our world-class talents are recognized on that international stage and it is the arts that they are showcasing through a potent blend of entrepreneurship and new media.
Format: While the values youâ€™re instilling in the youth are undoubtedly intended for their professional and social maturation, how do you combat some of the more controversial themes in hip-hop that arenâ€™t as politically correct? Do you embrace or just ignore them?
Gavin Sheppard: We embrace the human condition. That is to say we, ourselves, are flawed role models and so we will never demand perfection from the people in our program. We use the culture [of Hip-Hop] and more importantly what the students, themselves, are creating as the first salvo in a conversation. Basically the opening to a larger debate or reasoning with each other around different social issues and also the power that our art and our decisions in our commerce have on our communities, whether we like it or not, and what that means towards our own responsibilities at being living, breathing members of these communities.
Format: Your program allows for those who complete it to take out a micro-credit loan to start a venture of their choice. What have some of those ventures been?
Gavin Sheppard: Unfortunately at this point we donâ€™t have the funding to really take this aspect of the program further; The Remix Project, despite all our media attention, international accolades and local support from the community, is really coming up to a place of crises. Our largest funder, National Crime Prevention Canada, was funding us for a three-year period based on the fact that we were a pilot project, basically a test. Primarily a research based institution, they wanted to see if this idea of Remix would actually work to engage young people and get them involved in something productive and positive. We did, and we continue to do so.
[Unfortunately] our contract with them is drawing to a close and despite rave reviews from the evaluators they just donâ€™t fund projects past the research stage. So almost half of our budget is up come August 31st 2009. Couple that with the fact that the current economic crisis has severely depleted corporate and private institutional goodwill and the ability to give to projects like ours right now. And our lease comes up August 31st 2009 – we have to move in order for the developer who owns the building to demolish the space and build condos in the further gentrification of Queen Street West. Yeah – itâ€™s a rough patch but there is a ton of amazing people rallying together to help fundraise and continue to make Remix a reality for the young people of the city of Toronto.
People like the amazing ladies at Brazen Hussy, CoCo and Lowe, like Taj from Maxamus, as well as our own alumni like Addy Boy, Fresh, Wristpect, Photo Will and their partner and our friend Sir LanceLot and of course our own incredible staff of Tyrone â€œtrexxxâ€ Edwards, Bryan Brock (both also of www.1loveto.com), Drex, Amanda, Pro, Be (www.thelegendsleague.com), Noah etc. that are working above and beyond, around the clock to not only support and provide for the young people of the city but also to keep the organizations doors open. There are a lot of superheroes around us right now.
â€œRemix, like hip-hop, is a culture based on authenticity.â€
Format: What is next for the Remix Project? Any plans to expand into the United States or overseas?
Gavin Sheppard: While we continue to help international partners get similar projects up off the ground (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as mentioned above â€“ Remix South Africa is due to open in Cape Town this September â€“ as well as partner initiatives in Bogota, Colombia and Santiago, Chile. We, as an organization, are focused on making sure our own homes are straight first. In truth, we have never been about expansion like McDonaldâ€™s or Starbucks. Instead it has always been our model to identify some amazing leaders in different communities, who are already doing things, and then to establish where we can lend our support in terms of structure, programming documents, curriculum, grants, reports and also the international prestige we have garnered through our work with the United Nations â€˜Habitatâ€™ Program and the Organization of American States to help establish some credibility with local governments.
We are not trying to run these projects in different places though. We donâ€™t live there, speak the language or intuitively understand the local landscapes and â€˜hoodâ€™ politics like we do here so really, we can’t. Not authentically. Remix, like hip-hop, is a culture based on authenticity. And though we have all really been through some shit, we have risen above it and we really make it happen. Thatâ€™s what Remix is all about. Next up for us is the rolling out of the major fundraising campaign. We flipped our slogan â€˜Get Money, Make Changeâ€™ and are starting up the â€˜Give Money, Make Changeâ€™ campaign, online, on the streets, in the clubs, and with a huge weekend celebration of events, parties and fun activities for the greater Toronto communities. We are so excited. If people are interested or want to get down and help ensure this project is a reality for the young people of this city and for future generations I encourage everyone to holla at me direct; letâ€™s make it happen together. Remix Project. Make It Happen Gang. Get Money, Make Change. 1 Love T.O. Letâ€™s get it.