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TEDx Toronto: Turning At-Risk Youth Into Entrepreneurs

10/20/2012 02:28 EDT | Updated 12/20/2012 05:12 EST
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Gavin Sheppard a co-host of this year's TEDxToronto conference, which will be held at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on October 26. He knows how big an impact the stage can have on people's lives. Since delivering a TEDx talk in 2009, he was selected as a TED fellow and has delivered addresses at Yale, the United Nations Habitat Headquarters, and in ghettos, slums, barrios and favelas around the world. The following is an excerpt from his talk:

I used to go this community centre in my neighbourhood and it was one of the few places where I was able to escape my little bubble at home and actually get to meet different people from my block, from my neighbourhood. It was your typical community centre. I thought it was corny, I didn't think it was cool. But one of my boys, he was from Queens, New York, and he used to literally come and knock on my door and drag me out of my house and bring me down to the community centre.

At the same time, I used to go to this thing called the 416 Graffiti Expo. It just blew my mind. There were people doing live graffiti, these huge murals, there was break dancing, and people rapping. I just loved it. And I would come back to my block and tell everyone about how great it was. And the reason I was just telling them, they weren't going and sharing it with me, is that in Toronto -- and I think this is a problem around the world -- a lot of kids are scared to leave their neighbourhoods. These are what we call "priority neighbourhoods," or "at-risk youth." The neighbourhood is what they know, their safety blanket. And for some reason, they won't leave.

So I would come back and say, imagine if we had this energy every day! And they said, "Whatever man -- keep dreaming." And I did. I wrote this essay about why we should have a Hip Hop Community Centre. We got some money. We got a wall for graffiti and some turntables. There were open mics once a month. Over time, this program has expanded.

But we're still operating on the fly, one-offs. I can't dedicate the time to it that I want to. What we don't have in our communities is deep investment. We get pulled off in all directions: mom needs help, groceries need picking up, little brothers and sisters, or we're pulled off to part time jobs or into negative spheres of influence.

And then 2005 happened, the Summer of the Gun. A record number of young people decided to kill each other. So finally the political will was there: "We have to do something, but what?" And we had an opportunity to fill that void and we did.

Today we have three full streams of programming: Creative Arts, the Art of Business and the Recording Arts. We lay out six-month plans, because six months is an eternity for a young person. We work with them and provide industry mentors to build roadmaps for success. You might not have had success in the school system, but you can here. Culture is our Trojan Horse, it's how we get past the impenetrable defenses of young people who have been cheated by the system so many times that they don't want to be involved in programming any more.

Once we get past those defences we can start talking about credit, and how you can obtain it, how you can walk into a meeting place to achieve what you're passionate about achieving. We start taking the intuitive skills they have learned from living in the hood.

We do this intake process. So we take this young person we'll say is in the Art of Business program who wants to start a clothing line. And we say, what kind of business skills do you have? And they'll say, "Uh, nothing really." OK, what's your level of education? "I dropped out in grade 10."

But a lot of our people are from the same neighbourhoods as these kids so we say: OK, off the record, ever sold a product before? And the kid will be, like [looks over his shoulders], "I mean, yeah." And we're like, OK cool. You know you need money for product. You buy wholesale. Then you break it down and you sell it retail. Then when you have your money, can you just go spend it all? And they'll say, "No, I need my re-up." Exactly! You understand a budget then.

So then we break it down: You developed a brand, you understand the concept of retail versus wholesale, you understand sales, supply and demand -- in a drought, prices go up -- and you understand working with a staff. You have incredible skills that you've learned through necessity. Desperation breeds ingenuity. It's the idea of creatively understanding the skills and ideas that are there in these communities and what's necessary to support them: deep investment, time, understanding, and capital.