by Lydia Gans
Young people from Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) are once again appearing at markets in the East Bay selling colorful T-shirts, tote bags and other products they have created. The artists and the sales teams all are young people enrolled in programs at YSA on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley.
Youth Spirit Artworks offers studio space, art materials, and programs in creating art, along with training in arts-related jobs for low-income and homeless young people, ages 15 to 25.
The youth can choose programs in three different areas: 1) A fine arts program for creating art. 2) A community art program that creates murals, tiling bollards, and various other projects to improve and beautify neighborhoods. 3) An art entrepreneurship program to engage youth in marketing the art locally and give them an opportunity to learn about business, finance and managing money.
Berkeley High School junior Onynex Johnson is an artist who has created YSA T-shirt designs. “What we do here at YSA is give people the opportunity to be entrepreneurs, take their designs and get people to see our work,” he says. “So I’m utilizing YSA to screen print my shirts, go out and sell and get my name and my brand out there.”
Johnson talks about his dream. By “making my own brand I can make as much money as I possibly can so I can get on to college,” he explains. “It’s hard out there for a young black man and so I’m trying to get my name out there as soon as I possibly can so I can start pursuing my dream — to take my art and put it with science and be able to create a company that I can own and be proud of.”
The entrepreneurship program began running outdoor sales three years ago by constructing an Art Cart and taking tote bags and other products designed by YSA artists to sell in front of the Berkeley Bowl. That turned out to be popular with the shoppers and provided some needed income for the young people. They are now involved in a sales expansion project to set up in more locations and involve more of the youth, not just artists who have their works to sell, but those who are interested in business training.
A team of 12 YSA youth have developed an impressive and comprehensive program to carry out the project, providing income-producing jobs for eight low-income and homeless young people. (And that is only a start. They will increase the number as they gain experience.)
Brandon Pritzkat is a senior artist managing the project. He explains how they are organizing it. “Eight youth go out every week, three times a week, selling a sales kit each time,” he says.
“The kits consist of three T-shirts and two tote bags. (At $20 for each item) they sell $300 worth of retail inventory every week, taking home a 50 percent commission of $150 a week. In the course of a summer’s work they will be able to earn money for school or other expenses.”
The Art Cart is now used for training but no longer taken out to the sales locations. The eight sellers with their sales kits work out their own transportation to any one of the 10 area locations that they have collectively decided on.
Decisions on the designs on the shirts and tote bags are arrived at by consensus of the entire team. Brandon describes the process. “The content of all the merchandise in the program is designed by the youth who participate in YSA and we vote on which content will be printed on the merchandise. The idea we have so far is different designs that are featured each month. So we’ll be having new inventory every month — so new T-shirts and new bags every month.”
One of the three designs will deal with a social or community issue of concern to the young people, or a campaign that they are involved in; for example, concern for Syrian refugees or Black History month.
One of the next products will focus on gentrification and displacement. “It’s a way for us to bring up the relevant issues in our lives, and also to reflect the importance of those issues to the community,” says Brandon.
Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, mentions another important aspect of the sales project. Its venue is in the streets, not inside a store.
“We’re excited about impacting and entering the Bay Area street sale landscape,” she says. “Through their art work, the sellers can reach the public directly. We need all of the avenues possible for homeless and under-served people to have their voices and their messages heard.”
And it is Street Spirit, giving its vendors the means to earn an income and bring poor people’s message directly to the public, that has provided a model and an inspiration for the YSA sales program.