"We start with their spark," Careshia Moore, president of Usher's New Look, Inc., responds succinctly when asked about the organization's transformative impact on under-resourced youth across the nation. Many of the students they serve have that "spark" or personal talent and passion that connects them to a greater purpose. However, they lack the resources, support, and guidance to make their dreams a reality. That's where Usher's New Look comes in. With a focus on talent, education, career, and service, the Atlanta-based non-profit has supported more than 50,000 students in reaching their educational and career goals while also boasting a 100% high school graduation rate.
Moore, who started working with the program more than eight years ago, has witnessed firsthand how artists can use their platform to not only be examples of positive community impact, but to create sustainable social change.
"You have this great example of what it means to follow your spark and to achieve a high level of success [in Usher]. You also have someone who's done that and cares about their community," Moore outlines regarding the organization's success. "So, fast forward, you have all these young students who are saying, OK, if he can do it, I can do it.'"
Singer, songwriter, and businessman Usher Raymond IV and his mother and former manager, Jonnetta Patton, started the organization in 1999 as a two-week camp to empower students facing economic inequalities and from areas with statistically low rates of high school graduation with the tools they needed to become leaders. Much like the journey the students embark on with Usher's New Look, Usher's path to philanthropy started with a spark.
"I was blessed to find my spark early in life. Being able to immerse myself in what I loved to do was a great way for me to channel my passions," Usher shares when asked about what drove him to start his organization. "I wanted to provide those same opportunities for other youth."
Usher was still a teenager grinding to become the superstar he is today when his mom took him to meet Judge Glenda A. Hatchett, a friend of hers who presided over Fulton County, Georgia's Juvenile Court. "She just took him to sit in court one day and to watch how many young people were in and out, in and out, that Judge Hatchett had to pass her judgment on and had to talk to," 28-year-old Tommy Springer, a graduate of Usher's New Look shared. "That put the battery in him from the beginning."
Springer, the owner, and operator of 49 Features, a Georgia-based visual production company, has experienced the impact of Usher's New Look firsthand. He joined the organization more than a decade ago after accepting a recommendation from a friend who had won a radio competition to attend New Look's summer camp.
"In the middle of the summer camp, they do a celebrity basketball game and a talent showcase for all the students and you could invite family and friends and his mom brought me. It just looked like the most amazing production I had ever seen, and it looked like all of the kids were having so much fun. Instantly I was jealous [of my friend in the program]. I was hating [laughs]. And I was ready to apply. I was able to get in the next year and it changed my life."
Initially, Springer joined the program's music track, but like many of the students who attend the program, exposure to more career possibilities allowed him to find his spark elsewhere.
"They were piloting a program with all the kids and there were tracks for dance, sports, or music. They wanted to see what a video component track would look like for the kids and if they'd be interested. So, they put a camera in my hand and the rest is history."
During his time as a student in the program, Springer was given the opportunity to direct a PSA for Cartoon Network, create music videos, and even work on a commercial for Usher's Usher for Men fragrance. After high school, he leveraged his experience and the connections he made at Usher's New Look into an internship at a local TV station.
"They taught me so many things that when I got to college and started studying, I realized they were teaching me the skills and the basics that you learn in your first two, three years of courses in film."
Since graduating, Springer has volunteered for the organization and has since started his 49 Features production company, where he counts Usher's New Look as one of his video and photography clients. "You can identify what you love and Usher's New Look is going to do what they can with all their resources to put you in that room or to prepare you for it," Springer shares.
The unprecedented access students receive as part of Usher's New Look is what drove Moore, who started her professional career as an educator, to join the organization as well.
"I saw the need for equity in the education system. Resources for education were based on [students'] ZIP code. I just thought that was innately unfair from my experiences. I would be teaching students who were super talented in rural and urban areas, just as if they were in the suburban, more affluent areas, it's just that there was a disparity in the resources," Moore shared. "So, I thought, 'how can I bring more education and opportunity to these young people?' Because otherwise, you're going to have a lot of wasted talent and it's not because they don't have the ability, it's because they don't have the opportunity, access, and exposure."
Moore decided to practice law with an eye toward educational equity. But ultimately, she realized she could have a bigger effect by leaving the law firm and working directly with the youth she wished to impact.
"I just got to the point where I said; I really want to work on the ground, working with young people, helping them to access opportunities they need to be successful in transforming their lives. So when I left law practice, I was introduced to Usher's New Look. I went to an event and I sat there thinking, 'This is the place for me right now. This is where I'm supposed to be to make an impact.' I saw the youth who were passionate about what they were doing. I saw youth sharing their spark and partners and supporters who were really excited about the work that the organization was doing. And then, I saw Usher, who was there and clearly involved in the impact that the organization was making. I volunteered to write the curriculum, and that's where I started with the organization." Moore realized there was much more to the organization than just a celebrity founder. "What I found was this organization that was created to help young people see behind the scenes of the entertainment industry had developed into a comprehensive program that really helped under-resourced youth transform their lives and become passionate, driven global leaders."
Even without an eight-time Grammy award-winning founder at the helm, Springer and Moore believe anyone can start an organization for change, as long as they remember to lead with passion and focus on impact.
"What is that thing that grabs you? You have to start something that you're going to be passionate about," Moore shares. "You have to start something that you're going to want to go and share with people and scream from the mountain top. So start with something that you're passionate about."
Students who attend Usher's New Look not only have Usher to look up to as an example, they also have the entire team behind the organization. Each student has a coordinator who texts them daily, offers them advice, reminds them to fill out their scholarships, and shows them what success could look like in real life.
But, if building your own team from scratch feels daunting, Moore recommends finding the right organizations and non-profits to partner with and not being afraid to start small.
"I could see someone having a large platform and saying, but it's gotta be big. It's gotta be big. It has to rival something. Sometimes you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Partnership is important," she shares. "Bringing what you have and collaborating with another organization and capitalizing on their strengths can be very important."
Moore also acknowledges the importance of having support in the financial and legal aspects of running a non-profit. She cites multiple pro bono resources in Atlanta and throughout the nation that are happy to help with everything from naming your organization to getting incorporated and assisting you in filing necessary information with the IRS.
"That's what happened with Usher; we were literally sitting around the table and figuring out what we were going to do. How are we going to do it." Moore recalls. "Don't let perfect be the enemy of getting started. It doesn't have to be perfect to start. You don't need a million kids. We didn't start out serving 50,000 that's 21 years later. Just start with what you have and in a location where you are. It doesn't have to be national right away. Start in your hometown or where you live and make an impact and then allow it to grow and develop from there. Be nimble; be flexible. Usher's New Look started as a summer camp, then we saw the need to support youth year-round, and we grew from there."
Moore believes you shouldn't worry too much about how other organizations are creating programs; instead, focus on your own unique offering.
"I always tell our students[to ask themselves], "How many bags of plain potato chips do you need? How many different brands of plain potato chips do you see on the shelves?" she shares. "It doesn't have to be just one. Make what you do unique and keep the focus on the mission of your organization. I think that's when the success will come."
The team and students behind Usher's New Look are creating a world where anything they put their minds to feels possible because, as Usher shares, "It is about helping young people cultivate their individual gifts and realizing their potential. If we can help them explore their talents, support them in gaining experience and opportunities within those areas, there are no limits on what they can accomplish."
– Erica Campbell