For At-Risk Youth, Designing These T-Shirts Is A Way Into The Creative Economy

Through the Portland-based dfrntpigeon, young people at risk of homelessness channel their creative energy into designing clothes–and learn crucial business skills in the process.


When she was growing up in Portland, Olivia, who is now 22, never made the connection between her drawings–first with crayons as an elementary schooler, then moving into comics in middle and high school–and a way to support herself. Around three years ago, finding herself in a hostile living situation and needing a way to get out, she realized she didn’t really know how. “I wasn’t sure what I could do to support myself,” Olivia, who prefers not to share her last name, tells Fast Company. “I still loved making art, but I needed to do something.”


Creatively inclined youth  make up the staff of dfrntpigeon, who design their own T-shirts. [Photo: dfrntpigeon]
A new initiative from the Portland-based nonprofit New Avenues For Youth, which supports local at-risk kids through job training and employment opportunities, turned out to be exactly what Olivia was looking for—even if she didn’t know before that such an opportunity existed. Called dfrntpigeon (“different pigeon”), it’s an apparel design firm run through New Avenues, in partnership with the local design agency AKQA. Creatively inclined youth in the New Avenues program make up the staff, who design their own T-shirts–their first collection of 2017, called Identity, was released on April 26–and take commissions from local businesses with design needs.

Olivia’s detailed line drawings decorate three of the shirts in dfrntpigeon’s new collection, which retail for $26. One features a series of hands spelling out letters in ASL. For another, Olivia drew a Statue of Liberty with the head of a pigeon, surrounded by flames and linked handcuffs; for Olivia, the drawing was a way to express a sense of hope even amid the current tumultuous political climate. Sharing that message with others in such a tangible way is a new experience for her. “I never thought I’d see something I drew on a shirt, and see someone else wearing it,” she says. “It’s amazing.”

[Photo: dfrntpigeon]
As Portland’s economy, driven in large part by creatives, began to take off in the late 1990s, an inverse crisis of youth homelessness began to take root in the city. In response, a group of local business and community leaders founded New Avenues For Youth in 1997 with the idea that the local economy should make room for its youth, instead of keeping them out; since that year, it’s reached over 20,000 youth. The nonprofit offers workshops and activities for homeless youth and those at risk of homelessness, including resources tailored to LGBT youth, who make up 40% of Portland’s youth homeless population (a point-in-time count from 2015 listed the total of homeless unaccompanied youth in the city at 266). At New Avenues, youth can drop in for three meals a day; a housing department will connect them with resources, and they can earn academic credits toward their diploma or GED through an education program.

The job-training program, says New Avenues enterprise director Sara Weihmann, consists of workshops and meetings with employment specialists, who either direct youth toward local opportunities, or help them start up with one of New Avenues’ proprietary enterprises. When Olivia first went through the program, she worked at Ben & Jerry’s through the business’ partnership with New Avenues; through another enterprise, New Avenues Ink, youth learn screen printing and serve a long list of local clients.

Before dfrntpigeon launched around a year and a half ago as the nonprofit’s third venture, it had just been an informal drawing group made up of New Avenues youth, Olivia says. But when New Avenues brought AKQA in to brainstorm some ideas for how to translate the group’s creativity into a venture, the agency immediately made the connection between the screen printing enterprise and the design capabilities of the New Avenues youth.


The program has brought in $15,000 in revenue since last July. [Photo: dfrntpigeon]
Last year, dfrntpigeon launched its first collection of shirts and began to take requests from local businesses. Dani, one of the earliest members of dfrntpigeon, designed a shirt for the Portland-based Deschutes Brewery as part of Portland Design Week in July. Olivia joined dfrntpigeon in the fall, and the team has been growing ever since, in number and output: It’s offered over 200 hours of mentorship and workshop instruction to over 40 youths. Weihmann says the program has brought in $15,000 in revenue since last July, all of which goes back into the nonprofit to support programming.

The collaboration with AKQA has made the program’s link to Portland’s thriving creative scene even more tangible. Olivia is currently interning at AKQA, where she’s gaining experience with more aspects of the city’s design community; it’s not so hard for her to imagine that she could have a future in it, too.

The name dfrntpigeon, Weihmann says, emerged from one of AKQA’s earliest brainstorming sessions with the New Avenues’ youth, when they were sketching to come up with an idea for what the enterprise could be called. “One had drawn a series of pigeons doing funny, comic things, and AKQA said wait, let’s roll with this concept,” Weihmann says. “It evolved into this whole conversation about the pigeon really being seen as a street bird, that they were kind of this ugly part of the landscape that people walked by without seeing any potential or positivity.” The youth, many of whom felt out of place in their city or had spent some time on its streets, related. By naming the enterprise “different pigeon,” and creating work that expresses their identity through their unique creative abilities, the New Avenues youth are disproving that image.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.