Vibrant colors are transforming the walls of Baton Rouge building by building, but what lies beneath the vivid hues is a sleeping giant of innovation and entrepreneurship. What started as a city beautification project has morphed into a multifaceted nonprofit that is impacting our city’s future. The murals are just a fraction of the work The Walls Project is doing. The nonprofit now includes The Futures Fund, a STEM program for young people to learn skills as well as community reactivation initiatives.
This process all started when Casey Phillips moved back to Baton Rouge in 2011 after being away from his hometown for 18 years. He returned to see a large part of his city, particularly north of Florida Boulevard, abandoned by commerce and creativity.
He explains, “Inequality inspired me. Creativity here was nil. We were just a bunch of entrepreneurs and real estate developers that got together. We knew we had to elevate the artists here and get them paid. We planned to use the murals to make a cohesive group of people to help build the creative industry and make it a more culturally significant place to live.”
Creativity and culture may have been the early driving force, but it is the people of Baton Rouge that have become the organization’s passion project. Casey shares the secret of starting a nonprofit, “You see where the need is in the community, you assess if your group is the best to deliver it, you go guns a blazing into unmarked territory, and you listen to the community and adjust to make it better.”
Initially, Casey and his team were in the business of providing paying opportunities to visual artists while making Baton Rouge beautiful with public art. Their five-year plan set the lofty goal of painting 10 murals a year. As of 2017, the Walls Project is in it’s fifth year and has painted 58 beautiful walls. “All our artists are paid well. In the first 30 months, 81 cents on every dollar we raised went back to the artists. Now that we have expanded out, our funds go to the artists and instructors for the Futures Fund. We also provide professional development for our artists to enhance and elevate their opportunities,” Casey acknowledges.
An unexpected result of these murals was a stake in the community. The art attracted the Baton Rouge youth in droves. The wall art opened a door into the world of the untapped future resources of our city, the young people. “The murals help us earn the right to work with the kids, and it’s the stuff with the kids that changes the world,” Casey shares. He views the organization as an arc with the arts, education/workforce development, and community reactivation all working together as a holistic community approach.
It’s the education and workforce development, though, that has Casey most excited. He has dedicated many of the fundraising resources to The Futures Fund, an initiative designed with the mission to create digital, literary, visual, and performing-arts based entrepreneurial opportunities for 12-18 year-old Baton Rougeans. The program began with 36 kids the first semester and has grown to 262 kids. The Futures Fund works in a semester format. The kids commit to 10 weeks in the fall and if they re-enroll, 10 weeks in the spring. The students meet at Southern and BRCC campuses on Saturdays to learn professional skills, coding, photography, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Paid industry professionals teach the curriculum, and most of the learning happens out in the field, not inside a classroom.
There are three levels to the program, so the students can matriculate and actually be placed in jobs. “We have a 90 percent retention rate because the kids know they can make good money and learn real-life skills,” Casey says. The Futures Fund is empowering middle to high school students that live in high poverty areas to become future business owners and skilled contributors to Baton Rouge’s economy. Casey sees the reactivation of the community in these students’ committed work ethic: “The Futures Fund is breeding and training the next wave of entrepreneurs that will be opening businesses on Plank Road. The most logical people to rebuild the community are the people that are already there.”
When it comes to reactivating the economically-depressed communities of Baton Rouge, the Walls Project utilizes large-scale service days and volunteers. The MLK Serve Days have become a tradition, and this past event surpassed anything that has been done before. The crew included 4,000 volunteers and paid artists who worked to paint 10 murals, plant two community gardens, clean up blight, fix houses, and work with other organizations on projects. “It was a great catalyst for a lot of work to come. We have so much work to do, and we are so far from being done,” Casey shares.
The work will continue the next few years with the aggressive goals Casey and his team have put together for 2020. They plan to establish partnerships with more groups that have similar goals, increase their Futures Fund enrollment to 1,000 students, and expand into New Orleans, Lake Charles, and Lafayette. Above all, the goal is community change, whether that comes from paint cans, young minds, or cleaning tools. Casey passionately emphasizes, “Baton Rouge has an opportunity to do something that very few cities have done. We can revitalize our city without gentrifying it. It can happen if we work shoulder to shoulder with the community and
We have to have monster amounts of people working together to make change. You’re about to see it.” ■