A young man sits in a classroom, consumed with texting. His teacher is annoyed and asks him to leave. Storming out onto the street, he’s robbed and shot in front of his school. It’s a situation made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that tragedies like it have happened in New York City. Luckily, in this case, no one really lost a wallet or a life.
This particular scenario was filmed as an anti–gun-violence PSA by students taking part in the Parsons Scholar Program. Parsons Scholars is a scholarship initiative designed to offer Parsons’ multi-year college preparatory program to New York City high school students from underserved neighborhoods. Students take art and design classes with Parsons’ faculty, receive mentoring, visit museums and design firms, and attain a wealth of other skills that help them apply to and succeed in college. In the spring semester of their senior year, the students take part in a capstone project where they work with community organizations on initiatives that effect meaningful social change.
This year’s partner was Beyond Bullets, a New York City nonprofit organization that visits schools throughout the five boroughs, facilitating discussions and educating students about gun violence. During their school visits, Beyond Bullets provides each school with a DVD and information packet so that students and school staff can further explore this serious topic. Their materials, however, lacked a strong, unifying visual identity. That’s where the Parsons Scholars came in: They worked in groups to come up with a proposed branding scheme for Beyond Bullets.
“The videos were actually an extra activity that the students did on their own initiative,” explains Nadia Williams, director of the Parsons Scholars program. “They were interested in having a very direct impact outside of their design work. They spent a semester of Saturday nights—their own, out-of-class time—creating a pair of short educational films for Beyond Bullets. (The films are available at the Parsons Scholars blog.)
“This class wasn’t about a grade,” said Christina Pineda, a member of the 2012 graduating Parsons Scholars class who attended the Brooklyn High School of the Arts. “It was for someone and it had meaning.”
“For most of them, it was their first time working with an actual client,” says Williams. The students learned concrete, real-world skills, like how to develop and execute their ideas from concept through final delivery. They also learned arguably more important skills for aspiring designers, says Williams: “How to find something to please the client, but that you’re also happy with.”
The exercise was more than simply academic for many of the Parsons Scholars, who come from diverse backgrounds within New York City’s five boroughs. “Several of the graduating seniors were personally affected by gun violence over the past few years,” says Williams, giving this work a special resonance. Students enrolled in Parsons Scholars have graduated high school at 100 percent for the past two years, far above the NYC average of 64 percent. They go on to study not only at Parsons, but also at schools like Yale, USC, Syracuse, George Washington University, and many more. Thanks to the head start they received from Parsons Scholars, these young designers will be able to continue making a difference for the rest of their careers.