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Made-in-Brownsville Grows into Youth Design Center

By Mary Alice Miller
Ten years ago, Quardean Lewis-Allen had a dream to provide media arts training and job placement services to young people in his community. Lewis-Allen was raised in Brownsville on Howard Avenue and went to Harvard University, where he majored in architecture. “I didn’t meet a Black architect until I was in college,” said Lewis-Allen. “I was thinking about what I needed when I was growing up to cultivate talent and try and fail and try again.”
That dream became Made-in-Brownsville.
For several years Lewis-Allen cultivated his dream on Belmont Avenue, teaching local youth (ages 14 – 24) graphic design, digital media, and architecture, helping them develop their portfolios and resumes, and sending them out on paid internship freelance jobs.
Along the way, Made-in-Brownsville is expanding its service offerings (photography/videography, entrepreneurship within the creative sector, and back-end website coding – CSS, HTML, and JavaScript) to youth across Brooklyn and the entire metro area. That expansion came with a name change: Youth Design Center. Last year Youth Design Center established a residency at Mangrove Design Studio in Flatbush.

Lewis-Allen continues providing programming to youth in Brownsville at the Youth Justice Center and other locations. “Because of the nature of where we come from, we prioritize young people from Brownsville,” said Lewis-Allen.
Youth Design Center works with young people to create individualized plans based on their circumstances, skills, and goals. Not all of their apprentices go on to college. “Some people don’t want to go to college and incur debt,” said Lewis-Allen. “For architecture students, college is necessary. We encourage them, particularly if they want to get licensed.”
The Creative Apprentice Program (CAP) has several offerings, from exposure (short-term introductory level) and intermediate design to a 12-month immersive training that prepares alumni freelancers to take assignments. During the summer, young people can participate in Tech Camp. CAP takes apprentices on trips to creative agencies, architecture firms, design service firms, and application labs, such as Google and Facebook. “They can see people who look like them who are in places they want to be,” said Lewis-Allen.
“One of our alumni with a college degree is earning $90k right now as communications manager at Comic Relief, one of our funders,” said Lewis-Allen. “All of our training in the CAP is stipended. They earn while they learn.”

Last year two alumni and two mentors flew out to Comcast NBCUniversal in Los Angeles to create a promotional video for Minds Matter LA, CAP’s first project out of State. The project was part of Comcast’s Creative Impact Lab, which pairs creative non-profit organizations that provide design services with social impact non-profits that need design services. “They shot it, edited it, everything,” said Lewis-Allen. “They were able to shoot some of it in Universal Studios campus.”
Currently, Youth Design Center alumni have an art installation in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition called “Architecture Now: New York, New Publics”. The exhibition can be viewed until July 29.
Youth Design Center has a creative agency component. The Creative apprentices go through the apprenticeship and get trained. Then they are eligible to work with actual clients who need design services. Clients are paired with alumni freelancers, and the creative agency pays them.
Median earnings from the creative agency to alumni was about $7100 last year. “This is a resume and portfolio builder for them so that they can get other jobs after us. We are not just a job connector. We are the job,” said Lewis-Allen. “We have distributed about $181,000 in revenue from our creative agency to our alumni freelancers and about $307,000 total in stipends and creative agency revenue since 2015.” Youth Design Center distributed a one-year record $78k to alumni freelancers in 2022, more than the previous 3 years combined.
Youth Design Center has distributed nearly $60k in cameras and computers to participants over the past decade. The organization has raised $4.8M to support youth development programs since 2015.
In about a year or so, Youth Design Center looks to move back to Brownsville to a new space on New Lots Avenue. The 3200 square foot space is to be designed by Rockwell Group, an interdisciplinary architecture and design firm.

Lewis-Allen’s vision is to outfit the space with state-of-the-art technology for young people to utilize for exploring their STEAM skills, including a woodworking shop with a laser cutter and c&c router (a machine that cuts wood with drills programmed to numeric control).
Lewis-Allen also wants to increase the number of annual course offerings in the new space from a current three cohorts per year to 8 cohorts to serve 160 young people and establish Design Without Limits, a summer internship placement program.
“I am consistently in awe of how self-motivated our young people are. They have goals and ambitions, and they are proactive in seeking out what they need to advance themselves and their careers,” said Lewis-Allen. “The thing that makes me most proud is they value the contribution we have to make in their careers development.”
Lewis-Allen had one message for our young people: “The world is a lot smaller than when I was growing up. Make your own path. You are not restricted. Do not accept limitations on yourself. If nobody is telling you yes, we will tell you yes.”

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