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Creating Opportunities for Creative Youth

How 2005 South Louisiana alum Bernie January, Jr. used his passion for educational equity and art to create career opportunities for creative youth in New Orleans.

Set of wooden coasters with the New Orleans water meter etched on them

By Elyse Toplin

June 21, 2021

When Bernie January, Jr. (South Louisiana '05) was growing up in Morgan City, Louisiana, his parents went to great lengths to instill a love of learning in his life. While his father had never excelled academically, he understood how important an education could be to his son and believed in the power of taking action. He set up a parent-student support group called “Brothers” in Bernie's hometown, where a group of fathers incentivized students to commit to their education with guest speakers, peer-to- peer accountability, and rewards or trips.

Bernie's parents also saw their son's aptitude for art and nurtured that interest from a young age. From there, Bernie's passion for education and art followed him throughout his life, leading him to follow in his parents' example by creating opportunities for young people like himself to explore careers in design and art direction.

In the interview below, we asked Bernie to tell us more about his journey of how he and other TFA alumni built upon their shared passions for educational equity and art to empower young artists in their communities.

How did you decide to join Teach For America and what was your corps experience like?

I learned about Teach for America through a TFA ambassador during my senior year at Tulane. I was majoring in neuroscience and preparing to go down a totally different path, but I didn’t find joy in that work. I was tutoring other classmates, so a friend invited me to talk to the TFA ambassador because he thought I’d be interested in teaching. I decided to apply because I truly value education, which was instilled in me by my family.

I landed a teaching position in Baton Rouge. I taught high school chemistry, physics, environmental science, GED test prep, and ACT Science test prep. I started teaching in August 2005; a few weeks before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita impacted coastal communities in and around New Orleans. I am incredibly grateful for my family, community mentors, program staff, my fellow corps members, and the community of support we created together for the well-being of my students and myself. Those years shaped me. I continue to do the work of supporting young people and local nonprofits to this day largely because of how those years framed my perspective on the many challenges facing South Louisiana.

What are you doing now?

I’m currently the Creative Director and Senior Designer at Heartsleeve, a company that I started with my partner, Natasha Noordhoff, in 2014. I’ve worked there full-time since 2017. Heartsleeve is a design and print studio in Mid City, New Orleans that provides design services, including brand identity, product design, UX/UI, website design, print design, and more, in support of community causes. We’ve worked with a variety of amazing local and national organizations, including Gig Workers Rising, GirlTrek, Teach For America, Tulane University, College Beyond, and Propeller. We also design and screen print our own retail apparel and donate a portion of the proceeds to local nonprofit organizations.

How did you get into art?

I took art classes at a community center when I was growing up. When I was in high school, I apprenticed under a professional artist named Robert Greenwood; we called him Bob. It was never supposed to be a career – just more of a hobby, but I always knew that I was a “maker.” I won art competitions throughout grade school.

I continued to make art as a corps member and decided to go back to Tulane to formally study design. In New Orleans, I connected with various artists circles, and at the same time, started working for an environmental nonprofit called Green Light New Orleans. I used my experience teaching to inform my work there, as I led a lot of school-based programming, university collaborations, and community-investment work. I met my partner, who also worked in the nonprofit community, which led us to starting Heartlseeve together.

Natasha Noordhoff and Bernie January, Jr (SLA '05) of Heartsleeve

How did you incorporate your passion for educational equity into your work in art and design?

A few years after we started Heartsleeve, I met Alberta Wright. She was a 2010 Greater New Orleans alum who was starting Young Creative Agency. She wanted to expand the program and needed a designer and educator to partner with her to build it. We discussed her vision at depth but I was pretty much onboard from “hello.”

Soon after that, we started partnering with the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), led by another TFA alum Melissa Sawyer (Greater New Orleans ‘98). Both Alberta and I agreed that it was necessary to ensure that our creative youth got paid for their work and talent, even in training. Unpaid internships aren’t feasible for many of our young people, and we wanted to create a space that welcomed the breadth of talent coming out of New Orleans regardless of income. YEP hired us both as staff members and we knew they could help our young creatives with wrap-around services and guaranteed stipends. Alberta and I built the curriculum, recruited local creative youth, and established a youth-run, design studio and workforce development program that we rebranded YEP Design Works (YDW). Our studio clients included Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, the Ace Hotel, the Mayor’s Office of New Orleans, and YEP as well. YEP Design Works rebranded the entirety of YEP for which we won a 2017 (PSRA) Public Relations Society of America Fleurish award.

After a few years, Alberta took the YCA model to Los Angeles and I started working with New Orleans artist Ashley Teamer at YEP Design Works. At the same time, Heartsleeve grew, and we have recently partnered with Whole Foods Market and established our collaborative retail store: the Good Shop. I decided to commit to my work at Heartsleeve full-time and am currently working with YDW alums, educators and designers to develop another youth-run design studio in New Orleans.

“I want to continue supporting creative youth towards their professional goals here in New Orleans, since we live in one of the most creative cities in the country, if not the world.”

Bernie January, Jr

South Louisiana Corps Member 2005

How do you want to continue impacting young artists in New Orleans?

I believe it’s incredibly important to educate and support young artists and designers in New Orleans, and I’ll continue doing that work and explore the design apprenticeship model. We’ve trained creative young people who work with digital marketing agencies, big local festivals, local businesses, artist collaboratives, design + print studios, and/or do freelance work for themselves. I want to continue supporting creative youth towards their professional goals here in New Orleans, since we live in one of the most creative cities in the country, if not the world. And because so much is virtual now, designers can work with folks all over the world, and I want to figure out how to help our young creatives tap into those opportunities.

I had no idea that the job I do now even existed when I was growing up. I’ve found this to be the case for many of our young creatives. It’s common for creative young people to be discouraged from pursuing this path; I know from personal experience. But it’s powerful to have adults who work as creative professionals and look like our young people demonstrate that it is indeed possible to have a career creating art and design. Even if someone doesn’t choose graphic design or creative direction as a career, creative work is inherently innovative. The strategic ways of thinking, deep consideration of intended audiences, and the praxis of creating have real monetary and social value in an economy driven by new ideas and those who pursue them. To learn how to develop a concept and transform it into something that actually exists in the world is significant, not just for that young person, but for everyone who connects with what they’ve made.