Frisco’s Project Level young people are strapping up for a college tour

by Minister of Information JR Valrey

Project Level is a phenomenal arts and entrepreneurship program for teens and young adults in San Francisco. It is headquartered at the African American Art and Culture Complex at 762 Fulton in the Fillmore district, and it was founded in 2012, by Richard “Big Rich” Bougere and Danielle Barr. It is a vital resource for young people and Frisco’s youth culture, and they always have some things happening. This year they are planning a college tour where they will be visiting Howard University, among other colleges on the East Coast. I sat down with Project Level co-founder Big Rich to see what they were up to.

M.O.I. JR: What is Project Level? And how did it start?

Big Rich: Project Level is a non-profit youth organization that serves underserved communities by teaching them how to create opportunities for themselves by utilizing the arts and their own creative talents. Not only do we nurture and support their craft but we also prepare them for the industry they wish to have a career in. We are able to do this by equipping them with industry standard equipment and exposing them to real life opportunities that correlate to their passions.

M.O.I. JR: How and when did you get involved with Project Level?

Big Rich: Danielle and myself founded Project Level in 2012. I was blessed and lucky enough to have had a career in the music industry that allowed me to establish a lasting legacy worldwide and especially here in the Bay Area. During my time as an artist, I was able to create a lot of significant relationships. My intentions were to retire and utilize the relationships and resources I had made to help other artists operating as an executive and CEO.

Danielle and I soon realized after trying our hand in management that there were many obstacles for adult artists and that we couldn’t help them the way we genuinely wanted to, so we went back to the drawing board. We really wanted to give back to the community that gave so much to us, so we decided that the best way to do that was to give everything we have and pour it into the youth. We wanted to get to them as early as possible to establish a foundation they could stand on for life.

M.O.I. JR: Since you and Danielle have been running it, what have y’all been up to?

Big Rich: We hit the ground running in 2012 and haven’t looked back since. We’ve served over 1,000 youths since our inception and a majority of our staff is made up of alumni – former students.

This past summer we employed over 75 youth through Mayor London Breed’s initiative Opportunities for All and created a hard copy (and digital version) original magazine called “Anthem.” We’ve also had over five highly successful college and career tours.

During this time Danielle and I have been able to build and focus all of our resources towards helping and empowering the youth. We continue to build relationships with entities such as Airbnb, Poshmark, JYC, Parks and Rec, and many others to open more doors for our students.

This past summer we employed over 75 youth through Mayor London Breed’s initiative Opportunities for All and created a hard copy (and digital version) original magazine called “Anthem.” We’ve also had over five highly successful college and career tours.

M.O.I. JR: What happened with Project Level and Forever 21 last year? How did y’all work it out?

Big Rich: Last year we had an unfortunate incident at Forever 21 where my wife Danielle had been accused of stealing. It happened during the time when we employed the 75 youth through OFA. I mentioned earlier that we were creating a magazine and for this magazine we were doing a photo shoot for about 10 of our students who were to be featured in the magazine.

So the day before the shoot, we did what we had always done – and went shopping. We did our normal runs through the Westfield Mall, and headed over to Forever 21 to finish up shopping. To make a long story short, the police were called because the manager suspected us of stealing, specifically Danielle. The cops approached Danielle and asked to search our bags. Of course we allowed them to search all of our bags, because we’ve never been thieves or had any reason to steal.

The officers cleared us of any wrongdoing and notified us that one of the staff members had “seen” Danielle putting clothes in her bags that came from the other stores. We explained to them that we had been comparing clothing items to make sure everything matched. Once again, we’ve shopped at F21 many times before, and as a collective we have spent thousands of dollars there.

We take pride in our reputation, and even after being embarrassed publicly, we still understood how someone could mistake Danielle taking clothes in and out of the bag to compare them for stealing. All we wanted was for them to make amends by simply apologizing.

The manager on duty who called the police refused to even meet us face to face, let alone apologize. We felt insulted and knew that we couldn’t stand for this type of treatment. Danielle and I recorded the tail end of this ordeal and shared it on our socials. We didn’t do it as a call of action because we intended to have our lawyers handle it, but the public and our communities completely got behind us and the posts went viral.

The story got picked up by multiple news outlets and made it to the paper. After receiving so much attention, Forever 21’s top brass reached out wanting to find a resolution. With that, we met with their execs at City Hall and came to a solution.

We would join forces to create and release a full-blown capsule and that all proceeds were to be donated to Project Level. We were given full control of designing the clothes, marketing and the entire roll out. Not only that, but we are to contribute to rewriting their training and policy on their racial sensitivity training. We are glad to have taken a negative and turned it into a positive that we were able to share with the community.

M.O.I. JR: As a provider of youth services, why are programs like Project Level vital for the development of constructive young people in the Bay Area?

Big Rich: They’re vital because of the simple fact that the saying “it takes a village” has shown time and time again to be absolutely true. At Project Level we provide those things that all kids need and want whether they know it or not. Those things being family (support) and opportunities (resources). With those then they are able to open and trust the guidance you provide. Without that trust you can’t help develop these young people.

M.O.I. JR: What are some of the projects that Project Level is working on now?

Big Rich: As I mentioned earlier, we are all-hands-on-deck with this Forever 21 collaboration still, but we do have artists that have music projects that are due to be released. We also have students who plan on releasing capsules for their own individual clothing brands. The film department is working on a few short stories and documentaries. We have many other projects that are in the wraps that we’ll be revealing soon, so stay tuned.

M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about the Project Level College Tour that y’all are raising money for? What made y’all pick the colleges you picked?

Big Rich: So here at Project Level we like to be innovative in everything we do, so from the beginning we decided that we weren’t going to do your traditional college tour. We decided to do a college and career tour.

We did our first one in 2013, and have done one every year since. We made sure to put an emphasis on the career side because we know a majority of our entire student population wanted a career utilizing their artistic gifts, so we made sure we exposed them to the industry. This year we decided to go to the East Coast and visit some historically Black colleges such as Howard. We chose our colleges based on the arts and their history.

M.O.I. JR: What do you want the youth to get out of the college tour?

Big Rich: We want these kids coming away from the college tour knowing that they have not only the ability but also the support to attend any school they visit. We also want for them to be inspired by the professionals who have careers in the industry they wish to thrive in. We want them to feel as if their futures are in their hands.

M.O.I. JR: How could people donate? How could people get in touch with you?

Big Rich: If anyone out there wishes to donate, they can do so by following the Project Level Page on Instagram, which is @ProjectLevel and clicking the link in the bio. We also have a Project Level Venmo, which is @Project-level. I myself can be reached by direct message via Instagram @Big.Rich and @Industrymomma.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.