Pharrell and I grew up together. Ever since we connected at a cultural festival in Virginia, we’ve been attached at the hip. I literally used to ride him around on my bicycle handlebars before either one of us had a car. In a way, nothing has changed. We’ve been best friends since our teens and working together for over twenty years. He was always such a fun, quirky, different, unique, out-of-this-realm kind of person.
When Pharrell first told me that he wanted to create a non-profit to uplift and educate the community, I probably didn’t even know what a nonprofit was—that’s how young we were. It just resonated with him so deeply: he always wanted to support and encourage others, which matched my own passion for building community.
So, we started with donating school supplies. We reserved a picnic area at a park and had a ton of face painters and clowns come out, and I packed crates of notebooks and pencils for the kids as a giveaway. We announced it on the radio station, and thousands of kids came out. That was the beginning of From One Hand to AnOTHER (FOHTA), before the summer camps: Pharrell giving away supplies to help the kids in his community.
A few years after the school supply giveaway, Dr. Williams received a phone call from Astronaut Leland Melvin about President Obama’s Summer of Innovation. That’s when FOHTA started the camps. We partnered with NASA, and even had the opportunity to meet the woman who did the projection of the space shuttle by hand in the movie Hidden Figures.
For the past twelve years, Dr. Williams and myself had been running FOHTA and offering camps to underserved kids. Our first year was one classroom with 30 kids, but every summer, we’d add more sites and more students, until we’d opened over 27 locations. We just wanted to reach more youth, to impact more communities, and to inspire more possibility. Even if it’s only one student, if you’ve made a difference in one child’s life—to me, that’s an accomplishment.
Even if it’s only one student, if you’ve made a difference in one child’s life—to me, that’s an accomplishment.
There’s so much beautiful talent in Virginia, and a lot of amazing people have come from here. Everyone used to say, “There’s something in the water,” and that’s where Pharrell got the name for his festival.
Something In the Water (SITW) was always more than a music festival—it was a community festival. Pharrell organized the event to share the beautiful things this community has to offer and brought in resources that would make a lasting impact on Virginia Beach.
There was a pop-up church, a farmer’s market, Battle of the Bands—we built a garden at a school, which they still have, and commissioned art murals along the oceanfront. We organized all these community activations, and a lot of them were permanent. I loved being on the ground, building that bridge, and being the catalyst to bring all these people together.
What Pharrell has done for the community—that lies deep within my soul and resonates with me on so many levels. This was the community that raised us. That’s why Pharrell wanted to start at home. We’ve been in the community helping the underserved for a long time, from a school supply giveaway to the creation of a nonprofit. Charity begins at home and then spreads abroad.
In local schools, students of color are below their counterparts in math, reading, and far below in college readiness. That’s where YELLOW can step in. We want to EVEN the ODDS for those kids, to give them the opportunity to find what they’re amazing at. We don’t want any student to feel like they’re below average. We will uplift and educate them. We will help them foster social capital and locate cultural capital. We will give them a sense of agency to create a positive change in their lives and in the lives of others in their communities. And this is just the start—one day, we’ll have YELLOW educational studios across the country. We will empower communities through education.
We do it for the families, we do it for the kids, and we do it for the communities.
We also know it’s going to be a new way of learning post-COVID-19. I want to hope that districts and the Department of Education are looking at ways to implement new curriculum, assessments, and structures in our schools. We’re in the position at YELLOW to analyze what’s been working, what mistakes they’ve made, and really figure out how to move forward. We will include diversity and equity in our lesson designs, in our teaching practices, in the structural organization, and in the way we hire. We will take a system-wide approach, not just a siloed one. This learning behavior starts at home—we as parents need to recognize ourselves as our children’s first teachers. For YELLOW, we’re going to play a huge part in that.
With all the obstacles to overcome during this pandemic—no food on the table, work hours getting cut, an increase in the homeless population—school might be the last thing on parents’ minds as they have larger issues in the household. And that’s true for students too—from online schooling to mental health, these kids are suffering.
That’s why YELLOW is going to make sure we do this work in whole. We do it for the families, we do it for the kids, and we do it for the communities. We will help alleviate any unfortunate circumstances each student is going through. Even now, I’m asset-mapping and building out the organizations that can come and provide for the kids. We are building an ecosystem. We will wrap our arms around the kids to ensure that no child misses out just because of their location or their lack of access to food or whatever else is going on in their lives. That is what it means to EVEN the ODDS.