Every program begins with a strong level of optimism. It's necessary, or else why would you even try to make it work. For the Futures Fund, it's hard to believe what's been accomplished in such a short amount of time. It's even harder to imagine what's next. But let's start from the beginning.
In 2014, a little over a dozen students gathered in a warehouse on a Saturday morning to begin a 10-week program focused on learning photography.
“We grew up with parents who were supportive of our creative endeavors. We were blessed with that. But that’s not the case for everyone,” explains Casey Phillips, co-founder and executive director of The Walls Project. “The reality is, we’ve made our careers in the arts and the Futures Fund is that program that gives support and a creative environment for young people to pursue a career in the creative arts.”
At the core of the program is its instructors. They are all working professionals, which allows the students to see that this isn’t just something that theoretically can be done, but rather a practical reality with a viable future.
The above photos are from Futures Fund's first capstone in 2015!
“The kids wanted to absorb the knowledge and experiences I had to offer as an established photographer,” says former photography instructor Jenn Ocken. “Being a professional teaching these kids gave them an inside view to living with purpose while using passion and talents to cultivate and expand a craft they seemed to really enjoy.
"It was magnificent to witness the program’s success as I was guiding their creativity," she added. "They were there to be inspired and it was my hope to give what I had to ignite what will feed their future.”
Roughly 3,500 people have made their way through the Futures Fund program to date. Kelsey Tillage is just one of those participants. She started the program five years ago.
“I was one of the youngest people when I started,” she said at The Walls Project strategic plan unveiling held at the downtown library on June 24, 2022. “I was like 11, and everyone else was in high school, so that’s a big age gap right there, but Mr. Casey, he did the best to make sure that I always felt comfortable."
This year, Tillage earned the honorable Gold Medal Congressional Award, which is awarded by the US Congress. IT’s the highest honor a youth civilian can achieve through the US Senate and House of Representatives and she is one of Louisiana’s first high school students to receive the gold medal award.
“I was sitting in my seat and I was wondering, how do I sum up what the Future’s Fund means to me, and I thought of two words; inclusivity and inspire,” she said. “The reason I say inclusivity is because it was one of the first places that I felt normal."
Although the photography course only has three levels, Tillage has participated in the program for so many years because she was also part of the second area of focus for the program, which is computer coding. That portion of the program inspired the creation of the adult side of the program, which is the Coding Boot Camp.
“When the Tech Academy started in 2014, all the guardians and grandparents asked ‘when are you going to do this for adults, because we want to take it,’” Phillips explains. “When COVID hit, the requests became a battle cry from adults who had lost their jobs who were sick of being un or underemployed.”
Although there are programs similar to the Coding Boot Camp already in Baton Rouge, the price point is often far out of reach for most. A similar program runs over $12,000 with no scholarship opportunities, student loan programs, or sizable discount for those with financial limitations. The Walls Project, however, starts at $2,500 a semester and offers grants based on your household income. In fact, low-income households could qualify for a full tuition scholarship.
“It’s all about accessibility,” Phillips adds. “We’re empowering our communities from within.”
The Coding Boot Camp started and will remain as a virtual experience, so participants are only limited by their access to the internet. The Tech Academy, however, is best suited to operate in the physical world to give the teens that one-on-one interaction fully needed to impart the lessons. Thankfully, the lifting of the COVID restrictions allows the Tech Academy to return to its home in north Baton Rouge.
“We are excited to be back at Southern University in the fall, re-upping our flagship Tech Academy,” says Dexter Jackson, Tech Academy Program Coordinator.
As the program continues to grow and thrive, the future of the Futures Fund keeps getting brighter.
“Next up for Futures Fund is expansion into broadcasting and radio,” notes Jackson, Tech Academy Program Coordinator. “We will also be bringing our theory for change and workforce development as we bring our programming to both Dallas and Denver.”