Baltimore college students create program to provide equal access to the arts
Courtesy of Kristofer Madu

Madu (left) and Banerjee (right) with First Fridays Group participant, Amaru (middle)

While many college students spend their campus years attending parties, drinking, and sleeping in, the group of young adults who competed in a recent tech for good competition are setting the bar high.

Nearly 50 students representing 22 countries around the world recently participated in Red Bull Basement University, a four-day workshop in Toronto, Canada, comprised of lectures, keynote speakers, panels, and individual mentorship sessions with global tech leaders and inspirational entrepreneurs.


The event allowed the student teams to showcase and further develop their innovative business ideas, which were all created to help improve life on campus by driving positive change through technology.

Upworthy was able to speak with the team representing the United States, called First Fridays Group, which made it into the top 10 group of finalists. The founders, Kristofer Madu and Sindhu Banerjee, are students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and developed an idea that promotes equal opportunity and access to the arts. The team explains how they came up with the idea for First Fridays Group, their vision for the future, and how technology will help them continue to improve the lives of others through their work.

First Friday's Group - Red Bull Basement U Submission www.youtube.com

Upworthy: Could you explain your idea and how you came up with it?

Kristofer Madu: We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to explore their creative passions. So we're becoming the missing link between college students and their hidden creative talents. And that looks like easy skill acquisition in technical art form. To make that more practical sounding, consider art forms like DJ, photography, videography, music production. They're expensive and they're inaccessible for many who can't afford them or even just perceive them as too hard.

Sindhu Banerjee: That's where First Fridays comes in. What we've been doing is providing specialized one-on-one training with any college students. And so we bring them into our little studio. I provide them with one-on-one training, and through three 45-minute sessions, we're able to teach them all the basics of DJ training. And then right after that, we have them perform in front of crowds of 500 people, and in the front row is their friends, all watching and recording. It's a really transformative experience in which we give them self-confidence, we teach them a new skill, and we imbue them with the talent that they can now use for paid opportunities.

Upworthy: What is your background? If you're teaching them, you obviously have DJ skills. But let's say someone wants to learn more about photography. Do you guys have all those skills between the two of you, or are you bringing in outside mentors who are volunteering their time to do this?

Banerjee: Yeah, so we started off, the three of us... Duncan is our third member who's in the United States. He has excellent photography skills. His dad has photographed for Prince. I've been deejaying for the past three years, and Kris has been rapping for the past eight. So together, we do have strong artistic abilities.

One-on-one trainings take a lot of time. And so the first step in trying to train as many people as possible, we brought on two more student DJs who have helped DJ more students. So at this point, we've trained over 40 people how to DJ.

But that's the reason why we want to go into tech is because if we want to be teaching as many people as possible, we want to be able to have a platform to make it more tangible. The first 40 minutes of what I'm teaching anybody is the exact same stuff. It's beat matching, it's filtering, and then it's putting songs together to build their set. That applies to every single training I do, and so to solve that inefficiency, we can make that standard on a digitized platform.

Madu: I want to stress that our platform is not at all limited to DJ, and we've provided opportunities for creatives in several mediums, whether it's one-on-one DJ trainings, or photography and videography workshops, or even studio recording sessions for recording artists.

So I want to tell you a story of what exactly that's looked like. Baltimore is a city with a lot of economic disparity. It's one of the top 10 most impoverished cities in the United States. As a result, there are high degrees of separation between universities and the local communities that surround them, especially in Baltimore. This is a need that exists all around the country.

I want to talk about Mandy. Mandy is a Baltimore native and she goes to a local Baltimore school. She's always had a passion for photography, but she's struggled a lot to find outlets to practice those. So every single month we organize events, and Mandy, we've brought on our team as our event photographer. But in addition, through our booking agency…we connected Mandy to two paid contracts with Johns Hopkins University to gain economic opportunities through the passion that, before, she thought something like that was impossible.

Upworthy: So are the institutions or venues where these people are showcasing their skills volunteering their space? What does that business model look like?

Madu: We are creating a sustainable business, and thus far, it has been revenue generating. So we have revenue coming in from different streams. Our events are thrown every single month and they're bringing in crowds of up to 500.

Banerjee: And just to add to that, we strive to be a least-cost provider. Companies throwing events similar to us charge $43 for a single ticket, and that would come with maybe one drink. We provide tickets at $5 to $8 each. And so we're able to bring in all people from all sorts of background.

Upworthy: You briefly mentioned how you see tech coming into play, but do you have a vision for what your platform would look like? Would you offer, say, an intro to deejaying as a video for students?

Banerjee: It's really simple. We offer a gamified process. So we want to follow a model where you're rewarded points based on your skill and consistency. With those points, you can decide how to use them. If you want to use them in order to access more higher-level features, you can go for that. If you want to be able to perform at our events, you can also do that. And then the third one is bookings, at which point you apply to get booked by the First Fridays Group booking agency, and we look at your skill levels based on the points you've garnered, and if you're good enough, then we're going to go check you out. And if we check you out and you're good enough, then you're going to come perform for us.

Madu: We are essentially not just establishing an app, but we're establishing a pipeline where someone that has no skill, no exposure, no experience, and they didn't even know they had the interest, can go from a curious creative to a confident crowd favorite, never having to spend a single dollar of their own money. Let's say they want to upgrade or do a subscription model. The cost, if you want to go out and become a DJ yourself, you're spending more than a thousand dollars to actually get good the right way. And that can be boiled down to something affordable on the college student's budget, as well as profit can be subsidized in order to make it available for those from lower income backgrounds. So that's what drives us and that's what that looks like in tech.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Freya from Maya Higa's YouTube video.

Ever wonder what an ideal date for a lemur would be? Or a lizard’s favorite Disney princess?

Thanks to one YouTube poster with a passion for animals and an endearing sense of humor, all questions shall be answered. Well, maybe not all questions. But at the very least, you’ll have eight minutes of insanely cute footage.

In a series titled “Tiny Mic Interviews,” Maya Higa approaches little beasties with a microphone so small she has to hold it with just her thumb and forefinger. And yes, 99% of the animals try to eat it.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Cellist Cremaine Booker's performance of Faure's "Pavane" is as impressive as it is beautiful.

Music might be the closest thing the world has to real magic. Music has the ability to transform any atmosphere in seconds, simply with the sounds of a few notes. It can be simple—one instrument playing single notes like raindrops—or a complex symphony of melodies and harmonies, swirling and crashing like waves from dozens of instruments. Certain rhythms can make us spontaneously dance and certain chord progressions can make us cry.

Music is an art, a science, a language and a decidedly human endeavor. People have made music throughout history, in every culture on every continent. Over time, people have perfected the crafting of instruments and passed along the knowledge of how to play them, so every time we see someone playing music, we're seeing the history of humanity culminated in their craft. It's truly an amazing thing.

The pandemic threw a wrench into seeing live musicians for a good chunk of time, and even now, live performances are limited. Thankfully, we have technology that makes it easier for musicians to collaborate and perform with one another virtually—and also makes it easier for people to create "group" performances all by themselves.

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A round-up of delights from around the internet this week.

Hey all!

Welcome to Upworthy's weekly roundup of delights from around the internet. This week's list features a little of everything—gorgeous music, cute kids, adorable animals, hope for the planet and a brand new video message from the late and great Betty White.

That's right, Betty White left us a message of gratitude shortly before her passing. It's brief, but how lovely to see and hear her speak to her millions of fans one last time. Few celebrities are as universally beloved as Betty White was, and though we knew she couldn't live forever, it would have been fun to see her celebrate her 100th birthday. Now, at least, we get to experience her joy and warmth with a few last words.

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