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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Gem is living her best life.

If you've ever dreamed of spontaneously walking out the door and treating yourself a day of pampering at a spa without even telling anyone, you'll love this doggo who is living your best life.

According to CTV News, a 5-year-old shepherd-cross named Gem escaped from her fenced backyard in Winnipeg early Saturday morning and ended up at the door of Happy Tails Pet Resort & Spa, five blocks away. An employee at the spa saw Gem at the gate around 6:30 a.m. and was surprised when they noticed her owners were nowhere to be seen.

"They were looking in the parking lot and saying, 'Where's your parents?'" said Shawn Bennett, one of the co-owners of the business.

The employee opened the door and Gem hopped right on in, ready and raring to go for her day of fun and relaxation.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."