Legacy grant lifts Duluth Black nonprofit, launches creative space Studio X

A man stands in a studio and talks
Family Freedom Center Executive Director Jacob Bell shows off Studio X, a new multipurpose studio for youth in Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood to learn music and video production on Monday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Joe Everett worked for the Ordean Foundation in Duluth for more than three decades. He still remembers what he said during his interview that got him hired.

“I talked about youth programs, and I talked about how underfunded they were, which meant that they're understaffed. They didn't have the resources and the equipment and other things that they needed," he recalled.

So when the Ordean Foundation presented Everett with a $100,000 legacy grant to give to any local organization of his choosing, he knew he wanted the money to help young people. But he had something else in mind, too.

A man speaks at a podium
Joe Everett explains why he chose to give a $100,000 legacy grant upon his retirement from the Ordean Foundation to youth programs at the Family Freedom Center on Monday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

“Another big factor was when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. I wanted to do something for the African American community here in Duluth,” he said. “To empower youth and their families, and to create pathways to education and training and jobs.”

Enter the Family Freedom Center, which describes itself as an “unapologetically Black nonprofit” dedicated to empowering youth and their families in Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood.

Black people make up only about three percent of Duluth's population. But there's been a vibrant Black community in the city for more than a century.

This grant, Family Freedom Center Executive Director Jacob Bell said, is helping to launch a Skilled Trades, Arts, Robotics and Technology program, START for short. He said it's especially important for young people of color to have access to those tools.

“When it comes to technology, Black kids are often last. Last for the upgrades for the computer labs. Black neighborhoods historically are last to be upgraded to broadband," Bell said.

Studio X

This week the Family Freedom Center celebrated a ribbon-cutting celebration of its new Studio X, a multipurpose production studio created with Joe Everett’s legacy grant.

The goal of the START program is to bridge the gap between students of color and professions that build generational wealth, by introducing them to tech-driven careers in a space that provides free access to high-end technology.

The state-of-the-art space is black, and neon, with large computers and sound boards to produce professional-quality music, video and photography.

There’s a big open space with lighting and a green screen for filming.

“We call it the TikTok studio, because that's let's be honest, that's what a lot of our kids are gonna use it for,” Bell acknowledged.

There's even a small salon with two chairs. Which fits, Bell explained, because doing hair and makeup is an art form.

“We didn't consider building a barbershop until we got an overwhelming response from our youth, from girls and guys, that they want a space and need a space to do hair,” he said.

A sign says Studio X
A sign welcomes visitors to Studio X, a project of Duluth's Family Freedom Center to introduce young people of color to technology-driven careers.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Studio X is housed down the hall from the Family Freedom Center offices in the Washington Community Recreation Center, an old red brick junior high school on Duluth's hillside that's also home to several artist studios.

In addition to the arts, the organization plans to build a maker space and another area to teach trade skills, like welding and carpentry.

The dream isn’t to create a “hangout space,” but to offer a one-stop shop for young people ages 16 to 23 who are interested in the arts, or learning trade skills — to lay the groundwork for a future career.

The organization received a city grant to fund one full-time employee to staff the new technology center. Bell wants to raise enough money to fund three staff members, to offer curriculum to community youth every day. He envisions an annual budget of about $250,000.

Young people from the community will get their first peek at the new space on Friday, when professionals will be on hand to cut hair and produce a song.

“So that the very first time that our kids get to experience it, it's experiencing at the level that that they should be aspiring towards.”

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