Ask Usher Raymond how he managed to forge a lasting career in the music business starting at age 13, and he’ll immediately point to a long list of mentors, protectors, and collaborators who helped him blaze his own trail. It makes sense, then, that the singer’s namesake philanthropic endeavor, Usher’s New Look Foundation, seeks to replicate that base on a much larger scale.
Started in 1999 by the then-20-year-old Usher and his mother, Jonetta Patton, New Look has evolved from a small private charity into a thriving, sophisticated 501(c) organization that offers students guidance, mentoring, and hands-on career assistance from middle school all the way to senior year of college.
As Usher explains, New Look started with the mission of “introducing kids here in Atlanta to an alternate idea about life, and an alternate idea about being prepared as a young person to move forward and be effective to their community.” Since then, “It has matured to be far more than that, to having a curriculum that’s in schools, teaching kids alternative ideas about cooperation, about music, about the importance of understanding codes, how to handle yourselves, how to take internships, and how to move from that to a well-paying job.”
The organization boasts some impressive statistics: 100% of the program’s high school Leadership Academy participants go on to graduate high school; 98% go on to college, and 86% of those are first-generation college students. Nearly 30,000 students in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Detroit, and Milwaukee have participated in some part of the program over the past 17 years, and five of the organization’s staffers are program graduates.
According to president and CEO Yvette Cook, New Look’s primary calling card is its holistic approach to youth outreach.
“The majority of the youth we work with are in Title 1 schools that are in underserved communities and have very high dropout rates,” Cook says. “Some of the students we work with are on their way to dropping out, they’re just trying to figure out when. So what New Look does is we try to get the attention of students in the eighth grade, before they’ve entered into high school. We have these four pillars that the program is based on, but the first pillar is helping students find out what their spark is. What are they passionate about? What are their talents? If you can help a student really tap into what excites them, now all of the sudden you can help them create a journey through school that makes school relevant.”
In addition to its school curriculum and leadership programs, the organization recently inaugurated an ambitious community center in Atlanta, dubbed the New Look Spark Lab. Free to all high school-age New Look participants, the experiential learning facility boasts a Game Loft, where participants can build video games and apps; a green-screen room for young videographers and photographers; a test kitchen for aspiring chefs; and a large space dubbed the Hangar, which hosts SAT prep, tutoring sessions, and meetings with small-business loan representatives.
“[The Spark Lab] really came from the students,” Cook says. “We like to expose our students to all sorts of different things, so we’ll do something like a day of coding with Georgia Tech. But afterwards, some of our students came to us and said, ‘That was really cool, but I don’t have any place to go and practice, I don’t have anywhere to go to collaborate.’”
Cook says the foundation hopes to add a recording studio and a robotics lab in the future. But according to Usher, the Lab is already a living microcosm of the New Look mission statement.
“If you want to organize, come here, and we’ll help you,” he says. “If you need that extra help in getting your grades together, we’re gonna push you to do it. It’s all about looking for opportunities to change your reality. Every day I might live in a less-desirable environment, but I can dream as much as I want in this space. That’s the notion of what the New Look foundation is.”