Interviews & Profiles

Leader to Leader: Quardean Lewis-Allen

A Q&A with the founder and CEO of Youth Design Center.

Founder and CEO of Youth Design Center Quardean Lewis-Allen.

Founder and CEO of Youth Design Center Quardean Lewis-Allen. shotbyjason

Last week saw several milestones in the effort to advance nonprofit leaders of color. The Building Movement Project released the results of a nationwide survey documenting the challenges faced by more than 400 nonprofit leaders of color. And the foundation Robin Hood announced the first grantees from its Power Fund, a new initiative designed to invest in leaders of color who are working to affect change in underserved communities. 

These kinds of efforts are designed to serve the interests of leaders like Quardean Lewis-Allen, the founder and CEO of Youth Design Center (formerly Made in Brownsville). 

A native of Brownsville, Brooklyn, Quardean created Youth Design Center in 2013. Part youth development program and part creative agency, Youth Design Center has been responsible for helping to create a range of innovative projects in Brownsville, including a youth clubhouse and a pedestrian plaza. Youth Design Center participants, typically young people ages 14-24, learn graphic design, photography, product design and other skills. They then use these skills to further their own careers and to improve their neighborhood, helping to reimagine public spaces and bolster local pride.

I talked with Quardean about the challenges of launching and managing a new organization, his advice for up-and-coming social entrepreneurs, and the current state of Brownsville. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Berman: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea for Youth Design Center come from?

Lewis-Allen: After graduating, I had been itching to work for a community development corporation. I kind of made my way to the Brownsville Partnership (a project of Community Solutions). One of the things I worked on there was community listening sessions. A lot of the feedback that we heard was that youth development and mentorship opportunities were lacking in the community. That's something that I experienced personally growing up in Brownsville. I had to go outside of the community in order to do arts programming. I was interested in architecture, but I hadn't met a Black architect until I was about 20 years old.

All throughout undergraduate and grad school, particularly at Harvard, I found a lack of African Americans in the architectural program, and the school in general. I was always curious as to why there weren't more Black kids from Brooklyn in those schools.

I have this expertise in design and I know that there is a lack of representation in the field. Less than 2% of licensed architects are Black. I started to think: What can I do to tackle this? At the same time, I was seeing the model that the Brownsville Community Justice Center had put in place in terms of paying kids to learn, essentially. I thought that was brilliant. All those things kind of came together and I started Made in Brownsville from there.

Berman: Did you have role models? Were there people that you looked to emulate as you were developing Made in Brownsville?

Lewis-Allen: My first board chair, who was my supervisor at the Brownsville Partnership, was really the impetus for me. Nupur Chaudhury really provoked me. In addition to Nupur, I would point to Justin Garrett Moore, who's been on our board. He’s a Black architect, urban planner, educator, and someone who also founded a nonprofit that works around community development. I think of him as modeling how young Black queer boys might best utilize their talents to serve their community.

Berman: Has Youth Design Center’s model evolved over time? Or have you been consistent in how you've thought about the work and organized the work from 2013 to now?

Lewis-Allen: The Brownsville Community Justice Center was our first client. We started out by providing services for other organizations like the Justice Center, helping them with things like campaign branding. But our core program, the Creative Apprenticeship Program, is something that we've just in these past three years started to build out on our own as the flagship of our model. The Creative Apprenticeship Program serves 14- to 24-year-olds, providing them with interdisciplinary design and tech skills. And then, this year due to COVID, we started virtual workshops that are open and free to anyone who wants to do them.

Berman: One of the things that I love about what you do is that you and your participants bring beauty into the world. I'm wondering whether there are one or two things that you have been responsible for midwifing that you are particularly proud of.

Lewis-Allen: The healing sanctuary has been pretty dope. Recently, in partnership with the Brownsville Community Justice Center, we worked with their young people and with a design studio to co-create a healing sanctuary structure. This is a retrofitted greenhouse that houses memory objects and will record messages left from community members about hope and healing. It’s a place to commune, even in times of physical distancing, with other members of the community. We also created three “head spaces” where you can pop your head underneath and kind of escape into these different worlds. One is like a forest. One is more like a cocoon where you're enveloped in sound and light. And then one is kind of like looking through an underwater seascape. 

The significance of the exercise is that, in a community that experiences almost weekly trauma like Brownsville, not being able to touch or hug someone, or not having someone to speak to or hear from, is difficult for a lot of folks. The fact that we have folks in our community who are thinking about how to provide some reprieve for community members who might be feeling alone, I think it's really beautiful as a narrative.

Berman: What motivated the name change from Made in Brownsville to Youth Design Center?

Lewis-Allen: I think the real impetus was to broaden the geography of impact. Understanding that youth disconnection is not a Brownsville-centric problem. It's a national problem. I think our model is transferrable to other places. We're going to be looking into licensing the name so that other communities can do something similar. I think it's important to make the distinction that I don't want to be the ED of Youth Design Center in Tallahassee. But I think there's someone there who's as passionate as I am about their neighborhood who would want to start something like that. 

Berman: I’m curious to hear you talk about the move from conceiving of Youth Design Center to managing the organization on a day-to-day basis. Being a visionary is different than being an administrator. How have you adapted to the demands of running an organization?

Lewis-Allen: I think I struggle with that constantly, particularly as a creative person. I long to just be doing the making. I think in the process of leading a team, I've picked up an understanding of what I do best. The most important lesson I've learned is to hire for what you're not good at. I think that's what I needed to realize in order to let things go. As we were building this brand and reputation, I wanted to have full control over how the thing was perceived. But I have realized that if you build something important enough to enough people, they'll protect it. So I'm grateful for the folks that are the protectors of our vision and mission.

Berman: One of the things that I thought about constantly when I was an executive director was how to create the kind of organizational structure that people need to function effectively while also fostering an atmosphere that encourages creativity. I think sometimes those things can be in tension. Is that something you think about?

Lewis-Allen: I more so think about how to circumvent hierarchy. I don't think I’ve been that successful at that. Ultimately, a team needs decisions to be made. And they look to me to make those decisions. As the organization has expanded, the decisions become more difficult. To your question, my role has definitely transformed as the team has grown. I have become much more of an administrator and process builder. My job is to alleviate some of the stress on the team, so that they are able to perform at their highest capacities and create beautiful programs and things.

Berman: I read an interview where you were asked to give advice to someone who was thinking about emulating you and starting a nonprofit. And the first thing you said was, “Don't form a nonprofit. Form a business.” What did you mean when you said that? Would that still be your advice?

Lewis-Allen: That sounds like me. The nonprofit industrial complex is real and – 

Berman: Just pause there for a second. When you use that expression, what do you mean?

Lewis-Allen: There is an invisible hand that governs the funding landscape and that threatens the authority of nonprofit founders. The government can come and take Youth Design Center away from me if they wanted to. With a for-profit, it would be a little bit more difficult for them to do that.The typical cycle of funding from philanthropy and government is a trap for nonprofits. You are beholden to those funding streams if you haven’t created a model that is generating revenue. 

Berman: So just to be devil's advocate for a second, it's not like businesses operate with complete autonomy. They are certainly subject to government regulation. And more than that, they're subject to the demands of the marketplace. The whims of customers, however those are defined, can be just as brutal as the whims of foundation executives and government administrators. Or do you disagree?

Lewis-Allen: If you take into account how power is distributed in both the for-profit and nonprofit models, one is more democratizing than the other. In a for-profit, the money comes from customers, which can be a very broad base. And your customers can look like the world that we live in. In the nonprofit model, the money comes from government and from rich white people who have often gotten their money from profiting off of inequities in our society. With a for-profit, the money can come from the people you're serving in the community. With a nonprofit, by and large, it's not – it's coming from folks outside of your community.

Berman: We are living through a moment when many people, particularly within philanthropy, are interested in seeing more people of color leading nonprofit organizations. Do you feel like you are experiencing an uptick of interest in Youth Design Center? 

Lewis-Allen: In terms of Youth Design Center, I'd say we're having a banner year in light of all that's been going on. It has been our highest grossing year to date. And we've had the highest numbers of individual donors in the organization's short history. I think there was a moment over the summer where there was an awareness of our organization, and in Black- or queer-led nonprofits in general. And then it kind of died down. I think in the minds of many people, the mission was complete. Like, okay, all good. But our work is ongoing and requires multiple years of funding and not just one cycle of investment. I understand how philanthropy works and that you can't just fund one organization in perpetuity. But there has to be some balance between perpetuity and a three-year cycle.

Berman: One of the things that I've heard you talk about in the past as a motivation for creating your organization is a desire to change the narrative about Brownsville. Where do you think the narrative about Brownsville is at the moment?

Lewis-Allen: I would be slightly more nuanced. I would say that we’re just amplifying the narrative, because Brownsville has a long history of organizing and folks coming up with innovative solutions to local challenges. Public housing was slated for Brownsville to begin with because there was a local neighborhood group, the Brownsville Neighborhood Council, that said Brownsville must have public housing. And they wrote a manifesto about it. If you fast forward, there was the Brownsville-Ocean Hill teacher's strike of 1968, where the community board wanted community control of the schools. And even today, many of the newer organizations that are here, Power of Two and Elite Learners and the farm … these are organizations in which local community members understand where the gaps are and are putting 10 toes down in the places that they are from to ensure that those gaps are filled. I think that that's an important part of the story that’s not amplified enough. 

Berman: Sometimes it seems like there is a desire in Brownsville to kind of shut the door to outsiders. On the one hand, that’s entirely understandable and appropriate – leadership should come from within. At the same time, I think it is hard to build walls around neighborhoods. In my experience, healthy neighborhoods are places where there’s both internal leadership but also outside money, energy and ideas. I'm curious to hear how you think about that for Brownsville.

Lewis-Allen: Even in the seven short years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen initiatives come and go based on the whims of the people leading them. The ones that have been around the longest are the ones that have a local representation. If people don’t understand the value of something, they won’t protect it. I see how people speak about my community online because they don’t know anyone personally here. It hurts to read. With new orgs and new people, you never know what you’re getting – what their prejudices might be in light of this broader narrative. I’ve also been a gatekeeper that has let people into our enclave that have hurt us. It’s that understanding of the harm that others can do in a place that is constantly nursing open wounds that compels us to put walls up. We would be foolish not to. It would be better to build our internal capacity for self-sufficiency, to optimize limited resources to build new economies. That’s what we’re working to do on the ground with our resident-led community partners.