INSPIRED IMPACT is an ongoing blog series that gives voice to social entrepreneurs and leaders of mission-driven organizations who are making an impact in their communities and industries.

 



 

Damon McLeeseDamon McLeese is the Executive Director of Access Gallery. Follow them on Facebook and learn more at accessgallery.org.

 

WHAT DO YOU DO?
We are a nonprofit social enterprise that works to increase access to economic opportunity through the arts for young people with disabilities.

 

WHY DO YOU DO IT?
Young people with disabilities transitioning from high school to whatever comes next are facing a 70% unemployment rate in the US. For years we worked on job readiness and job training and realized we were swimming up stream. Three years ago I decided to stop making employees and start making jobs. It changed the way we approach everything. We hire our young artists to make work for our gallery, for corporate clients, and have recently branched out into public art.

 

WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
We believe in the power of connection and collaboration. As we shifted from a more traditional nonprofit model we found that we were seeing changes in self esteem, self expression and a creativity in our artists. We developed a collaborative space. We are fostering a workplace where everyone is safe, valued and, most of all, needed. Too many times people with disabilities have things done to and for them. Here we are developing work skills but, more importantly, we have seen a true community develop.

 

WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE THIS IMPACT?
Honestly at this point it is equal parts frustration that the system does not see people with disabilities as valuable potential employees and sheer determination. We had one student a couple years ago get a job pushing carts at Walmart and my heart broke. I knew then and there that we could do better.

 

WHAT’S YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I want to have enough work to hire these incredible artists with regular shifts and get us away from the temporary work model. I would love to eventually have a space where our artists could live, work and create together in a creative, safe space.

 

WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU NEED TO MAKE THOSE DREAMS COME TRUE?
Money and clientele. It always boils down to money. We are working very hard to get out of the survival mindset and are talking to a couple corporate clients to commission multiple pieces for each of their sites. We are also working on getting commissions for murals and some public art commissions. We truly need clients that are looking for a unique way to tell their stories.

 

WHAT IS (OR HAS BEEN) YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
Resources. We are a two-person shop trying to manage the change and the growing pains that come along with this kind of fundamental shift for an organization. I managed the organization for nearly 20 years chasing grants and hustling the system. Now we are looking for clients and art buyers.

 

WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
Trust your gut and make sure you are solving the right problem. When I realized the biggest challenge facing most of our artists was not their disability but rather it was the fact they were poor, I knew, just knew, we had to address that issue. It was great to have our students with disabilities be interested in learning about Picasso but if they could not afford bus fair, it simply did not matter. Change is hard, but not changing is harder.

 

HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Come to the gallery, buy original art for your homes, businesses and even your cars. We have art from $5 to $5,000 and pretty much everything in between.

 


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