When I agreed to meet Julius Givens for coffee on a Sunday morning, I envisioned a leisurely get-to-know-you chat. We both hail from St. Louis, both attended private all-girl/all-boy high schools in the area, both graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and are both living in Chicago. I figured we’d make polite chitchat, get to know one another, and have a relaxing morning.
After spending an hour with Julius, I suspect leisurely Sunday chitchats are not high on his priority list. Julius is focused, driven, and enthusiastic about The Explorer Program (TEP). And now, after spending time talking to him about it, I am too.
The seeds for The Explorer Program were sewn while participating in a service project as a junior at DeSmet Jesuit High School. Over the course of a year he spent time with students at a St. Louis elementary school. He explained, “Throughout the year, substitute teachers were in and out and acted more like babysitters than teachers. I remember searching through textbooks and worrying about not having the right answers to math questions the kids asked. But you know what was even more important than knowing the right answers? Showing up and being there.” Julius recognized that as he continued to show up, the kids noticed and that made an impact on them.
It’s a lesson he brought with him when he moved to Chicago, a city that had always held a special place in his heart. He reminisced, “My mom raised six kids all by herself. We didn’t always have a lot of money, but there was always enough to pile into the van and drive to Chicago from St. Louis. From an early age, Chicago was my north star.” However, once he got here he began to notice some of the problems the city faces.
According to the Explorer Program website, “Many Chicago Public School students live in emotionally, physically and spiritually dangerous communities. With over-populated classrooms, many students are unaware of the opportunities that await them if only they could take control of their own lives.” Julius felt compelled to be a part of the solution.
While out on assignment with a journalist friend, he grabbed a camera to shoot some pictures for her story. He quickly fell in love with street photography and began to spend time exploring the art form.
Thinking back to the students he worked with years earlier, he remembered that more than any other subject — including Physical Education — students looked forward to participating in arts programs. It was a soul spark moment. Three months later he launched The Explorer Program.
The Explorer Program provides high school students, particularly freshmen, from urban minority communities, unique opportunities to tap into their innate creative and artistic abilities. It empowers young people to express themselves in positive ways. Julius explains, “At The Explorer Program we enable thinkers and doers. Our Explorers think through processes and projects, plan and then execute them themselves. Very similar to how a solider does during an operations order before a mission.” The Explorers tackle activities that tie artistic assignments together with essential life skills.
For instance, while exploring vulnerability, students are challenged to take a portrait of someone they don’t know. The artistic challenge requires each student to step outside his comfort zone and ask someone he doesn’t know for permission to take the photograph. Meanwhile, the students are encouraged to reflect on their art, their feelings, and their experience; that reflection yields growth, improvement, and change.
“Change starts with self, then your community, then the city, and eventually the world. That’s the direction we’re moving at The Explorer Program.”
The program launched with five students and grew to fifteen by the second semester. They hope to increase the number of Explorers by five times in the coming year. When asked how he felt about this rapid growth, Julius said, “I feel great about it. I have a talented leadership council in place that will make it possible from an operational perspective, and the team on the ground is steadfast in their efforts on how we can add as much value as possible for each Explorer.”
The growth is also made possible through the generosity of Context Media, Matter, and the contributions of private donors. Context Media and Matter provide space for the explorers to meet and have been involved from TEP’s earliest stages. Julius sees these partnerships as integral to the program. “Some kids grow up wanting to be rappers, drug dealers, or athletes because that’s who they see making money,” he explained. “TEP brings students out of their neighborhood and introduces them to some of Chicago’s top creative environments and work places — these are state of the art facilities. While there, they’ll see that software developers, marketing folks, and other business professionals make great money too.” In addition to providing spaces, these partners are providing new role models.
Looking forward, Julius hopes to offer opportunities for young professionals too. “I feel it’s my personal responsibility to create opportunities for good folks who want to do good work. Furthermore, I want to be able to pay them a livable wage too! Pepsi Co is hiring marketing graduates out of school for as much as 75K a year; it’s important to me to raise capital so I can compete with that.”
But let me go back, briefly, to our Sunday coffee outing. During our meeting, Julius also took the time to ask me about my life and learn about my passions. I know he was listening because he’s someone who has that magical talent of weaving others’ interests together with his own. He’s capable of making his objective dovetail with yours. He’s a salesman. He’s a motivator. He’s an evangelist and a teacher. And let me tell you, it’s refreshing to see him using those powers for good. We are all fortunate he’s fighting for his Explorers’ future because if he has his way, their achievements will impact the world. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and bode well for the future of The Explorer Program, the city of Chicago, and beyond.