ONLUNCHBREAK – the ever-expanding creative agency tapped by Beyoncé, Pharell, and A$AP Rocky – has an unconventional MO; Many creatives see New York’s neighborhoods as an aesthetic backdrop and an extractable resource, but for OLB it’s all about giving back to the community – and it has been from day one.
OLB's diversity, camaraderie, and home-schooled methods behind the camera have proven extremely lucrative as fashion and streetwear’s biggest names look for authentic voices to tell their stories. Meanwhile, the agency-cum-collective has mastered the art of leveraging its cultural cache to empower its community and pioneer a more inclusive industry model.
The idea of “paying it forward” is baked into its DNA. Thuan Tran – the creative mastermind behind it all – explains that in the early days, some well-timed acts of generosity (in the form of equipment and studio space) gave the collective the start they needed to get things off the ground. And they’ve been paying it forward ever since.
Having finessed his way on set without a film degree, Tran quickly came up against the industry’s culture of gatekeeping. “I had too much pride to stay there in that kind of toxic environment,” he tells Highsnobiety, “so I was just like, ‘You know what, I'm just going to do my own stuff with my friends." Though he admits he'd return to set "once in a while to steal some knowledge.’"
In the spirit of paying it forward, we asked Tran to spotlight some of his favorite grassroots initiatives and the community projects he's most excited about. Right now, it’s all about a community fridge in Coney Island: “It's the only thing I care about right now, to be honest.”
The project perfectly encapsulates the agency’s commitment to giving back to local communities. “I used to work for a production agency and I hated the way they ran things, they would just cut a check and treat locals and communities as if they were props,” he explains, “It always rubbed me the wrong way.”
The fridge project was started in partnership with the GirlsOnlyNY community initiative; “We want to leave something in Coney Island that was a 'thank you.'” They joined forces with a small local organization called Women on the Rise, and now, “every time we stock the fridge it's gone within minutes.” “It's such a small thing and it obviously makes sense, but the idea that you need to think about what happens when you leave is massive.”
OLB has been using its platform and connections to empower organizations and initiatives that are making a real difference in their communities. Last year, they caught up with three of their favorite New York-based youth organizations; Double Dutch for Love, East NY Farms, and Teens Take Charge and Adidas' spotlighted each of the groups on its Confirmed app.
Teens Take Charge
New York might be the most diverse city on the planet, but its school system is still deeply segregated. Since it was initiated in 2016 by Bronx-based teenagers Nelson Luna and Whitney Stephenson, Teens Take Charge has provided a platform to more than 60 New York City high school students to share their experiences in the school system. The project sees teens in some of the city's most underserved schools advocating for themselves at official hearings, in meetings with policymakers, and in the pages of the New York Times.
Tran came across their work scrolling on Instagram. “Every time you look on their page they're taking the Department of Education to court. They aren't fucking around. They're really organized and doing stuff.’"
Growing up, redlining and segregated classrooms impacted Tran’s education. “I didn't understand social injustices, and I thought life was what it was,” he explained. “These kids are so aware and they're saying, "We're not taking this. We're not accepting that our schools are shitty. We see schools next door that are thriving, and we want that.”
They're not just aware of the educational inequity that affects them and its historical roots, they’re leading advocacy campaigns targeting the city and school officials with the ability to enact their solutions. Even in the face of a pandemic, students have successfully advocated for the removal of arbitrary categories that determine which students receive resources in their schools. Just last week, an education panel recently agreed to defy the mayor and end the $5 million Gifted and Talented testing system; a system that Teens Take Charge have described as "racist" and a "form of segregation."
East NY Farms
Across town is another organization making a huge impact in the community. At East NY Farms, young people are doing hands-on learning to promote food justice in their community as well as local sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development.
From March through November, 35 young East New Yorkers take part in an intensive internship program. They're involved in all aspects of running a 1/2 acre organic farm and providing support to other gardens through East New York, often run by senior citizens.
“They're amazing" Tran tells us, "I went to go see them at their open market. There were tons of little tents with different farms who come from different communities and bring their produce to that area.”
It's not just farming either. "They have a culinary program too, so not only do you learn how to grow your own food, they show you what to do with it afterward. They'll have a potluck where kids will take what they harvested and make their own version of a meal."
“They're thinking so 360,” alongside affordable produce there’s a stand for legal aid. “They're saying, 'all right, here's your food. Here's how to do it. But also when you get home, make sure your landlord is doing these things, and if you're getting evicted, here's what to do.'”
Double Dutch for Love
Then there’s Double Dutch for Love; When lockdown hit at the beginning of the year, teachers Aja Brown and Mia Simone started a double dutch event to uplift spirits and raise money for mental health services in their community.
The initiative has helped Black girls access to therapy, found LGBTQI+ adults housing, and created a safe space for women and people of color and it came together organically. “Mia and Aja are heros to me - so for them to take time from their teaching schedules and personal lives to bring the community together I think they deserve all the recognition in the world."
The first time Tran gave it a try it was humiliating, "I sucked. But it felt great to be level with everything and everyone. We're all playing the same game for a second and it's okay if you fuck up, everyone's cheering you on. Then when you finally hit it, the whole group starts screaming. I don't know, it's a magical thing."