By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — When Create Now CEO Brandon Johnson arrived in Los Angeles in 2014, he found himself homeless.
“I drove out here from North Carolina with my cousin and my best friend,” Johnson recalled. “My goal was to find work as a professional animator. But when we got here, our apartment wasn’t ready and we had to live in our car.”
Johnson, 32, said that weeks of experiencing homelessness turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
“There was this [negative] image that others had of the homeless,” he says now. “I knew people were looking down on us. You felt invisible.”
Johnson was eventually hired as an animator at several studios, including Disney, Warner Bros. and Dreamworks.
“I created animation drawing Looney Tunes, Batman, Superman and the Flintstones, just to name a few,” he said.
But Johnson never forgot his experience being homeless. Helping others is in his blood.
“When I was growing up, my grandfather and my father helped the community and they taught me to give back to the community,” said Johnson, who began giving back to the less fortunate at a young age.
When Johnson heard about the nonprofit organization Create Now, which offers a variety of arts programs for at-risk youth, he asked if he could volunteer.
“They said yes,” Johnson said. “I’m an artist and I love kids.”
Johnson then found himself working closely with Create Now’s founder Jill Gurr.
“From volunteering I became a mentor and teaching artist. From there I became a board member,” he said.
When Gurr decided to step down, she and the other board members asked Johnson if he would like to step into the role as chief executive officer of the organization.
“I became the new director of Create Now in July of 2021, and it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Johnson said.
Create Now has reached more than 50,000 of the most vulnerable kids in Southern California by empowering young people from ages 3 to 24 through arts education and mentoring. It targets kids challenged by poverty, abuse, neglect, homelessness, incarceration and similar issues.
“We work with over 100 different agencies, juvenile and homeless centers and schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District,” Johnson said. “We offer workshops in music, visual arts, writing, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, art, digital media, fashion and culinary arts. We provide youth with any form of art.”
To broaden the cultural experiences of the young people it serves and assist in widening their horizons, Create Now regularly transports kids to concerts, plays, museums and other events in Southern California.
Create Now was recently recognized for its work with at-risk youth by being awarded a $20,000 Quest Rookie grant to help further their positive impact on the local community.
“One of my duties as a CEO was finding grants for Create Now,” Johnson said. “I saw that Quest was offering a grant. I applied for it and I was surprised when they told us we had won. I was shocked.”
The nonprofit will use the grant money to start a culinary arts program as well as utilize it for various events and programming.
Johnson said that he personally knows that art can transform lives.
“When I was younger, I grew up with dyslexia,” he said. “My parents broke up when I was very young. I had an absent mother growing up, which was tough. I went through a lot of trauma. What helped me to get through the trauma was therapy and art. It helped me to understand myself and to heal.
“When I see the children at Create Now pursuing art, I see them escape into their own minds,” Johnson said. “I’ve had kids enjoy the art and animation classes so much that they say that they want to go to college and become art majors.”
Johnson recalled one troubled teenage girl who was enrolled in the fashion design class.
“She didn’t believe in herself,” Johnson said. “The people in the class had to make their own fashion piece. Over the course of the eight-week class, she was able to build confidence in herself. She made a beautiful fashion piece by herself.
“She said, ‘You gave me confidence to pursue fashion design in the future.’ It was a very therapeutic and empowering moment for her.”
Create Now is located at 1611 S. Hope St, near downtown. Visit the website at createnow.org.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.