This quirky new t-shirt company is run by homeless and LGBTQ youth
A new streetwear brand is focused on making apparel with a purpose, helping at-risk youth not only rise, but take flight.
The company, called dfrntpigeon, is giving marginalized youth in Portland, Oregon, the chance to design t-shirts that reflect their lives and experiences. The brand’s first line of shirts is called the Identity Collection, featuring designs by six young people who created pieces representing their identities and perspectives.
Portland-based nonprofit New Avenues for Youth, which helps support at-risk youth through counseling, meals, and career services, launched the dfrntpigeon program in 2016 as a way for at-risk youth to express themselves through visual arts.
The goal of the program — and now the new apparel brand of the same name — is to help connect young people with mentors, freelance opportunities, and careers in graphic design.
“Our products aren’t just fashion,” says Sara Weihmann, director of social purpose enterprise for New Avenues for Youth. “They’re powered by a larger social mission to help marginalized youth find a path to success, exit street life, and challenge the perception of youth homelessness.”
“Our products aren’t just fashion. They’re powered by a larger social mission.”
All money from shirt sales — about $15 to $26 per shirt, depending on the design — goes straight back into the dfrntpigeon program. The proceeds will be used to pay the salaries of two staff members dedicated solely to supporting dfrntpigeon, as well as paying young people for their designs. Money will also go toward funding more local creative programs put on by New Avenues for Youth, to help at-risk children and young adults in Portland express themselves through art.
The Identity Collection is handprinted in Portland by New Avenues INK, a screenprinting company also owned by New Avenues for Youth that employs young adults in full-time and part-time positions.
“The fact that we are creating jobs and teaching skills that can lead to more stability for these youth is what’s most rewarding,” Weihmann says. “Having ownership over the entire process is really exciting.”
The name dfrntpigeon — pronounced “different pigeon” — came from a conversation within one of the very first graphic design sessions New Avenues for Youth ran. When a staff member asked one of the young people in the program what they were doodling, they simply responded, “They are just different pigeons.”
One pigeon in his drawing was eating a cigarette. Another was sorting through garbage. They were all living creatures labeled “street pests” just trying to survive in the city.
Those in the program quickly realized how they relate to the largely misunderstood bird.
“The youth talked about how they kind of identified with this bird that was sort of cast aside in this urban environment, scavenging, and making due,” Weihmann says. “Pigeons are really remarkable little creatures.”
New Avenues for Youth doesn’t like to label the youth they serve as “at-risk” or “marginalized.” These labels, the nonprofit says, limit expectations that young people have for themselves and that the world has for them.
Many of the young adults New Avenues for Youth serves are LGBTQ homeless youth or foster youth, without much stability. Many only drop in once or twice to get a meal or counseling, then never return. Others pick up free art supplies and participate in a workshop or two, then disappear from the program after that.
“Art helps keep me stable-ish.”
“It’s hard because of the nature of their lives, the instability,” Weihmann says, explaining the difficulty in sustaining youth engagement in dfrntpigeon. “Right now, we have five or six youth who are a stable, major part of dfrntpigeon.”
One of those designers is Olivia, a creative 22-year-old with half-turquoise, half-brown hair and a quirky style. She was connected to New Avenues for Youth’s creative programs a couple of years ago through a friend, and has since become a fixture of the program.
“Art helps keep me stable-ish,” she says.
She adds that she doesn’t know where she’d be without New Avenues for Youth, which helped her find jobs and now employs her part-time as one of two staff members supporting dfrntpigeon.
Currently, Olivia has three different designs available as part of dfrntpigeon’s Identity Collection. One is a depiction of the Statue of Liberty with a pigeon head, while another has a series of hands spelling out “dfrntpigeon” in American Sign Language.
One of Olivia’s roles as an employee is to fill orders, and package them to send to customers. She says this final stage of the process — actually sending out her creation to people wanting to buy it — is indescribably rewarding.
“The first few times, I actually got emotional,” she says. “It feels really amazing to package up this t-shirt that I created and ship it to someone who will wear it. I never thought I’d get to do that.”