Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Arts.Advocacy+Wellness: "From Broadway to Entrepreneurial and Social Advocacy: Meet Torya Beard"

Today we focus on Wellness for the community at-large and one woman who's on her way to making positive social change globally. You may all know Torya from her appearances on the Broadway Stage and in Television and Film with shows such as The Lion King and Outkast's blockbuster film Idlewild. Now Torya, social entrepreneur and founder of thatgirl006, Inc. a boutique company offering creative support to artists, has a special and extremely rewarding project under her belt. She's the External Relations Manager for Ubuntu Education Fund. Ubuntu Education Fund is a non-profit organization working with the Port Elizabeth township communities (population approximately 400,000) in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Through a comprehensive system of intervention, Ubuntu provides children with the educational and health support that they need to focus on their academic progress and reach their full potential.

I recently caught up with Torya over a cup of tea. Wanting to know more about Ubuntu and her work, here's what we discussed:

How did you become involved with Ubuntu?

Last summer, Philip McAdoo, a close friend who was in Rent on Broadway at the time, asked me if I wanted to go to South Africa to teach dance for an arts camp. I said “yes!” I had never been to Africa and jumped at the chance. That Arts camp was actually part of the Ubuntu Education Fund’s “Holiday Camp” programming. The School holidays can be dangerous for children, especially for those who live in abusive and neglectful households without adult supervision. The camps feature a combination of academic and enriching activities. I was very inspired by the children there. It was a joy working with them. I was also impressed by Ubuntu Education Fund. I really couldn’t believe how much they were able to accomplish with so little resources. It really was a life altering experience.

What drove you to doing work for social change?

I have always wanted to do my part to positively impact the world we live in. Creating thatgirl006, Inc was actually the beginning. I had been working for a small PR agency representing dance companies and started helping my friends with their projects on the side. I realized that there were so many talented artists who needed PR, Marketing and Promotional support but couldn’t afford to enter into a contract with an agency. I started my company to offer those services to them at a much more manageable rate. Very often, in the beginning, I ended up offering the services for free!

As a performer, how do you balance both your performer life and your community work?

I just started working with Ubuntu full time 5 weeks ago so there is no balance right now (laughs), I am working extremely hard to get everything set up for the rest of the year. In another couple of weeks I plan to start dancing again and to get back on track with my guitar/voice lessons and writing music. I also enjoy working on choreography and plan to do more in the near future. I think focusing on skills that I can develop when my schedule permits makes it easier to feel like an artist with a non-related full-time job. I can practice or choreograph at any point during the day or night and I love that.

Tell us more about thatgirl006.

Well, like I said, I started out just helping friends and artists who were creating work I believed in. I started the company in 2002. The services I provided ranged from writing press releases to coordinating RSVP lists for performances. I would also put artists in touch with people who could help them develop business plans and offer production related services. In the meantime, being slightly obsessed with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I started throwing parties in my apartment and then at lounges around the city. I soon developed a reputation for throwing great parties and began receiving requests to plan parties and small events as well. For the past 3-4 years, I have been planning events as well as producing showcases for singer/songwriters. It is sometimes difficult to explain exactly what I do because people always want a one line answer. I am a champion for the artist and I will often do whatever needs to be done to see the artistic vision realized.

What projects have you taken on as founder of thatgirl006, Inc.?

I have done PR for filmmakers, playwrights, singers and producers of special events. I have produced dance concerts, music and fashion events (In an exercise in lifestyle marketing; I paired singers and fashion designers who could easily share the same fan base), birthday parties and “just because” parties. I created and facilitated a month long singer/songwriter series in Brooklyn, NY and recently have been doing wardrobe consulting for actors. I am presently working with a number of NY based artists to raise money for various projects.

What obstacles have you faced in doing work for the community, especially with Ubuntu?

It takes money to make money and most times people don’t even have the seed money to do a fundraiser or benefit. If the person has the money they are often reticent to spend it with no guaranteed return. Everyone thinks everyone else is giving/doing so they don’t have to. I think most people recognize need and we hope that others recognize it as well. It is my feeling that most people think everyone else is giving or doing more than they can do so what they have to offer won’t really make a difference. For real social change to take place, the giver, the doers and those who can mobilize givers and doers all have to work together. Those are two of the most challenging aspects of doing this type of work. However, the flip side, there is a real commitment to philanthropy growing now. There is enough to go around and there is a cause out there for every person to connect to. I am inspired by this new energy.

Speaking of community can you share more about the community, and their needs, that you work with specifically at Ubuntu?

The Port Elizabeth townships remain haunted by the legacy of systemic impoverishment and destabilization of apartheid and are reeling from the devastation wreaked by the AIDS epidemic. Access to adequate nutrition, sanitation, health care, housing and educational facilities remain a challenge for most children growing up in our communities. Additionally, our communities are burdened with an HIV prevalence rate of 40% and an unemployment rate of approximately 80%. Although general HIV/AIDS knowledge and awareness is high, most people do not know their HIV status. Life expectancy has fallen to 46 years for men and 51 years for women. As a result, there are an estimated 50,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in the townships of Port Elizabeth. Rape and sexual assault rates are extremely high. Young girls and their Grandmothers usually care for family members who are HIV-positive and/or living with AIDS LGBT stigma is very high (there were recent reports of “corrective rape”—rape of lesbians to “cure” them of homosexuality.)

Any future goals for Ubuntu, and the work you're doing with them?

I was hired to help strengthen existing relationships and create new relationships with our community in the United States. Ubuntu Education Fund has made great strides over the past 10 years, and that hard work was never more evident than it is now. The first Ubuntu program participants graduated from University this year! With all of the work that has gone into implementing our programming, it is no surprise that there has been little to no time left over for PR and Marketing campaigns. We are making a huge effort to share our message of HIV prevention and awareness among University students in the United States. We have partnered with the producers of “The Promiscuity Tour” a film/music event that discourages promiscuous behavior among young people. The kick off event will take place at University of Michigan and will feature 6 HIV awareness shorts executive produced by Rod Gailes OBC. We have also partnered with GrindCity, a Philadelphia based band creating socially conscious music. We are also planning a number of events to engage our New York community on a grassroots level. We will be launching an updated website and a brand new blog. We have a fresh facebook page ( ) and our founder and CEO, Jacob Lief is now posting updates on twitter. Follow him:!

Any advice for performers who are interested in using their craft to make social change?

There are no limitations on the human spirit. Do everything you have the ability and the passion to do. You don’t have to choose or to put yourself in a box to be taken seriously. Remember, every little bit helps!

A Future favorite 1 guilty pleasure.

Guiding Light!! It is the longest running daytime drama. I have been watching it for as long as I can remember. I started watching with my grandmother. I LOVE IT! It is going off the air this month and I am so sad.

Interested in volunteering or would like to make a donation to Ubuntu Education Fund?
Here's how you can help:

Ubuntu Education Fund
New York Address: 32 Broadway, Suite 414, New York, NY 10004
Phone: 646 827 1190

Tune in every A.A+W. Wednesday with Cornelius Jones Jr. for compelling and inspiring notes, interviews, and words of wisdom for the Artistic, Creative, and Conscious Soul. And starting Wednesday September 23, A.A+W will precede with a weekly feature of Torya and her notes on Ubuntu.

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