AUSTIN — Hannibal Buress knows young people are a lot more likely to discover their talents when given the chance to try something they’d never done before.
But since not all kids across Chicago are afforded the same opportunities, he’s developing Melvina Masterminds, a center for the arts, science and technology in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Reflecting on the mission behind Melvina Masterminds, Buress describes his entry into comedy as one only made possible because he dared to try something new when a door was opened for him.
Before the surreal humor of “The Eric Andre Show,” before the antics of “Broad City,” before the sleepy-eyed observational comedy of his stand-up specials and before his 2010 Emmy nomination, Buress hadn’t even considered making a career out of comedy.
It all started by chance when he was invited to attend an open mic by a friend involved in the comedy scene at Southern Illinois University, where he was enrolled.
Buress didn’t pin himself as the type to perform on stage. But seeing all the different comedians, some of them gifted at humor and others cracking dad-jokes that made the audience cringe, he decided to give it a try.
“You see people working at it, not being that great. Then it’s, okay I can try this. It lowers the stakes, it takes away the mystery,” he said. “So I tried it out. I had a few jokes, I got some chuckles. It might’ve been genuine. They might’ve been just polite chuckles ‘cuz somebody’s on stage trying.”
He says those few polite chuckles were all it took to open the door to pursue comedy thereafter.
And he wants to keep that same energy when it comes to Melvina Masterminds, named after Melvina Avenue, where he lived as a child. For him, the center is a way of making sure kids living on Melvina Avenue or anywhere else on the West Side don’t have to leave their own neighborhood to pursue something that could grow into a lifelong passion.
“You give somebody just the option and opportunity to do something they might not have been interested in or might not have seeked out if it was tough to do. There’s endless possibilities,” he said.
Buress envisions kids from the neighborhood stopping into Melvina Masterminds for an event or a workshop not unlike the open mic that eventually helped him discover his career.
He and his team are working behind the scenes to develop a headquarters for Melvina Masterminds on the 6100 block of West North Avenue they expect to open in 2020. But in the meantime, they are building momentum for the center, engaging the community and providing access points for young folks to get involved by hosting a series of pop-ups across Austin.
In March, Buress hosted a pop-up exploring artificial intelligence and virtual reality, including a panel with industry experts and an interactive VR experience. The success of that event led to another pop-up in late June, this time focused on coding and 3D printing. Kids at this workshop learned some coding basics and played around with modeling software to make their own creations with a 3D printer.
Buress said the pop-ups are a great way for his team to figure out which types of creative and tech resources would be most beneficial to Austin, and also to figure out the best ways to reach kids in the area.
“When we have these different workshops and you put it within three, four blocks of people, they’re gonna check it out. Whereas they might not at a neighborhood on the other side of the city,” he said. “So I think that the access itself will just help out a kid that might not have seen that as a real option.”
The nonprofit’s chief of staff, Tulani Watkins, is also using the pop-ups to talk to young people to figure out what kinds of programming they want, rather than just assuming. At the June pop-up, Watkins saw an opportunity for the center to cultivate a sense of belonging for young people of color within the arts and sciences.
“They had control and ownership over what they were doing on the computer,” Watkins said. “And I think if you can allow youth at a very young age to feel powerful in the standpoint of like, what they’re doing matters beyond a grade … it starts to do something to their self-esteem.”
The design of the new center will reflect all the different programming in performance, art, science and technology that they are incorporating into the curriculum, Watkins said. She envisions a maker-space that will seamlessly combine a computer lab with coding and design software with cutting edge technology including 3D printers like the ones previewed at the March pop-up.
There will also be dedicated facilities for supporting creative projects, Watkins said.
“A majority of the space will be designed for things like podcasting, a gallery, a performance space … [allowing] the youth and the community members to use the space for their own creative thoughts and to explore.”
The team behind Melvina Masterminds hopes that the center will have a long-term impact of revitalizing North Austin and spurring other investments into the neighborhood that primarily benefit existing residents.
Looking forward, Buress wants the organization to be an anchor for the community to empower the youth to build a brighter future for a neighborhood that has a history of disinvestment from the city.
“North Avenue itself I feel like it could be a destination for people. On the West Side, really there’s no destination areas like that,” Buress said. “People from the outside might go to Oak Park or something. But I feel like with Melvina and a couple other businesses, we could make it something that people would wanna visit.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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