SAN FRANCISCO -- Richard "Big Rich" Bougere and Danielle Banks manage a busy household that includes a baby daughter, but a decade ago the native San Franciscans were nurturing hip-hop careers.
Then they noticed a terrible trend.
"We'd go on tour. Every time we came home, it'd be bad news," Banks said. "Like we hear a young person had gotten killed or somebody went to jail... We're like, 'We need to do something,' and it had to be something that catered to what they liked and what they wanted to do. A lot of them wanted to be artists."
Bougere knew firsthand the transformative power of music. The art and business of rap music kept him out of trouble growing up.
"Music saved my life," he said. "I was able to come to music and that kept me on a straight and narrow path."
So Bougere and Banks founded Project Level in 2012. The nonprofit has introduced up to 1,800 at-risk young people to music, dance, marketing, film, graphic design and fashion.
"Me and Danielle's dream is to help others pursue their dreams," Bougere said.
Morehouse College sophomore Isreal Laviene grew up in San Francisco's Fillmore neighborhood. She is among those who took part in Project Level's recent 3-city modeling tour.
"Being here in Fillmore, they're from Fillmore, too," Laviene said. "They grew up in Fillmore, so it's very relatable. Big Rich, he's really like a father figure."
Bougere and Banks take pride in forming a family-like connection with those who they are mentoring.
"That's the secret formula - the family aspect of Project Level that comes from Danielle," Bougere said.
Jasmine Corley's confidence skyrocketed since she came to Project Level nine years ago as a shy teenager. And now?
"I'm a leader in my community. It's pretty cool," she said. "I get to teach kids in this community."
LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service
As a staff member, she teaches social media and coaches dancers like the group who performed for Mayor London Breed's birthday.
In the next room at the organization's Fulton Street headquarters, other youths learn to design and print their own clothing line. Then participants often come back as volunteers and role models.
Like Project Level alumnus, rapper 24kGoldn, who's now a platinum recording artist.
"It's like the ultimate feeling when a kid becomes really successful in the industry," Bougere said. "It's beautiful."
Project Level currently is starting a fall program to create a record label from scratch. The incubator program for music executives is funded by a $150,000 social justice grant from the Warner Music Group and Blavatnik Family Foundation.
In only a few days, they've received 150 applications for 40 positions. For more information, go to projectlevel.org
For helping underserved youth cultivate career skills through Project Level, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Richard "Big Rich" Bougere and Danielle Banks.
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