Jamal Collins is always critiquing himself. He films his graphic design classes, trying to dissect the directions he’s giving students, how he’s explaining things, how he’s interacting. Body language. Everything. He’s always thinking.
“I have an hour-long ride here and I go over everything in my head,” he says, standing in his Richmond Heights High School’s summer techie camp — part of the district’s free after-school enrichment program, Rise Up.
Collins adjusts a video camera set up on a tripod while students stay busy creating business cards for the Inner City Baseball Academy of Greater Cleveland on Photoshop. The winner gets a small stipend — a contest similar to a recent T-shirt design project for Rise Up.
Students gossip about the death of rapper XXX Tentacion or laugh over inside jokes while they work, like they’re typical kids who’d rather be outside playing on a beautiful summer day.
Collins, though, keeps them on task. His teaching style takes you back, makes you feel like a kid with a locker down the hall, passing notes, or maybe now it’s sending Snapchats.
Breaking up a debate on the style of X’s death, he says, “We lost a young soldier; we lost a young man about 20 years old. That’s a tragedy.”
Interwoven in his direct, clear teaching style are life lessons he hopes will collectively make an impact, like discussions on the dopamine rush you get from engaging with a smart phone or simply the importance of hard work.
“I think I just act like a dad,” Collins says, thinking of his seven kids, the oldest one of which is 24. “I’ve been a father for the longest time.”
Growing up in East Cleveland and considered an “at-risk youth,” Collins set his sights on the University of Akron — determined to avoid prison or worse, as he watched many in his classmates go down this path. He earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in 1997, trying his luck in the corporate world for almost a decade, when he decided to go out on his own — freelancing and hustling gigs wherever he could.
Once technology allowed anyone to create posters and other graphic products with user-friendly computer programs, Collins found himself out of work. Eventually, he started volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland and ended up landing an art instructor job. Before long, he pitched the idea of teaching graphic design, which he still does.
Empowering youth through design has been the core part of Collins’ mission ever since. He also began working tirelessly to build himself up, using the tools he once feared would stop him from advancing his career to tirelessly create vlogs and design his own content.
A freelance designer, public speaker, teacher and mentor, Collins is his own brand (Jay Working) which stands out from the crowd as a matter of survival.
He’s had to. Gone are the days of depending on a resume, he says. You have to build a complete picture of yourself online (and in your community) before a prospective employer or supporter ever meets you.
“I want to use myself as an example,” he said, sitting outside a media arts and filmmaking course at the metro campus of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) — a class he wrapped up this spring. “I want to give people advice that I needed.”
Advice like, learn to promote yourself as a unique brand online. Use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook — including features like stories — with a specific strategy of the overall message you want to convey. Make a YouTube channel showing your skills and projects. Convince parents not to buy an Xbox or other games, but inexpensive cameras and computers, so kids can learn skills that will carry them through life.
“Constantly reinvent yourself and become a creative freethinker,” he always tells his students. That’s what he’s always done.
Along with conveying these messages, his main goal is to teach students critical thinking. Or helping them gain confidence speaking in public.
Alayna Harris, who’s headed into her freshman year at Richmond Heights High School this fall, created the winning design for the Rise Up T-shirt contest with text and a hawk’s head.
Her favorite part about coding or graphic design is bringing projects home to her mom, always so happy to see her progress.
“It makes her happy to be able to say I made something,” she says, taking a break from designing her business card.
Looking over at Collins, busy helping students navigate Photoshop, she adds, “He teaches me something new every day.”
Follow Collins and learn more about his latest projects on twitter, YouTube and instagram @jayworking or at jayworking.com.
[Written by Nicole Hennessy]