Your job title:
Your organization name:
Weird Enough Productions
When was your organization founded?
In what city, town, or region are you located?Atlanta, GA, USA
In what city, town, or region is your organization headquartered?Atlanta, GA, USA
In which countries does your organization currently operate?
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
My name is Tony Weaver, Jr. and I’m an award winning author that believes stories are the strongest catalyst for social change in the history of mankind. I’m applying for The Elevate Prize so I can continue my fight against the Youth Mental Health Crisis currently taking place in The United States. Especially in the case of low income students of color who are having mental health troubles due to racial inequity in education. My work has impacted over 2 million students, been verified by third party researchers, and built a cross platform social media reach of over 6 million. I’ve been featured on The Ted Stage, Forbes, NBC, and PBS. I was also named a Champion for Change by CNN, a Gucci Changemaker, and a Coca Cola Black History Shaker. The Elevate Prize funding would allow my organization to develop timely programming to support schools, after school programs, and direct to households, as well as execute our new sustainability strategy as we scale our work. The Support of the Elevate Prize would equip me with the training needed to leverage my existing platform of over 500,000 followers and an upcoming TV show to truly use influence for impact.
Tell us about YOU:
When I was 14 years old I attempted to end my own life. Racism and bullying from my teachers and peers made me doubt my life’s value. In my hardest times, the thing that saved me was comic books. Seeing stories of underdog heroes fighting their insecurities made me feel like I could too. Years later while volunteering at an elementary school I mentored a black student named Nazir. Even though he loved to talk about superheroes, for Halloween he felt like the only person he could be was CJ from Grand Theft Auto. Due to the bullying and racism he’d experienced, he didn’t think he was capable of being a hero. My experience with Nazir taught me that the discrimination I faced wasn’t individual it was instiutional. I founded my organization, Weird Enough Productions, with the hopes that I could use the same stories that helped me find my inner hero, to support students everywhere. Since then, I’ve brought social emotional learning curricula and diverse stories to over 2 million students. Leading to improvement of mental health, literacy, and digital citizenship skills in over 90% of them. It’s my purpose to help every student unlock their inner hero.
Pitch your organization.
Weird Enough Productions is a nonprofit that uses superheroes and comic books to improve mental health and literacy in the lives of young people. According to The American Medical Association, teen suicide and depression rates are the highest they’ve been in the last 20 years. In the first half of 2020 a record amount of students lost their lives due to suicide. When COVID-19 forced schools around the country close their doors, over 50 million students were separated from their friends and support systems and greeted with academic uncertainty just to watch citizens all over the US get sick and die. Students of color are faced with an even more grim reality, where they’ve been quarantined only to watch images of people that look like them being killed, assaulted, and brutalized by police. We run a national education program combines diverse comic books with anti-racist and equity based social emotional learning curricula. Using the narrative ability of graphic novels, we help students learn to love themselves, so they can use that love to help others and their communities.
Describe what makes your work innovative.
My project is innovative because we place student interests, agency, and identity the center of their educational journey. My program leverages who students are as their greatest weapon for succeeding in the classroom and beyond. Outside of the classroom, young people are flocking to graphic novels.They are the fastest growing medium in print publishing. By rooting our curricula in graphic novels, we get to take advantage of the massive student interest in graphic novels plus their proven literacy benefits to create a program that helps every student find their super power. Since our comics feature diverse characters, and our curriculum focuses on agency and equity, our program creates a direct path from student wellbeing to academic outcomes. In a survey, 90% of Gen Z students said they wanted to do something to change the world. Our program makes the classroom the path to reach that outcome. Weird Enough has combined equity based SEL programming with culturally relevant literacy curricula with hat helps students grow from learners in their schools, to leaders in their community. We believe that the hobbies, passions, and cultural identities that make students who they are will enable them to change the world.
How and why is your organization having an impact on humanity?
My organization has served over 2 million students, with over 90% of them showing improves in mental health, literacy, and digital citizenship.As we support student mental health, we focus on programming that doesn't just teach students how to regulate their emotions, but directly addresses institutions of oppression and its impact on student emotional wellbeing. By working with our team of equity trained curriculum designers, we’re blazing the trail for this new form of student support that is long overdue. Even though the average young person engages with social media over 10 hours a day, 70% of students lack the civic reasoning required to be digital citizens, so we incorporate lessons and activities that help students have a health relationship with platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. Lastly, 2/3rds of students in the US can't read on grade level, and academic outcomes have been directly linked to student self esteem. Graphic novels use 10x rare vocabulary words as their prose counterparts, so we leverage our comics to improve student literacy without them even noticing! Our comprehensive approach to youth mental health drives impact by focusing on on equity, educational growth, and student engagement.
Select the key characteristics of the community your organization is impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your organization address?
Which of the following categories best describes your work?
Equity & Inclusion
How many people does your organization directly serve at present? How many do you anticipate serving in one year?
To date, we’ve worked with over 40,000 students in schools across 14 states. We’ve also brought out comics and curricula directly to one million young people. Over 90% of the young people that have used our program have demonstrated improvements in social emotional health, and digital citizenship competencies. Our impact has been validated by a third party research firm. Plus, our work has been recognized by Forbes, TED, INC, The Echoing Green Foundation, The Gates Foundation, and most recently we were selected to be a part of Coca Cola’s Black History Month Campaign for our work in the Black Community. Earlier this year we collaborated with Facebook and Samsung to develop a mental health tool for youth receiving their first smart device and we’ve been recognized by the Collaborative Association for Social Emotional Learning. In the next year, our goal is to serve 1.5 million young people.
Describe your impact goals and how you plan to achieve them.
Our work at the intersection of education and mental health places us in direct alignment with UN Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 4, Good Health and Wellbeing and Quality Education. To reach our goal of 1.5 million young people served in the next year, I plan to expand our institutional partnerships across 25 states and augment our direct to household work. As education adjusts to support new students' needs, I plan to use the next 12 months to scale our program in communities that need it most, increase the size of our lesson library based on stakeholder feedback, and enhance our impact evaluation to show just how much we’re helping young people. At scale, my program can help decrease suicide rates, improve student confidence and self esteem, and help students develop grit and perserverance. It’s hard to quantify that sort of qualitative change. In fact, even The Collaborative Association for Social Emotional Learning hasn’t managed to accomplish that yet. While the sector continues to innovate how to measure SEL, we rely on literacy and digital citizenship. In our pilots, 90% of students showed improvements in literacy, and 95% of them demonstrated digital literacy mastery.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and how do you plan to overcome them? How would winning the Elevate Prize help you to overcome these barriers?
Currently, the barriers to my goals are team capacity and a public platform. In the last year we impacted over 1 million students with a team of less than 10. If our capacity were increased, we would invest in expanding our operations and technology teams. Secondly, we've identified that a public platform enables us to support more young people because it opens the door for larger organizational partnerships with education institutions and paid corporate partners. To overcome our capacity barrier, our entire program has been designed to keep costs low, and even as we scale the only expense that will increase exponentially is server costs. I'm also fundraising to expand my team in the near future. To support our public platform, I've grown to over half a million followers on Tiktok, leading to publication in CNN and NBC. The Elevate Prize would greatly help overcome both of these barriers. The funding would account for 60% of my fundraising goal, and the prize's focus on audience development and brand recognition would be the final piece to secure our paid corporate partners.
How would you leverage the larger platform, audience, and brand recognition as an Elevate Prize winner to further advance your impact?
The tailored media support awarded to Elevate Prize Winners would be transformative for my work. At scale, my organization can create meaningful change in the lives of millions of young people, and the largest missing piece is a larger engaged audience. As a young, minority founder I don't have the benefit of being connected with many of the networks that enable this sort of growth, so everything we've been able to accomplish so far has been organic. Through grass roots communications strategies and word of mouth we've landed on CNN, Forbes, The Ted Stage, and impacted over one million young people in the last year. However, there are still opportunities with foundations and corporate partners that I'm locked out of due to limited brand recognition. Working with an esteemed institution like M.I.T. through The Elevate Prize would give me the backing needed to open those doors. Bolstering our existing grass roots efforts with targeted institutional media support can take my project to a national scale. I have an innovative solution with proven impact, a comprehensive scaling strategy, and a talented team. The unique platform support offered by The Elevate Prize would exponentially supercharge our efforts.
What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?
The Weird Enough Productions team is over 100% BIPOC, 55% women, and over 50% LBGTQIA. Among our ranks are people from various parts of the US, and various parts of the world. We endeavor to build a program that can effectively serve young people of all backgrounds, so we’ve built a team that contains the same diversity. Our talent strategy is rooted in recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, with special care taken to seek out applicants that are often overlooked. I think we’ve done well with DEI because it wasn’t something we had to start, it was always there for us. From our inception it has played a role in all of our decisions, and its success is indicative in our results.
How are you and your team well-positioned to address the problem you are solving?
To quote the hit musical Hamilton, The Weird Enough Team is “Young, Scrappy, and Hungry.” It includes myself, Tony Weaver, a published media literacy researcher, Forbes 30 Under 30 for Education listmaker and award winning comic writer. I’ve directly worked on youth education initiatives with brands like Samsung, Microsoft, and Facebook. Our Chief Technology Officer, Yaw Owusu-Ansah, a Ghanain developer that previously retained clients like Blackberry and The University of South Africa. Hannah Lee and Andy Robles Valdez, our immensely talented arts team. Plus we have Joamette Gil, an AfroLatina communications specialist who founded her own press focused on uplifting marginalized voices. Melanie Dukes, an Ivy League educated curriculum specialist focused on working with black and brown students. Finally, Tim Smyth, known nationwide as The Comic Book Teacher, who provides training to teachers on incorporating graphic novels into their classrooms. In addition to our team, we have a board of directors that consists of teachers, principals, and superintendents, as well as a youth advisory board that consists of influencers with a cumulative reach of over 5 million. We’ve managed to strike a perfect balance between youthful innovation and established pedagogy. If there's anyone who can execute this it’s us!
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
When COVID-19 began to shut down schools, I found myself in at the intersection of three major issues. #1 The shutdowns began in February, a crucial time for establishing school partnerships, which caused us to instantly lose 50% of our incoming clients. #2 COVID-19 caused many philanthropy organizations to stop accepting new organizations in their portfolio, which caused us to lost over half a million dollars in funding opportunities. Lastly, even though we were extremely low on resources, young people were in need of mental health support more than ever. As a leader, I made the decision to support my community at any cost. We acted quickly and made over 400 pages of comics and education materials free to parents and caregivers. In the first month we impacted over 50,000 families and households. Behind the scenes, I worked with my team and our existing funders to build a completely new business model. Within one year, that model has secured us more sponsorships than the amount that we lost, and I didn't have to lay off a single member of my team. When challenges present themselves, I use my resourcefulness to develop solutions that sustainably support my community.
Have you been featured in any documentaries, television shows, or live speaking engagements? If so, please share links to any available content.
If selected as an Elevate Prize winner, how will the funding help you achieve your goals?
The funding of The Elevate Prize would be transformative for me at this moment in my trajectory.Coming out of COVID, young people are in need of more support than ever, and my organization is uniquely position to support them at scale. The emergence of our new business model has caused catalytic growth. However, to sustain it we must adjust our core assumptions about the role schools will play in our distribution model, and develop a more effective communications/marketing strategy to grow our userbase. The Elevate Prize Funding will allow us to continue to scale our program outside of traditional schools, upgrade our technology infrastructure to support the additional 500,000 young people we plan to engage over the next year, and give my team the capacity to produce more lesson plans and content.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
Due to NDAs I'm unable to list all of our specific partners. But we have public partnerships with AT&T, Microsoft, and Gucci. We work with these organizations to bring our educational programs to communities they care about. This could be as simple as providing our educational program to schools in their target cities, to our content being housed on their platform to gain access to the millions of households they already impact. We're also working with Macro Studios to develop an original animated series based on our characters, The UnCommons.
In which of the following areas do you and your organization most need support?
Tony Weaver Jr. Founder, Weird Enough Productions