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Graphic designer cites nonprofit for helping him jump-start career

by Kimberly Dishongh | September 18, 2022 at 2:35 a.m.
Kahlief Steele

Kahlief Steele had gotten used to hearing "no" in response to his ideas in school. Signing up for EAST lab opened up a world of yeses.

Steele, a 2011 graduate of Gravette High School in Benton County, took part in EAST --Environmental And Spatial Technology -- as a high school senior because he enjoyed working on computers.

"As a senior I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do or where I was going to go after high school, but I knew I liked to make art and make designs and really just do a bunch of things on the computer," says Steele who now lives in Bella Vista.

EAST, a nonprofit initiative established in 2001, gives students the opportunity to use technology, critical thinking and collaboration to solve problems in their schools and communities.

As part of their overall grade, Steele and his classmates were to come up with projects and create timelines that would help them see those projects to completion.

"My friends and I decided to make a series of [public service announcements] for the school," Steele says. "We had a great facilitator who let us self-initiate things. He let us make a lot of the decisions and manage the schedules and timelines and everything."

They worried that the project they proposed would be turned down, but they asked anyway -- and their teacher approved it.

"I was like, 'I don't know if we can do that,'" Steele says. "We brought it up to the facilitator, and he said, 'Yeah.'"

Instead of discouraging their idea, the facilitator told them they could use the program's camera and other equipment and that they could get access to certain areas when they needed to.

Steele and his group wrote scripts and filmed skits about cyber-bullying, violence in schools and substance abuse, and then edited their videos into final products that were streamed on the school's social media sites.

"We were a bunch of teenage boys, so they were kind of goofy but that really showed me that I could use art and design and really just technology to educate people in a way that would also be entertaining and meaningful," he says. "It was a really cool experience for me just because it was like, this is something that I can help the community with, even though it's kind of silly. It's something that people could really use and might be able to take something out of."

EAST Initiative is governed by a board, is funded through the Arkansas Department of Education and though donations from individual and corporate sponsors.

"Private donations primarily assist us with the EAST Student Scholarship, events like EAST Conference and EAST Seminar, funding student training opportunities, and upgrading technology in our programs," says Bradley Brewer, communications coordinator for EAST.

The program is present in about 270 schools, most of which are in Arkansas but a few of which are in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

"Due to our partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education, EAST is a lot more affordable for Arkansas public schools because of public grants, which are why they make up the large majority of programs," Brewer says.

In 2020, the Little Rock-based EAST Initiative established the EAST Student Scholarship, geared toward offering students who participate in EAST finance higher education.

"We are close to reaching the ability to add to the scholarships we award due to the consistent growth of our scholarship fund," Brewer says. "In addition to the EAST Student Scholarship that is awarded by us through our partnership with the Arkansas Community Foundation, we have partners that also award scholarships exclusive to EAST students, including the University of Central Arkansas, the University of Arkansas-Monticello, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Women's Foundation."

These EAST-related scholarship opportunities weren't available when Steele graduated, but after completing a year in the program, he decided to study graphic design at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo.

He works remotely as a graphic designer for Silverlake Design Studio in Conway, and he teaches at the Creative Institute, also in Conway. The studio, he says, specializes in small businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Growing up in Gravette, Steele was in the minority.

"My whole family is white, except for me," he says. "And I was raised in Gravette. I think there were maybe five Black kids in my high school. So thinking about Black history -- everything was really a personal experience for me, just learning about my history."

He says EAST not only helped him find a path to do the things that are important to him, it also gave him a leg up on college. By the time he arrived on a university campus he was already familiar with some of the pacing necessary to succeed. That benefit has continued long past his college days.

"I also still do a lot of things kind of on my own," Steele says. "Most of that stuff is more self-initiated research projects or awareness gigs, where I'm just trying to communicate and educate people through social media about certain things that are going on, whether they be with civil rights or Black history or that kind of thing."

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