Breaking into the art and music industry certainly isn’t easy. But with the help of Green Pines Media, Deena Saunders-Green hopes that for former foster youth, the process will be a little bit easier.
With a background in social work, as well as having worked with young adults as they aged out of the system in San Bernardino County, Saunders-Green is no stranger to the barriers that face many former foster youth, and the limits of what the system can offer them.
“They would turn 18, and basically, it was like, ‘OK, have a nice life, good luck with that,’” Saunders-Green said. “Over half were becoming homeless. They were getting involved with the criminal justice system.”
By the time many youth reached the agency Saunders-Green worked with, which was a nonprofit with a transitional housing program, many had experienced “dozens and dozens of different placements” while in foster care, she said.
“A lot of the services that we were trying to provide may have made sense on paper, but it didn’t resonate with most of the youth,” she said.
Many youth didn’t necessarily share the goals of the programs they participated in, such as attending college—particularly those who were artists and creatives, said Saunders-Green.
“I did not grow up in foster care. I had a very supportive family, but it took me 15 years to get a four-year degree because I was kind of a knucklehead,” Saunders-Green said. “Some people just need time. … I needed to live life before going to college to understand why I needed college.”
To expect young people aging out of foster care, some of whom have never had a say over their lives, to automatically be prepared for college, isn’t always realistic, nor is expecting young people to work at jobs that feel unfulfilling and can barely pay the bills, said Saunders-Green.
After Saunders-Green left traditional social work to instead become a foster parent to teens and a writer, one day, she received a message from a young woman she used to work with.
“She was like, ‘Hey, Miss Deena, I’m doing pretty good, I have an apartment, I have a job, I have a car, but I’m a little short on rent. Do you know of any agency that can help?’ And of course, nothing was available,” said Saunders-Green.
After hiring the young woman as a consultant on the book Saunders-Green was working on (while fictionalized, it was based on the young people she had worked with), “she basically said, ‘Miss Deena, why are social workers so clueless? … Instead of trying to teach life skills, or teach us something related to creativity, or something that we can do on our own, you keep trying to give us these jobs (like) retail that are never going to pay our bills, and as a creative, that kills your soul. Why can’t you guys do something with art?’”
“I didn’t have an answer, because she was absolutely right,” Saunders-Green said.
After realizing that youth needed a source of income that resonated with them, even if it was gig work, the idea for Green Pines Media was ignited.
Initially, Green Pines Media was conceptualized to be a publishing and podcast company, to hopefully empower young adults to share their own stories, but Saunders-Green quickly realized that this wasn’t the type of company that young people were looking for.
While on a speaking engagement to discuss her book, a woman in the audience raised her hand and asked, “‘You wrote a book. I don’t read. What else do you have?’” Saunders-Green recalled. “Apparently I should have asked the youth—of course, novel idea—what are they interested in?”
Although Saunders-Green knew she had to pivot the company away from indie publishing and podcasting, the idea of monetizing creativity continued to gnaw at her.
Saunders-Green returned to graduate school to study business, and her idea for social entrepreneurship—essentially a traditional business that works to solve a social problem—began to blossom, now with a new direction in mind: music and art.
“Instead of doing traditional social work, which is like more case management, and all of the negative things, I wanted to do social work that we don’t hear about a lot, which is more advocacy and empowerment, not necessarily all the bureaucracy and all of the rules and all of that,” Saunders-Green said.
While there are many youth with talent who are already creating music or art, they may not know how to monetize it or much about entrepreneurship, Saunders-Green said.
With its new mission, and a new name, Green Pines Creative Inc., the organization hopes to fill that gap.
Although the company initially began operating out of a coworking space, Saunders-Green quickly realized that the company needed its own building where artists, specifically former foster youth, would feel comfortable, she said. Plus, the space could be utilized by the larger community for events and coworking, while serving as the company headquarters.
As the company began to release original music, create artwork, and sell merchandise under the Green Pines Media brand (Green Pines Creative Inc. is the parent company) throughout the pandemic, Saunders-Green searched for the perfect space, eventually acquiring a 10,000-square-foot facility in Downtown Long Beach in 2021.
“I just didn’t realize it would take 14 months for us to actually be able to open our doors,” Saunders-Green said.
Amid months of getting the building reclassified and improved, which came with numerous pandemic-related delays—setbacks which ultimately cost about $85,000—artists from the community began to create murals and bring the space to life. The Green Pines Creative Coworking and Events space (owned by the Green Pines Creative Inc. brand) officially opened its doors in February of this year.
Since then, the event space has sold out nearly every weekend. The building has also hosted a number of exhibits for artists, which has been particularly special for former foster youth who have never publicly displayed their art before, Saunders-Green said.
Its coworking spaces, including private rooms, semi-private offices, and workstations, can be utilized on an hourly, daily, or monthly basis (foster care alumni and transition age youth receive discounted rates). The building, though, is not strictly for foster care alumni—but for any creative or entrepreneur who wants to support Green Pines’ mission of helping artists impacted by systems such as foster care, Saunders-Green said.
Members receive access to the building’s facilities, plus workshops, events, business and personal development, and even an on-site therapist.
“It’s really teaching life skills, just using art, music and entrepreneurship,” Saunders-Green said. “I think that’s been the most powerful thing. And of course, paying people when we have the ability.”
At this point, about 12 former foster youth have worked consistently with Green Pines Media, from receiving support with sync licensing and working to get their music into television, film, video games or advertisements, to having their art licensed by Green Pines. Green Pines licenses artists’ work on a project-by-project basis, and profits are split, so artists are able to learn the process and then move forward without the company in the future, Saunders-Green explained.
As everything is self-funded at the moment, Saunders-Green hopes that the event and coworking space will continue to grow, eventually making the business profitable, she said.
“I want to see people out there who maybe have a passion for entrepreneurship, look at social enterprise, because I think that’s a way to really make a sustainable impact in our community,” Saunders-Green said. “I strongly believe we can all win if we do it the right way.”
And eventually, she hopes to be able to offer even more to foster care alumni and transition age youth.
Currently, Saunders-Green is considering the possibility of purchasing the building in the future, which could potentially expanding to offer micro apartments or mixed-use housing.
And although the Downtown space is still newly opened, an even bigger space may be in Green Pines’ future, Saunders-Green said.
“There are so many requests we get for things like a ghost kitchen, or a communal kitchen,” said Saunders-Green, who would also love to have a stage and more recording space for artists. A larger building (Saunders-Green has about 30,000 square feet in mind) would also allow Green Pines to host bigger events, which are also frequently requested—currently, its largest event room can only accommodate up to 76 people.
While it’s unclear what the future could hold, whether it’s purchasing the current building or finding a larger home for Green Pines Media, “we want to be bigger,” Saunders-Green said. “When it comes to creativity, the sky’s the limit.”
“It took us five, six years to find this (building), so it may take another five or six years to find something larger, but I don’t know,” Saunders-Green said. “We’re just trying to listen to our target market and see what they’re looking for and what their needs are.”
Not only does working with Green Pines empower youth to move forward in creative careers, but Saunders-Green hopes that it will also play a role in combating the stigma that can face those who were in the child welfare system.
“When people walk through these doors … it’s all about the creativity, the art, the music,” and not about being labeled as someone who was in the system, Saunders-Green said.
“We work really, really hard to try to remove that (stigma),” she added. “And just, you know, make it a space for everyone who is a creative or an artist, who appreciates art or music, to come in and just enjoy and build community.”
The Green Pines Creative Coworking & Events space is located at 129 W. Fifth St. For more information, visit its website.