In December 2018, the small but mighty team behind dfrntpigeon — an apparel brand led by at-risk youth and operated by local nonprofit New Avenues for Youth — opened its own holiday pop-up shop inside downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place mall for the second year running.
At the store, small racks filled with dfrntpigeon (pronounced “different pigeon”) merchandise were organized by collection. Products lined the store’s walls, with imagery like witchy tarot card-inspired designs, a stoic Black woman named “Lady Liberty” rocking an earth-shaped beret and afro, and the slogan, “Cinnamon Rolls, not Gender Roles.”
Youth-designed notebooks, coffee cups and matte stickers populated several tables, and the white walls were covered with floor-to-ceiling images from the social enterprise’s #everyBODYcampaign photoshoot. A rainbow-colored wreath hung in the window with the words “Believe Survivors” floating at its center.
The origins of dfrntpigeon
Since opening in 1997, New Avenues for Youth (NAFY) has offered numerous services for young people experiencing homelessness in Portland, including a drop-in day center, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and foster care transition support.
Beyond building job skills and placement opportunities, the organization provides hands-on job training and mentorship through two social purpose enterprises. One is a partnership with ice cream shop Ben & Jerry’s, operating two downtown scoop shops. The others are screen printing and graphic design business New Avenues INK and (as of 2016) the apparel brand dfrntpigeon.
The impact of dfrntpigeon
The collective behind dfrntpigeon fluctuates in size depending on contract work opportunities and forthcoming collections. As of late 2018, it is maintained by a crew of about six members between 18 and 25 years old. Business manager Anna Coghill, 21, first came to Portland from California when she was 10 years old, fleeing an unsafe father with other family members. In her teens, Coghill faced housing insecurity on her own.
“That’s part of what binds the dfrntpigeon family together — we’ve all had unique, kind of traumatic childhoods,” Coghill says. “Instead of letting it drag us down, we’re trying to create something beautiful and powerful.”
Before she became a business manager, Coghill reentered the workforce by scooping ice cream at one of NAFY’s Ben & Jerry’s shops. After working her way through various roles there, Coghill was ready for new challenges. She modeled for dfrntpigeon then became a copywriter and later marketing director within the span of a year.
Today, Coghill is also working toward transferring to a four-year university to earn a degree in communications and advertising. While it’s her second time entering college, this will be the first time entering with a clear sense of herself and a future.
“When I was 17, we were going through a lot of changes in my family. I didn’t have much going for me,” Coghill says. “I had gone to college and dropped out and I didn’t know what to make of my life. I dove into a wild rock-and-roll lifestyle, was living on my own for the first time, [and] I wasn’t really paying attention to my future. I lost myself for a year in that. That’s when I started at New Avenues. I wanted to get back to working and taking care of myself and feeling like a valuable member of society.”
The evolution of dfrntpigeon
In summer 2018, Coghill became the enterprise’s first youth business manager. (The position had been historically held by community partners already working in design.) In the few short years since dfrntpigeon started, they’ve changed their business model in major ways to further the impact and opportunity for youth.
There’s more work for youth now, and they earn hourly wages for time spent in meetings, working on art for the collective outside of meetings, and any hours dedicated to receiving mentorship. Celebrated designers from companies like AKQA and Adidas have donated their time and support.
Coghill envisions dfrntpigeon as a direct pipeline into the creative field, which she sees as “very classist” and lacking diversity. But even through myriad changes past and future, dfrntpigeon’s name and directive remain the same.
“Pigeons,” says Coghill. “They’re considered dirty, they’re often overlooked, and people don’t really pay much mind to them. Unfortunately, that’s the experience of youth homelessness. We wanted to take that association and flip that on its head by making it a powerful, positive thing… It’s not just a business, it’s not just a brand. This is a community.”
Where to buy dfrntpigeon products
In addition to running various pop-up shops throughout the year, dfrntpigeon can be found designing, printing and stocking goods inside the New Avenues INK headquarters in Northwest Portland. Monday through Friday, visitors are encouraged to stop by, chat with staff and purchase products.
“Where else can you walk into a business and see where every step of the design and creation process is happening right before your eyes?” asks Coghill. “You’re watching the youth get hands-on experience and in a way, you’re watching their lives change. I can say for sure that it’s changed my life … I like to think I did part of it myself, but [NAFY] was definitely the beginning of a change in my life and I’m very grateful to the nonprofit for that.”