Marc Ecko’s impact is woven throughout pop culture, and now he’s using that influence to spark important conversations about education. Ecko’s clothing line, Eckō Unlimited, founded in 1993 and emblematic of ‘90s/early aughts culture, incorporated hip-hop and skater styles, and soon became universally recognizable by its rhino logo. Ecko soon went on to expand the brand, even helping found Complex magazine in 2002. XQ Super School, an initiative Ecko joined as a board member two years ago, reimagines high schools as creative and nurturing places focused on student growth and development.
Hebru Brantley’s art questions traditional views and encourages alternative thinking intertwined with nostalgia. Brantley applies different mediums (acrylic, oil, and watercolor) in his graffiti and mural work, to illustrate Afro-futuristic narratives about Chicago’s south side. Notable collectors of his work include Rahm Emmanuel, JAY-Z, and Beyoncé. For XQ Super School Live, Ecko and Brantley have teamed up to create an immersive event, where attendees in seven different cities will experience a storytelling tour that explores why change is necessary in public high school systems. Ecko is on the board of XQ Institute while Brantley serves as Creative Chair.
Super Schools were inspired by the economic and racial disparities in education nationwide. Since the 1900s, the formula for high school education has remained virtually unchanged. In a world full of technological advances and higher expectations in the job market, students are not being armed with the necessary tools for navigating and succeeding life after high school ends. The Super School Project aims to challenge educators to reimagine what high school could, and should, look like, via hands-on community engagement and an emphasis on nurturing creativity.
Since the project launched in 2015, 19 schools have been transformed into Super Schools. We spoke with Ecko and Brantley about their involvement with XQ Super School and their goals for the program with Pop-Up magazine (tickets are still available for some cities).
Can you describe this event? How did you envision it, and what was your goal?
Ecko: XQ's goal is to help bring light to the need for complete high school redesign, and to drive that conversation. When you look at the stats in this country, particularly drop out rates, one in six ninth graders drop out before graduating. Something is going on where the actual product experience for our "consumers" of education—our students, our kids—aren't getting the fair end of the deal, and we're under-serving them. This is a storytelling event. We want to give you stories from local actors all around the country, who are doing the work of high school redesign, and hopefully people can learn what it means to redesign high school. Changing the way schools are built, how time is managed, how many periods a day, how many months a year. We want to show people that it's possible, and that you don't have to wait for the government to get it done.
One of the videos on the XQ website mentions that cars and other things in our society have changed, but school hasn't. A classroom pretty much looks the same and functions the same way as it did in the ‘50s.
Ecko: That's right. Really, since 1910. This design happened at the turn of the last century, and at [that] time, Andrew Carnegie called for the Great American High School transformation. The Carnegie unit was born, and pretty much nothing has changed since then. How the student hour is organized, the student week—other industries don't have those kinds of constraints. Why are we so nostalgic [for that tradition]? To what end, and what is the impact of that nostalgia?
What can people do to get the most out of this experience? Both people who are attending, and people who aren’t.
Ecko: Our hope is that people are, one, entertained. That might sound trite, but I think the most educational moments in my life have been the ones that have been the most entertaining, the most engaging. Hopefully people will learn about these insights, be engaged, and just connect with one another. One of our big calls to action is just for people to get engaged with school boards. If you ask most people, "Who serves on your school board?" Most people don't know. The actual voter turnout for school board elections are horrendously low. People just are not engaged with this topic, so one of the insights we'll be sharing with folks is how to get engaged with all that work. We're filling the room with all the local groups that do this kind of work, so we can demystify it.
What were some transformative high school experiences you had that impacted your desire to do this? Positive or negative.
Ecko: You don't know [experiences] are transformative when you're living through them. It's usually with some age and some grace and a little life, that you have [the] perspective to understand how [experiences] shape you. Lakewood High School in Lakewood, New Jersey in the ‘80s was a very special time and place. It was diverse, it was when hip-hop culture was emerging. I think the circumstances of my geography, my environment, the composition of my school shaped me for the rest of my life.
I had one teacher who I used to almost make fun of. She used to be a broken record, saying, "If you ink it, you think it. If you ink it, you think it." I used to think that was so trite and corny. I didn't have perspective on that while I was young. [Now] I take a lot of pride in writing things down with my hands. So what sounded like a bumper sticker at the time, I have found myself saying.
Brantley: Outside of certain teachers who made my creative endeavors possible, [others] definitely were ill-equipped to do anything beyond, "Here's some markers. Here's a pencil. Draw some shit.” It was counter to what Marc's experience was, where I felt like this old system and this old way of doing things was dated, and it felt like there was nothing to learn from what was being put in front of me. I was told that in order to achieve a certain thing in my life, I had to go through this system, I had to learn these things. A lot of [it was] useless knowledge, and the stuff that I was interested in only went but so far. I spent time circling the drain, but never exploring it.
Ecko: That’s real. [In] high school, a lot of kids don't as much drop out as much as they check in somewhere else. The relevance and engagement is low. The product experience—that sounds vulgar, calling it a product. I don't want to reduce how we learn to a product, but [compared to] any other user experience, [high school] is not the most engaging.
A student-centered high school is the main focus of Super Schools, which is really powerful commentary on the current state of high schools. When do you feel students stopped being the focus of their own education?
Ecko: The ultimate testament to the success and or failure of the systems should be what the system yields. All the numbers are showing us that the [current high school] system is struggling. A lot of changes have happened in the educational system for kindergarten through eighth grade, but when you look at the drop off in high school, it's daunting. I mean this with love and respect for teachers, because teachers are some of the most heroic people out there, but the system was mostly built for adults.
How do you give agency and voice to these kids, learning by doing? Our kids go through a lot. [Some of] their living conditions are really hard. In school, we bring them an experience [that suggests] life is all about problem solving—but then school isn’t. If kids don't pass high school algebra, that is a marker. That and their zip code could pretty much tell you what's going to happen for the rest of their lives. That shouldn't be that way.
What sparked this collaboration?
Ecko: I'm a huge fan of Hebru's work. I think he is a really important creative voice. His play on nostalgia is very befitting to our challenges—challenging it, taking the piss out of nostalgia a little bit. I thought [working with Brantley] would be an amazing opportunity for us to be able to work with Hebru, and that he was someone who could help us bridge these conversations.
Brantley: It's a mutual admiration. Not to date Marc, but I grew up on what he was putting down. The early days of Ecko [Unlimited], that was everything, especially for visual kid like myself. It was the culture—hip-hop, anime, cartoons, comics. It was all of that in one, and it was apparel. To help engage with a younger audience in a way that is meaningful and intentional, and to use my work to help push that platform, is poignant and needed.
I was never a school kid. I did just enough to get by to keep my parents off my ass. I never felt like I learned much in school. It was more about what I focused on outside of school, the things that I really, really liked and appreciated. Someone, some force, some group, they have to start to shake things up in this space. To me, this seems like a very smart way to approach it. I'm all in.
Hebru, you mentioned that you weren't really like a school kid and you were focused on art and other stuff. What do you think is a solution for kids who have that same mentality? In your ideal world, what would be incorporated into schools?
Brantley: When cutbacks come, art is the first thing to go. Art is equally, if not more, important [than other subjects]. Art can mean so many different things, from being a graphic designer, to a game designer, to working in marketing, to [being] a visual artist like myself, a painter, a sculptor. Also, understanding the business of art, understanding intellectual property, how to value your creative so that you're not giving up all of your assets, and how to step out into the world and understand how to work within companies and deadlines and all of those [things]. Artists are the creators of the spark of revolution. But that's something that we've lost, and it needs to be further nurtured. I think that's what could be a part of the dialogue in schools now.
Ecko: There’s so much uncertainty happening in the job market—robotics, automation, AI, et cetera—but you can't replace an artist. It's a human to human algorithm. The system puts such an emphasis on STEM, with really good intentions. I don't want to trivialize [those subjects]. But a lot of people say STEAM, where the A is Arts in STEM. With XQ, one of our design principles is deeper learning [in high schools], and a real emphasis on problem solving.
Is there part of the experience that you think people will react to most?
Ecko: I think when you walk in, and [see] the installation experiences that Hebru has helped us build, and the stories and insights from folks all around the country, and the real community building at the end... I mean, we're not letting any politicians speak. It's none of that. This is all community-first. I feel like it's going to feel very local, and that’s really special; every show is going to be unique because of that. The proceeds from ticket sales go to all the local actors, like the local host committee organizations on the ground.
We live in a time when real creatives engage in the space, and offer their resources and their time and their intellect in the actual work. We've waited and watched the government try to figure it out, [but] it's going to take inventors and artists to make the creative disruptions that are necessary for change. There's a lot of opportunity out there for innovation, and hopefully people will get that from seeing us work on this together.