Ever since she was able to write, Hannah Flores expressed her thoughts in written form. Whether it be poems or haikus, her thoughts flowed from pencil to paper but the restrictiveness of those formats never allowed the physical form of her expression to be perfectly encapsulated.

Seeking a better way, Flores was introduced to the art of spoken word by her teacher and her big turning point came when she did an extra class project for Black History Month and posted her first spoken word poem, “What Does History Sound Like?” on YouTube, highlighting the contributions of those past and present in the Black community who have contributed to advancing society.

“That turned everything around on the best note for me,” Flores said. “I found it very freeing that it was free verse and I could actually do whatever I wanted. I could write about what I was feeling. And I could hone in on my emotions and topics that I was passionate about. And that’s where I started falling in love with writing, spoken word poetry, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Just finishing up high school in Markham, Flores is among three finalists—including illustrator and designer Julius Campbell as well as graphic designer and photographer Trae Nguyen—of the Welcome Toronto Creators Program, an incubator established by the Toronto Raptors and OVO to help identify emerging BIPOC creators and artists. Each finalist was assigned one Welcome Toronto game, during which their story and art would be showcased across the Raptors’ social media platforms and during the broadcast.

“We were overwhelmed by the talent that emerged from the program and the creators made it very difficult for us to choose just three finalists,” said John Wiggins, Raptors vice president of organizational culture and inclusion. “This is the first year of the Welcome Toronto Creators program and we hope it will continue to provide opportunities for youth to express themselves through their art in the seasons to come.”

Trae Nguyen Welcome Toronto Creators Program
Image via MLSE

Nguyen’s father immigrated to Canada as a refugee and immediately fell in love with the game of basketball and sports sneakers. Growing up as a kid in Vancouver, Nguyen and her siblings were not only encouraged to play sports by their father, but he would in fact go all out to make sure they had the right kicks, a basketball hoop in the backyard, and enroll them in after-school programs to enjoy the game. After lighting that flame of passion for basketball, Nguyen’s father moved to Vietnam by the time his daughter was in high school, and Nguyen was pushed to get creative to keep playing her favourite sport.

“That’s the sad reality of some programs, is any higher level of basketball, you have to pay for it and it can become quite costly,” Nguyen said. “At that age, I just really wanted to play ball or dance, so it meant picking up a job and figuring out finances because, at this point, my mom was a single mom and I didn’t want to put that burden on her.”

Nguyen always loved taking photos, so much so that her cereal preferences were defined by which free camera Kellogg’s was offering inside specially marked boxes. A home video camera was love at first sight and she went around the house recording clips of random family moments as her parents were in the midst of a separation. She cut her first video using Windows Movie Maker at the age of 12—and when her older siblings were having a harder time coping with the reality of their parents’ situation, it was Trae’s clip that provided joy for them. That’s when it clicked. It was a hobby all through high school and when she had the opportunity to receive a post-secondary education, Ryerson’s sport media program allowed her passion for both sport and photography along with video editing to intersect and blossom into an internship with a Toronto agency named TierZero, with whom she continues to work with to this day.

Julius Campbell Welcome Toronto Creators Program
Image via MLSE

Campbell loved to draw as a child but gravitated towards sports, heavily invested in everything from soccer to baseball to basketball. Hanging out with a couple of friends as a 19-year-old, he learned about how they were studying animation and decided to pursue it at Sheridan College. His passion for animation runs deep, but he plays no favourites. Campbell’s next work is always intended to be his best and he’s a big believer in letting his work speak for itself. His Instagram shares nothing personal except his display picture, but beyond that it’s straight to business with all that he’s worked on.

Illustration via Julius Campbell

A Day 1 Raptor fan, nothing made him happier than knowing those across the border who had dissed and ignored the Toronto franchise for years could do nothing but begrudgingly accept and respect that the 2019 champs were from Canada. No matter the doubters, hard work will see its reward is a message that has been reinforced into Campbell’s mindset.

By putting his work at the forefront, Campbell hasn’t had to worry about being judged by the colour of his skin. And by being a part of the Welcome Toronto Creators Program, he hopes others like him see that there’s space for them in animation as well.

“I think it’s a positive thing where someone can see someone and relate,” Campbell said. “They can say, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I haven’t made it, I’m hustling just like them, so, it’s just who can hustle harder? Or, who can work smarter? That’s all it is. I’m no different. I’m glad that I’m able to showcase my work on this type of platform.”