Powered by Service: How Usher Inspired a Young Designer Post-Hurricane Katrina

10 Years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans,  Usher ignited a movement to help rebuild the city. Through his nonprofit organization, Usher’s New Look, Usher immediately engaged volunteers on the grounds. Following the aftermath, Usher’s New Look gathered other entertainers including Alicia Keys, T.I and Young Jeezy for a ‘Project Restart Concert’ held in Atlanta, which raised enough financial resources to provide rent and utility assistance for 1,000 youth and families in New Orleans.  At this time, Verneda White, now Founder of HUMAN INTONATION®, was a recent college grad from Cornell University. Read her story below to learn how Usher inspired her to follow her dreams and find her purpose amidst the tragedy.

“Ten years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina changed my life, my family and the lives of so many families across the Gulf Coast. I can recall like it was yesterday that moment when you know life will never be the same. My father grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, my mother from the Westbank, and my childhood memories are filled with all of my family coming together here in New Orleans, the hub of our most recent ancestry. Suddenly that stability was gone. While I was not present in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina landed, having just graduated from college and moved to New York City to start my career, I found that I could not merely watch from afar. I needed to contribute, to be a part of the healing process.

I struggled to gain a sense of what my contribution would look like, and after several rounds of brainstorming, I rallied a few friends and fellow creatives in my Brooklyn apartment to start hand painting t-shirts that we could use to raise awareness and funding in the aftermath of the storm. As our products began to blossom, it became critical to find the right organization to make our contributions to. While the work of non-profit giants is significant, creating a necessary critical mass, I knew I wanted our efforts to make an impact on a smaller to medium size organization that had its hands on the ground in New Orleans. I was fortunate that HandsOn New Orleans was brought to my attention by the charitable engagement of Grammy-winning R&B artist Usher.

verneda and usher sized (2)Through the power of celebrity and media, I first learned of HandsOn New Orleans’ work to connect volunteers to much-needed community service projects all across New Orleans while listening to an interview with Usher on the Steve Harvey Morning Show. It had been a year since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Enough time for the world to rally around the long road ahead to engage, empower, and transform the rebuilding efforts of New Orleans’ most devastated areas. In hearing Usher’s call to action, to roll up our sleeves, volunteer and support HandsOn New Orleans, I found myself on the right path. My research led me to Atlanta to HandsOn Network, the umbrella to HandsOn New Orleans, where the team quickly embraced our idea of using fashion to raise awareness and funding for their affiliate. We began to use our t-shirts as an incentive for those who contributed fifty dollars or more to HandsOn New Orleans, and it became all the more exciting to prepare for our first trip to volunteer.

In November 2006, I landed in New Orleans to complete three days of volunteer work over the Thanksgiving holiday with our first generation, hand painted ”Katrina: We Are Still Here” t-shirts in tow. The devastation was still so present as we took on projects ranging from helping families to clear out belongings from their water damaged homes, a Rubbermaid container of Christmas decorations sat in Katrina water for more than a year in the front hall closet, to debris removal along the empty lots on Delery St. It was challenging and intensive volunteer work that only began to scratch the surface of all that would need to be done to revitalize this great city. Yet in those challenges came beacons of light that shined on our efforts as worthwhile and effective, reminding us that the feat was not too great to move forward.

One such beacon was the outpouring of support received from the industry. While watching Usher on a satellite tour bringing the world’s attention to the work of HandsOn New Orleans, many would argue that raising awareness in the media would have been more than enough from a global influencer, but with Usher the media was only the beginning. I was thrilled when we learned that Usher would be joining us in our volunteer projects in the Lower Ninth Ward that weekend. My hope of course was to meet Usher and tell him about our charitable t-shirts. My hope became reality that afternoon when the team at HandsOn New Orleans introduced me to Usher who listened to our plans and took photo opts with me and our t-shirts. I did not expect to takeaway more from the encounter, but then the unexpected happened.

Meeting Usher and receiving his positive feedback had a profound effect on me. I suddenly felt there was a higher purpose that had been given to me and that our t-shirts had the potential to impact the lives of others worldwide. My mission was clear, my business set in motion, and a social entrepreneur I was destined to become.

It is our family’s experience and the experience of so many families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that became the inspiration and the genesis of my premium, charity-driven apparel brand HUMAN INTONATION® (www.humanintonation.com). Today, I still get excited to see how much we have evolved from those first hand-painted t-shirts into a comprehensive brand growing in its impact and reach including four apparel collections supporting a number of pertinent social & human rights issues, outreach, workshops, speaking engagements, and the opportunity to re-engage the community around our longest standing non-profit partner HandsOn New Orleans as we approach this milestone decade of service, volunteerism, and the resiliency of a city.”

There comes a moment for every aspiring entrepreneur that tells them to take their idea forward, that gives them energy, clarity and the unyielding determination to fuel its passionate mission. For me that moment came in November 2006, in the neighborhood where my father grew up, inspired in that moment with Usher made tangible.”

Resilient New Orleans Tee

Donate $50 or more today to receive a Hurrican Katrina 10 Year Anniversary shirt from HUMAN INTONATION & Hands On New Orleans.

Call to Action: Support New Orleans with BIG EASY GIVING via HUMAN INTONATION 

10 years later, we recognize the tremendous impact that 10s of 1000s of volunteer hours have made on the city of New Orleans, but it is clear our work is not finished. Verneda’s brand, HUMAN INTONATION, continues to support organizations like HandsOn New Orleans who are on the ground revitalizing New Orleans and uplifting the resiliency of its people. Support today by donating $50 or more to HandsOn New Orleans (http://www.handsonneworleans.org/Donate) and you will received this Resilient New Orleans t-shirt created by HUMAN INTONATION. 100% of proceeds will go to the volunteer and service projects of HandsOn New Orleans as we continue to engage, empower, and transform our communities.

Verneda Adele White is the Founder and Creative Director of HUMAN INTONATION®, a premium unisex apparel brand dedicated to raising awareness while donating 20 percent of each sale to today’s pertinent social & human rights issues. Her national platform of using fashion for social change extends to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, education for children in Darfur, the citizens of Haiti, and HIV/AIDS Prevention. Verneda has been featured in Huffington Post Black Voices, AOL/Levi’s Jeans “Shape What’s to Come” project, Uptown Magazine, and by Black Enterprise, while most recently she became the recipient of the Daily Points of Light Award from President George H.W. Bush for her innovation in service.