January 14, 2015

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Brandon Keelean’s Together+

What are you working on—on the side?

Right now, I’m in the middle of creating a children’s book addressing the stigma of HIV in communities throughout South Africa titled “Growing Together.” I wrote the book alongside Jacqueline Hull and am working with a wonderful illustrator, Jenelle Huddleston. The book tells the story of Khulani, a young caterpillar ostracized at his new school because of his disease. Khulani is HIV-positive like more than 6 million people in South Africa, and he struggles to find acceptance among the other bugs who mistakenly believe his disease is a curse. The story culminates in a school-wide soccer match during which Khulani is finally able to prove himself. With the guidance of the school headmaster, Fr. Mantis, the other bugs come to understand they should treat Khulani with the respect he deserves.

The book is an initiative created as part of Together+, and is actually the second in a series. The first, titled “Blooming Together,” was written by two of my former classmates at Notre Dame and tells the story of four flowers whose journeys parallel those of refugees living in South Africa.

Together+ started as a campaign created by my classmates and myself at the request of the Johannesburg-based Kgosi Neighbourhood Foundation while I was still a student at Notre Dame. Since then, it has expanded into an organization that helps facilitate design-driven projects to improve communities.

Right now, we’re working on a project to address poor indoor air quality due to combustion heating—a serious issue in poorer Johannesburg neighborhoods and throughout the world. The World Health Organization has a great primer on the subject if you want to learn more.

How do you manage to work 
on your side project(s)?

I have a great team. I couldn’t do it without them. In addition to Jacqueline and Jenelle, I work directly with my former design professor Robert Sedlack; Paul Horn, Executive Director of Kgosi Neighbourhood Foundation; Andréa Pellegrino, a social impact strategist and principal at Pellegrino Collaborative; and Jimena Holguin, Program Manager for Community-based Research at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. When life gets busy or I run out of capacity, I always have people to fall back on.

Over the years, countless others have been involved in this project. There are too many people to list individually, but Together+ owes many thanks to our partner organizations in South Africa who have supported us, including Cotlands, Médecins Sans FrontièresAfrican Center for Migration and Society at the University of the Witswatersrand, Dominican Convent School, and The Catholic Institute for Education.

I also owe thanks to Sappi and their Ideas That Matter program. Together+ was awarded $40,000 in September to cover the material and production costs for “Growing Together.”

Why have side projects?

It’s uncommon that a project touches your heart, but this one did. And it continues to keep me grounded in the realities of the world. I have been fortunate enough to travel to South Africa four times, for up to two months at a time, and it has been wonderful to connect deeply with the community in Jeppestown, a neighborhood of Johannesburg and where Kgosi Neighbourhood Foundation is located. The community faces challenges, sure. All communities do, and some of the situations community members face are heartbreaking. But the people I’ve met have some of the most uplifting spirits you could imagine. It’s incredibly rewarding to work alongside a community so full of life and positivity. They are my motivation.

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Diptych courtesy of Brandon Keelean.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

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