When Jubilanté Cutting was 17, she watched some Trinidadian teens present an idea for an animated computer game featuring doubles, a popular street food that consists of fried flat bread filled with curried chickpeas.
"I saw investors in the room say, 'Hey we love your idea," she says. "Meet us afterward so we can discuss how we can give you the funds.' "
That was in 2014, when she attended an Animae Caribe festival in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean's biggest gathering for animators. And she was surprised by how easy it was for young, creative minds to make meaningful connections with people in the industry to get their ideas funded.
"That was the moment I said to myself, 'When you go back to Guyana, you need to have a platform for young people like this,' " she says.
At 19, Cutting used her savings — mostly birthday money and contributions from family and friends totaling $100 — to start a nonprofit called the Guyana Animation Network (GAN). She wanted to cultivate a generation of young animators in Guyana by offering workshops on animation skills and software like Adobe Illustrator. She also runs events like "Creating Creative Connections," where aspiring animators can meet people working in animation.
It's not a replacement for studying animation in school, but it's a way for people to get inspiration to pursue animation, receive some training and possibly find a job opportunity, she says of GAN.
"I anticipated that it would be a risk and usually risks are worth taking. But I did not anticipate the level of success that I'm seeing," says Cutting. The group has provided animation training on skills like digital painting to 274 youth at summer camps, events and schools.
In December, less than two years after starting her nonprofit, Cutting was selected from among 300 candidates to receive a Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Award, run by a nonprofit called Civicus, for her work with youth.
Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the U.N. and current chair of The Elders, an NGO that also helped organize the Innovation Awards, commended Cutting for her "great courage and conviction, reaching thousands who are even younger than herself."
Cutting isn't actually an animator. But she's passionate about helping youth. Since she was 16, she knew she wanted to start an organization of her own. At the time, she was volunteering for other organizations, helping to plan fundraisers and activities. On Sundays, she would visit orphanages where many children had survived sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She mentored and read to them.
"There is a lot of untapped potential" in animation, says Cutting. The University of Guyana, she says, "does not offer it as a course. We don't have access to studio equipment." And the country has only a few animation studios.
More than half of the tropical nation's population is under the age of 25. Yet according to the World Bank, about 26 percent of people in the country age 15 to 24 are unemployed.
The 21-year-old, who divides her time between GAN and earning a bachelor's degree in legal studies at the University of Guyana, is trying to change that.
Dorielle Retemeyer says Cutting, whom she knew from school, convinced her to take a two-hour bus ride to a GAN event on the video game industry, featuring Caiphus Moore, a successful Trinidadian-American animator. The 19-year-old was encouraged.
"Meeting someone who is capable of bringing their characters to life intrigued me. Animation in the Caribbean isn't sought after, nor is the arts really paid any attention to," says Retemeyer. She moved to Canada to live with her father and now attends a Canadian schools for animation.
Eight GAN members have found jobs in the animation industry or a related field, says Cutting. One of them is Jumal Sam, a self-taught animator who was 18 when he joined the organization in 2016 (dues are $12 a month). No one in his family had work at the time, and Cutting connected him with a Guyana IT firm called Intellect Storm. The company provides marketing services to people, businesses and government agencies. Sam interviewed with the CEO and was hired as the company's first animator.
One of his early assignments was to create a 3-D children's booklet that explained Guyana's parliament. "It was my dream job. To get it at the age of 18 — that means a lot," says Sam.
A few of the GAN members work for Nancy's School Daze, a Guyana cartoon for kids that deals with issues in school.
Another part of Cutting's mission is to help Caribbean countries tell their own stories. She likes that Hawaiian-born actor Auliʻi Cravalho did the voice for the lead character, a Polynesian adventurer, in Disney's Moana. She wants to help create a Caribbean industry "where our own people will able to contribute to animations about our culture," she says.
According to Nic Mackay, who coordinated the Innovation Awards, Cutting stood out among all the award entries. "For a young woman of color to be not only leading an organization but working in an area that is normally dominated by older men — a lot of her work is challenging stereotypes."
Sasha Ingber is a multimedia journalist who has covered science, culture and foreign affairs for such publications as National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine and Smithsonian. Contact her @SashaIngber