Written by Rachel Kirkwood

“I’ve been drawing forever, man – ever since I came out the womb!” Bernell nods and lets out a laugh. Born and raised in New Orleans, “a hub for art of all kinds,” he is grateful to have been surrounded by family who encouraged him to pursue his artistic talents.

His devotion to his family is made crystal clear as he pages through detailed portraits of his loved ones, drawn with intricate detail and a touch of personal style. He flips to a black and white drawing of his 8-year-old daughter and her aunt, who wear matching soft smiles: 

 “Her aunt was actually killed right before she was born and my daughter is named after her. So, this is like a collage – it’s not based on a real picture.”

The thick pages of his notebook are a memorial to Bernell’s loved ones. 

“Art comes from the soul, you know,” Bernell reflects, “and even when that soul is gone, that art is still here.”

Bernell gazes at a drawing of two men with calm eyes: his cousin and late uncle. 

Today, he wears one of his custom denim jackets, which displays a hand-painted logo across his back.

He says his logo is his most personal piece of art. Bubble letters spell “inspiration,” “adversity,” “connected,” among other powerful words, drawn in the frame of a man, shedding tears from the eye cut-outs of a ski mask. 

Bernell says that each word has a unique definition in the context of his journey.

“I was actually in a jail cell when I drew that,” he remembers.

His logo was born in the stressful circumstance of transferring prison locations. Bernell remembers staying in lock down all day every day, during this transfer, and all he could think to do was put his soul on the paper. 

My mind was never in prison,” he says.

    After time spent away from his roots, Bernell returned to New Orleans. As he reconnected with his family and hometown, he realized that the resilience of our unique city is threatened by the impacts of major weather events and climate change. Bernell realized his greater purpose when looking for a new career:

“I just wanted to be a part of bringing New Orleans back alive.”

With his intention set, he came across a new concept of “green infrastructure”: a form of construction that mitigates heavy flooding and aids our pump system in major storms. He was attracted to the idea of working in nature:

“I’m a virgo,” he shares his earth-based zodiac sign, “So, of course, I’m a plant guy. I love the earth. So, I wanted to be a part of saving the world… and I wanted to be a part of Green Infrastructure. Definitely.”

He immediately saw a future for himself and his city through this new, green lens. 

    Bernell found an on-ramp into this purposeful work through Thrive New Orleans. He applied to be part of the pilot cohort of the Thrive Works Green workforce training program, which aims to get locals, like him, into these high paying green jobs. Thrive’s Earn and Learn approach to this workforce training program makes it accessible to people facing barriers to employment who wouldn’t have the means to support themselves without a steady paycheck. 

     Bernell’s relentless optimism and dedication to sustainability made him a great fit for the program. He brightened the learning process for all 22 members of the cohort and easily found a place in the hearts of many members of the Thrive New Orleans family, specifically Thrive’s Executive Director, Chuck Morse. Bernell speaks highly of Chuck’s role in his life, saying “Chuck has been my father figure slash mentor slash friend slash boss slash everything. He grew his family to me.” He follows up with, “Thrive as a whole is just like family oriented. it’s not like work; it’s just more like family.”

    While he prepared to enter the green workforce, he continued to draw during lunch time and at every chance he could. When he showed some of his drawings to the green team, the Thrive family realized that, in a perfect world, Bernell’s career would combine both visual art and saving New Orleans from climate change. As the cohort approached graduation from the 8-week curriculum, Thrive’s team counseled each green trainee on the possible next steps and pathways that their training would create for their green careers. 

    Bernell reflects on this transitional moment of his career:

“I had to figure out what can I do so that I can make a living and love doing it? What’s better being an architect? And dealing with plants! A landscape architect. It was the best idea for me.”

Equipped with a Clean Water Certificate, TWIC, OSHA training, money in his pocket, and a newfound network of support, Bernell decided to pursue landscape architecture. He used Thrive’s partner network to connect to Magnolia Landscapes and Architecture. David, one of New Orleans’ premier landscape architects and a graduate of Thrive’s Green Business program, hired Bernell as an intern. His internship has been an incredible learning experience for him and David recently promoted him to the title of Supervisor, about which he says, “I think it gives me the chance to just experience the earth and how this actually works. And watch something come from nothing through an idea… and I love that.”

    Bernell also enrolled in Computer Aided Design Classes at Delgado Community College, where he is learning technical design softwares and impressing his professors.

    “In class, I drew for my CAD teacher and he was astonished because I don’t know nothing about this. I’m an undergraduate, you know… 34 years old, but in college. He’s like ‘How did you do this?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m an artist. I can see it!’”

     By the beginning of the Summer of 2021, Bernell was on his way towards owning his own landscape architecture business, but he was missing the business acumen he knew he would eventually need to be successful in the rising Green Infrastructure industry.

“I actually went to college for business but I didn’t finish,” he says. “So I wanted a refresher on the business aspect like overheads and just the things that keep a business running and prospering,”

which is why he joined our Thrive Launch Green Business Academy. Thrive’s team compares the green business academy to the green workforce training by saying it provides “more of a ‘Boss’ mentality than a ‘Labor’ mentality’” for those getting into green infrastructure. The business curriculum equips green entrepreneurs with the business acumen and financial know-how to maintain a successful business. The Thrive team is confident that – because of his mentality, determination, natural creative talent, love for the earth, and specialized green infrastructure knowledge & experience – Bernell will fleurish in New Orleans as a Landscape Architect.

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