We never set out to change the world. The Keep A Breast Foundation began as a small effort to build a community through the arts. This is essentially the core of our mission today.
As a young designer in the skateboard industry in the 90s, KAB Founder Shaney jo Darden fell in love with skating’s creative, “do it yourself” culture. Skateboarding was more of a creative scene than an industry, and Shaney jo quickly realized that it was the artists, designers and eccentrics that drove its evolution. She saw a natural breeding ground for awareness and communication.
In 1998, Shaney and friend Mona Mukherjea- Gehrig decided to tap into this energy. They organized a series of homegrown art and fashion events showcasing the work of friends, coworkers and local kids from the action sports scene.
The response was phenomenal, and that one event became Modart, a grassroots arts curating and event organizing group. Modart’s mantra was Creative Action Breeds Active Creation, and Shaney and Mona were able to bring a global community of well-known street artists, fine artists and graphic designers together for a series of well-attended gallery events that began to attract attention far beyond Southern California.
In 1999, Shaney and Mona learned that a young friend and artist had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Shaney knew she wanted to raise awareness in support her friend. Yet as she looked to existing breast cancer charities for ideas and inspiration, she found groups that were geared towards older women. Nothing resonated with the creative energy of action sports culture. She decided to stick with Modart’s model of bringing people together through progressive art.
The result was Keep A Breast, a unique art concept developed by Shaney and Mona to capture and communicate the physical and emotional challenges of breast cancer. Shaney enlisted a group of female volunteers, and wrapped their upper torsos in strips of plaster-soaked gauze. Once hardened and removed, these white plaster forms were distributed to Modart artists, to be used as blank canvasses. The result was a series of customized breast casts.
In 2000, the first breast casts were officially showcased in an exhibition called Keep A Breast. It featured casts of pro female snowboarders, painted by artists such as Shepard Fairey and Ed Templeton. This signaled a shift toward an arts-oriented breast cancer awareness organization with a new mantra: Art. Education. Awareness. Action.
For the next few years, Keep A Breast shows were organized across the U.S. and throughout Europe, with growing participation by celebrity castees and artists. The first breast casts were auctioned in 2002, with proceeds directed to breast cancer charities. The success of these art benefits, highlighted by artists emerging from the skateboarding, music and action sports scenes, put breast cancer awareness on the map for a younger generation.
However awareness was not enough. Through her involvement in breast cancer outreach, Shaney jo soon realized that no one was truly reaching young people with breast cancer education and support. Existing organizations were not operating at the cultural level of teens and twenty-somethings. In response, she developed a series of educational programs that attempted to reach youth “in their comfort zones.” This was the origin of a series of unique, interactive teaching efforts such as the mobile Travelling Education Booth and Check Your Self! breast self-exam cards.
On May 11, 2005, The Keep A Breast Foundation was granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Today, KAB has demonstrated that it is a new nonprofit model, one that assumes that today’s young people are articulate, critical and ready to establish their identities through meaningful action. Through our partnerships with young cancer survivors, and our Ambassadors program with celebrity athletes, artists and musicians, we’ve achieved a balance of shared experience and effective messaging. We’re proud that we’ve shown that our communities are defined as much by the contributions of young people as that of adults.
Proof of this is in the hundreds of stories we receive of young people inspired to act by our programs and campaigns. These are actions at all levels, from a single teen overcoming her fear of comforting a relative with breast cancer, to a group of students organizing a successful breast casting support group. In Pennsylvania in 2010, two girls age 12 and 13 were suspended from school for wearing KAB awareness bracelets. They sued their school district, organized a response campaign and rallied for the support of the ACLU. In 2011, a U.S. District Judge ruled in their favor.
Stories like these continue to motivate us every day.