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Kickin’ Facts | Black leaders of the sneaker industry demand more than brands’ “Black Lives Matter” posts and donations

Over 200 Black and Brown designers, brand directors, execs, and more in the sneaker industry had a meeting to propose solutions in their field because the BLM posts they saw companies post are cute, but not enough.

Black Lives Matter hi top sneakers Etsy

“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.

The sneaker industry’s response to the revolution has been a frenzy of Black Lives Matter ads engulfing our feeds, accompanied by actionable strategies and declarations of support from our beloved sneaker brands. Yet according to 215 Black and Brown employees working in the industry, the statements were cute, the donations were kind, but they are still not enough.

The broken systems that regulate the sneaker industry have broken the silence of those employees (and more), who are ready to not only bring attention to the ways that it keeps Black people out but proposes a list of solutions to build a more equitable system. This is exclusively important for Black and Brown people in the thriving sneaker business, which notably would not exist, if not for us.

No one knows the Black sneaker industry experience better than former Nike executive and PENSOLE founder D’Wayne Edwards, who called a family meeting on Juneteenth for Black and Brown industry employees to begin planning the solution to the revolution. Responding to the emotional rollercoaster that most Black people are on, and the news coming out of Nike and Adidas, Edwards understood that it was essential to remove the brand separateness and create unity. Remembering the Black joy he felt through the community at the African-American Footwear Forum, he leaned into the platform to center the conversation, making it possible to take power back into our own hands.

“In 2018, we had the first African-American Footwear Forum in D.C., and it was the first time any of us [Black sneaker industry professionals] were in a room where we were not outnumbered. The energy of all of us being together was unlike anything we ever felt before, and I felt more than ever we needed that feeling back. We all were hurting from our individual experiences over the last few weeks, and we needed to be united.

In this industry, we are separated by brand logos, but, during this time, we need to come together as PEOPLE because our actions in this industry from this point forward will dictate the future of this industry for us, and we cannot let a logo mess that up. It’s time for us to come together, so we can unite a larger voice to offer up solutions on how we feel and what our industry should do as we pursue equality for the immediate and future.

We FINALLY have the industry’s attention, and they apologized with their words, made promises with their financial commitments, and I feel now it is on us to come together to hold them accountable, so we have a seat at the table. At the same time, we have to hold ourselves accountable to be the change we want to see.”

- Former Nike executive and PENSOLE founder D’Wayne Edwards

On the call were 215 Black sneaker retail store owners, designers, brand directors, content creators, investors, educators, HR managers, agency executives, and more. From Switzerland to California, we gathered for hours over Zoom on Juneteenth to share stories of triumph and trauma, much like our ancestors probably did (well, except for the Zoom). The intent? To generate a census of Black employees — because there’s power in numbers — appended by a menu of solutions to equip any employee at any business to petition for change.

Key areas of focus were immediately discovered, beginning with the most fundamental piece of business: The hiring pipeline.

Recruitment and Retention

One of the topline discussions was concerning the recruitment process where simply put, Black people can’t get in. While recruiters and hiring managers have goals set for other facets of diversity, according to former Reebok recruiter Darla DeGrace, there are few, if any, goals set for that at the brands she has experience with. With no incentive to diversify your hiring slate, and no opportunity to be upskilled on developing a diversity recruitment strategy, recruiters aren’t actively looking to fill positions with Black people. Then, we have to consider the added barriers to entry, such as hiring managers not seeing transferable skills, potential hiring biases for ethnic-sounding names, or having to be overqualified with a degree from a respectable institution. At the same time, as noted by DeGrace:

“...our white counterparts frequently show up with nothing but potential. But, when it comes to diverse hires, you’re basically looking to fill junior roles with overqualified, highly educated, experienced, and accomplished Black professionals.”

We see the effects of that in Nike’s 2019 Diversity numbers, which are not pleasant to look at. Under 10% of Nike’s vice presidents identified as Black, moreover, only 4.8% of Nike’s directors were reported to be Black. Adidas reports similar numbers in their organization, with less than 5% of employees at the brand’s North American Headquarters identifying as Black and the issues so widespread that Black employees recently presented their leadership with a State of Emergency.

“As the only person of color filling these spaces, you take on the heavy responsibility of being expected to represent your ENTIRE culture while simultaneously, working twice as hard as your counterparts, in a sense to unconsciously break the criticism of “Oh she’s a diversity hire” when in reality you are well capable.”

- Alicia Pinckney, Global Apparel Designer

For the Black people who make it through the multiple barriers to entry and actually become an employee, retention swiftly becomes a problem. With few people who look like you in the office and few Black people in leadership roles who can advocate on your behalf, the work environment often fails to support feedback culture, while serving as breeding grounds for toxic engagements and daily microaggressions.

“The industry won’t save us. Brand reactions to BLM that I’ve seen are at best well-intentioned and performative, and at their worst, flat out lies that gaslight Black employees and reinforce white supremacy. As Black employees in the sneaker industry know all too well — regardless if you’re one of the many on the retail floor or the select few in the corporate office — few brands seem to be focusing on the retention of their Black employees. And it’s been that way since the jump. That’s why, for a lot of us, we felt the need to make our own spaces - or quit.”

- Heather White, Former Head of Lifestyle Marketing, New Balance; Current Head of Marketing, INBOUND, and CEO of TrillFit, Inc.

Edwards used the Juneteenth call to channel the anger and lean into solutions, understanding that we are in a time of crisis, and while we must continue to fight the system, we need to also help ourselves. The call to action was first directed at us, as individuals, who need to do a better job of not only looking after our own within the confines of these companies, but also connect with allies and mentors from all backgrounds who can help us navigate the path to success. Cultural education was powerfully advocated for as well, opening doors of understanding and empathy, replacing judgment and racial missteps. Edwards also encouraged the idea of a personal business plan: The concept of handling ourselves, as Black individuals, as our own brand. This means setting our own KPIs, projecting our own growth, monitoring our own progress, and identifying who our partners need to be to continue to strengthen that personal brand.

Community and Support

With headquarters of the major players in the sneaker industry situated in cities with prominent racial tensions, building a community for aspiring Black industry professionals — who often have to relocate to said cities to elevate in their career — has been beyond challenging. Questions like, “Where can I get a fade?” and, “Who knows a Black therapist?” are continually at the top of the list for new hires, sparking the AAFF call attendees to further support a Black community Green Book of sorts to be created for both Portland and Boston.

When speaking of community, it goes both ways. Aside from establishing the feeling of one where there is none, there was a reverberating call for the brands to increase what community involvement looks like from their seat. It’s time for sneaker companies to do more than just give additional dollars to existing programs that have already been developed. They need to immerse themselves in the Black cultural experience and education system — through HBCUs and beyond. Creating programs and spaces that support us entering the pipeline is the first step to shifting our position as Black people from consumers to contributors to the growing sneaker industry.

Because all we need is access.

The sneaker industry’s existence alone is proof that we been had the juice.

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