If Gucci and Prada Are Serious About Creating an Intentional Pathway for Black Children in America, Fashion Scholarships and Diversity Trainings Won’t Cut It. Here is Why.

Examining 1) the role the school-to-prison pipeline plays in the lack of diversity in the fashion industry and beyond and 2) the steps global fashion houses can take to address these problems at the root.

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In the spring of 2016, I came face-to-face with one of the scariest realities of too many Black children in the American education system: the school-to-prison pipeline. I was working in DC at the time and accompanied a supervising attorney to a small county in Mississippi. We had been collaborating with a group of parents fighting to combat the school discipline disparities among Black and White children in their public school system.

One evening, we met with a Black family in which 5 out of 5 children had been suspended from school or arrested in school, at least once. Most alarming was a young girl, about 15 or 16 years old, who recounted how she was falsely accused of stealing, sent to jail and persuaded to plead guilty under the threat of remaining in jail over the Christmas holiday. She pleaded guilty. One by one, the other children in the family chimed in about their experience with school police officers, in-school discipline and out-of-school suspension.

According to a United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.” Furthermore, “Black students were particularly overrepresented among students who received corporal punishment or had a school-related arrests.” With such glaring evidence, how can we wonder why there is a lack of diversity in any industry?

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Ashley Sawyer, an attorney and the Director of Policy and Government Relations at Girls for Gender Equity says, “From my experience doing direct work with incarcerated youth, very few had been able to have the safety and security to even think about their careers.  They had urgent, immediate concerns related to housing, family separation, and the outcome of their criminal cases.” While these young people still have aspirations, they are already so marginalized and “data indicates that most youth in the juvenile justice system already are several grade levels behind in their reading ability, so they are starting at such a huge disadvantage.”

Ashley’s work has focused on the disparate ways that Black youth are disciplined in comparison to White students. “I think school-based arrests are always disgusting to watch” she continued, “I'm thinking about the eleven-year old Black girls in Binghamton, NY who were recently subjected to field sobriety test and STRIP SEARCHED, because their principal thought they were too giggly.  Or the boy in Florida who was arrested for exercising his right not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The way schools and adults view Black youth in particular is through the lens of adultification and criminalization.”

The reality is that the mobility of many Black children is being stunted inside the very institutions responsible for their growth. This is why it is imperative that every company seeking to improve diversity must couple their corporate trainings with resources to combat the school-to-prison-pipeline.

In addition to the need for additional resources, Ashley says, “the real difficulty has been making sure that the government makes the commitment to really transforming their practices.  In NYC specifically, the City's overall budget allocates over $100 million for police and surveillance in schools, and less than a quarter of that for school based restorative justice, social workers, and guidance counselors combined.” When I asked what fashion houses like Gucci and Prada can do, she said they should be making space for young people to tell their stories on their platforms and supporting public pressure to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

With the fashion industry’s astronomical influence on culture, it can and should be doing a better job to combat these social justice issues. I believe that immediate action should include: 1) hiring people who understand race and have an analysis around race, instead of filling diversity quotas 2) funding the work of people who are woking to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline 3) raising awareness through their platforms about social justice issues like the school-to-prison pipeline 4) using their cultural influence to undo the racial stereotypes that are ingrained in society 5) reshaping the visibility of Black people in the fashion industry-at-large.

Last week, after serious backlash concerning blackface merchandise, Gucci and Prada rolled out big-picture ideas for improving diversity in their companies. Gucci’s CEO, Marco Bizzarri met with Dapper Dan and other leaders in the fashion industry to discuss the issues and develop solutions. Prada released a statement of their own, naming “artist and activist, Theaster Gates, and award-winning writer, director and producer, Ava DuVernay” as co-chairs of a budding Prada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.

A summary of their promises:

 
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These are victories that should be celebrated. This move, by two of the largest fashion houses in the world, proves the power of Black consumers. However, we cannot let our power be pacified, and we cannot be so enamored with these promises that we let our guard down. While corporate diversity trainings and fashion school scholarships are important, additional steps are required to fully combat the lack of diversity caused by institutional racism.

If Gucci and Prada desire to create systemic change in the fashion industry, then they will have to go deeper than the surface. As eccentric as the fashion industry is, it does not have the luxury of existing outside society. Therefore, if we are ever going to eradicate racism in the fashion industry we will have to eradicate racism in society.


Below are a few organizations doing radical youth justice work:

Girls for Gender Equity based in Brooklyn, NY - “Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) promotes the physical, psychological, social and economic well-being of girls, women and ultimately the entire community. GGE believes that widespread violence against women and girls of color points to deeply rooted racial and gender discrimination that must be tackled as a peace-building and human rights priority.

  Black Organizing Project based in Oakland, CA - “The Black Organizing Project is a Black member-led community organization working for racial, social, and economic justice through grassroots organizing and community-building in Oakland, California.”

  Young Women's Freedom Center based in California - “On the streets, in jail and detention centers, and in their schools, neighborhoods, and communities. Together, we build our personal and collective power, heal from trauma, advocate on behalf of ourselves and our sisters, and work to transform the conditions, systems, and policies that lead to intergenerational cycles of violence, incarceration, and poverty.”

  Philadelphia Student Union based in Pennsylvania - “Exists to build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system. We are a youth led organization and we make positive changes in the short term by learning how to organize to build power. We also work toward becoming life-long learners and leaders who can bring diverse groups of people together to address the problems that our communities face.”

  Brotherhood-Sisterhood Sol based in New York, NY - “Provides comprehensive, holistic and long-term support services to youth who range in age from eight to twenty-two. The organization focuses on issues such as leadership development and educational achievement, sexual responsibility, sexism and misogyny, political education and social justice, Pan-African and Latino history, and global awareness. Bro/Sis provides four-six year rites of passage programming, thorough five day a week after school care, school and home counseling, summer camps, job training and employment, college preparation, community organizing training, and international study programs to Africa and Latin America.

Gwinnett SToPP based in Gerogia - “The Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP) formed to lead a parent-driven, community-centered partnership approach to dismantling the school to prison pipeline in Gwinnett County. The mission of Gwinnett SToPP is to build and strengthen relationships with the community in two constructive ways – parent/community advocacy training and policy-change facilitation.

Teachers Unite based in New York - “Teachers Unite is an independent membership organization of public school educators in New York City collaborating with youth and parents to transform public schools.We resist institutions that segregate and criminalize Black and Latino/a youth, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, by organizing educators to work as allies in campaigns for social and economic justice.”

Bard Prison Initiative based in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY- “Bard Prison Initiative was founded by undergraduates at Bard College. After gaining access to the the New York State prison system and securing limited funding, Bard College launched BPI as a pilot program with 16 students in 2001. Since then, the program has grown annually and dramatically. Its first associate degrees were issued in 2005 and the first bachelor’s degrees in 2008.”

Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) based in Los Angeles, CA - “Working to build a youth, family, and formerly and currently incarcerated people’s movement to challenge America’s addiction to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in Los Angeles County’s, California’s and the nation’s juvenile and criminal injustice systems.”