4 Influential Black Leaders from the Athletic Industry Sound Off on the Power of Protest + How They’re Creating Change

Amid weeks of intense pain and upheaval across America, influential black leaders are speaking up.

The unrest mounting in the US. as well as internationally over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has strengthened the conversation around racial inequality.

Below, leaders in the athletic and streetwear worlds open up about the power of protest, how they’re navigating a defining moment in history and why change is critical.

Director of apparel operations, New Balance

HOW I’M FEELING: “I have struggled with articulating my feelings over the last few weeks. I have experienced an acute sense of sadness, loss, confusion, anger, motivation, commitment and the list goes on. Frankly, my emotions change hourly and I feel like I am on the brink of total mental exhaustion most days, but I keep whispering to myself to keep going because my voice needs to be heard and because my kids need to know that their future is secure and I am doing everything I can to make that a reality for them. As a black woman, history shows we carry the burden of pain when fighting for progress. I am overwhelmed with feeling vulnerable, something that is hard to face when you are so focused on being strong. I feel a heavy burden most days, but instead of pushing it away, like so many other black women, I am leaning into it. One way is by acting as a sounding board for colleagues, leadership, friends and family. I am also acting as an educator, not just to my kids but to our non-black friends and family, and also cheering on our culture to keep fighting peacefully. Out of all of this pain, I know we will reach the light. In years past, I felt hopeful when faced with moments like this, but today I feel a burning fire that surpasses all feelings of hope. That hope has been replaced with an urgency I can only describe as unyielding motivation to see change happen.”

WHAT I’M DOING: “The reality of racial injustice is not new, and certainly isn’t a new concept for the black community. As a black woman raising two black boys, race is at the center of every day. How it gets invoked or triggered varies, but it is always there. I think everyone is settling into their own way of addressing the problems we face and trying to actively become a part of the solution. For me, I have been focused on how I can be a beacon of change within my community both professionally and at home. Whether it is within my community as a board member at a local private school or my role within my job, I am making my voice heard at the table. At that table, my seat means nothing if I am not addressing issues of racial injustice. To be a leader, I must provide critical feedback where it is warranted and counsel where it is necessary, and most importantly drive accountability for commitments made and behaviors that need to change. Everyone has a role to play to help us move forward and no contribution is too small. This moment in time is revealing painful truths about the lack of diversity we have been aware of in the footwear industry for many years. Black employees within our industry are speaking up and challenging systems. My energy is focused on championing this moment — right now we have a chance to truly impact positive change for those coming up behind us, because ultimately this fight is really for them.”

Hoka One One athlete and Harlem Run founder

HOW I’M FEELING: “I find myself having waves of emotions. I feel thankful for the protestors and everyone sacrificing so much to drive this country in a more equitable direction — making phone calls, signing petitions, holding brands and companies accountable. But then, I also feel genuinely terrified when I read the way the president continues to incite violence and attempts to militarize the country.”

WHAT I’M DOING: “Personally, I’m doing my best to stay present — meditating, running/walking, spending time with my husband and son and doing things that make me happy. Professionally, I am in the middle of a free, nine-event virtual tour, ‘Meaning Thru Movement,’ which seeks to normalize conversations around mental health in the fitness space. Sponsored by Hoka One One, upcoming conversations include ‘Let’s Talk About Whiteness,’ ‘Addressing Intergenerational Trauma’ and a special event featuring Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of ‘White Fragility.’ The tour features an incredible lineup of mental health professionals, activists, runners and other fitness experts.”

Founder, Pensole Design Academy

HOW I’M FEELING: “I feel hurt for all my fellow brothers and sisters in the industry who had to experience the same things I have experienced from an industry we helped build since Jan Matzeliger [an inventor known for his shoe-lasting machine] in 1883. I am proud of the way brands I used to work for, like Jordan and Nike, are leading and showing the rest of the industry how important their black employees, consumers, communities and future employees are to them. I am confident Adidas will step up, but my wish is for the rest of the industry, which earns money based on black people supporting their brands, will also do their part to give back to those who gave to them. I’m optimistic that our industry will get this right by creating generational programs to grow and sustain our existence — and be the example that other industries will follow. We need to unite.”

WHAT I’M DOING: “Personally, I will continue to do what I have been doing since 1989, which is mentoring and uplifting our young brothers and sisters who want to get into the industry and those who are already in our industry. I left the industry 10 years ago to start Pensole because I knew there needed to be a focus on identifying, developing, placing and mentoring more of us in this industry, because the current system is not designed to do that. The communication between the industry and the next generation of students is practically nonexistent. A vast majority of college students are oblivious to the job opportunities that they could have or pursue within our industry. I am not a mathematician, but I would guess that if the top 10 revenue-driving companies in our industry annually redirected 1% of their sports, entertainment marketing and advertising budgets to education, they could provide tuition to over 100,000 black students a year. If our industry could generate over 100,000 students a year — which is equal to the size of the top 15 HBCUs combined — our industry could create its own black college almost twice the size of the largest college in America. Professionally, I want to work toward uniting the industry — designers, brands, retailers, etc. — because this fight is bigger than us individually and if we work together, more would be achieved quicker. I am witnessing this happen through making the African American Footwear Forum an annual event and the creation of new programming that has measurable results beginning in middle school.

Managing partner, Alife

HOW I’M FEELING: “I’m in disbelief if I’m honest. The amount of public support and corporate contribution to end racism is unprecedented and moving, but I can’t help but to see the guilt many friends, colleagues and companies have. Initially, it felt like false generosity. Why now? Why didn’t our industry take a stance before? But our industry and the world’s collective silence is, I hope, in the past. And I know black people around the world will need as many allies to eradicate racism as possible. Companies will no longer have the luxury of skirting the race issue. Consumers will now and forever hold companies accountable. Passive posts and donations alone will not be enough. To end the systemic racism our country and industry face will take planning, new thinking and education, but also uncomfortable conversations. It is now everyone’s responsibility. It must remain a focus for every company.”

WHAT I’M DOING: “A month ago, America was in pain as the video of Ahmaud Arbery surfaced. Alife reached out to Ahmaud’s mother, Amanda Cooper, and was able to raise $20,000 in the name of justice for her son. Then the George Floyd video surfaced and it was obvious to us this issue couldn’t be solved with simply donating proceeds to the family. More needed to be done. We are currently planning an initiative we feel will be the first step in eradicating racism and inequality within our industry. Additionally, we will be reaching out to the footwear brands we work with to join us in the defeat of racism and to understand how they plan to be a support. Alife also released a ‘No Justice No Peace’ playlist curated by our friend Thibaut De Longeville, a seven-hour history of great songs protesting police brutality. Personally, I’ve attended two marches, both with my 5-year-old son, in an effort to provide perspective and hands-on visibility in this ongoing struggle. I will continue using my personal platform to be as vocal as possible.”

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