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FNAA Honorees Aurora James, D’Wayne Edwards and James Whitner Gave Fashion Its Running Start on Racial Equality — Why We Can’t Give Up Now

“I was so over it.”

Those were the words Aurora James, the 2020 Footwear News Achievement Awards Person of the Year, used to describe the feeling of despair that came over her at the end of May as she watched headlines and videos depicting the police killing of George Floyd. Her emotions were amplified as she saw company after company take to social media to join a trending conversation.

“I was just so over everyone just saying whatever they were saying, you know? All these companies that were posting the black squares or like doing whatever [on social media],” James told her friend Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond in a candid conversation that aired last night as part of the first-ever virtual Footwear News Achievement Awards, which this year shone a light on Black voices in fashion who are taking up the mantle of change.

Aurora James
Aurora James for FN.
CREDIT: Sage East

The feeling that James described — an almost borderline hopelessness — is one that anyone (and probably everyone) can relate to.

We’ve all been there.

As a Black person, it’s the heaviness that comes with hearing the news of Breonna Taylor  — who was killed by Louisville, Ky. police while sleeping in her home — or any of the dozens of other people of color murdered at the hands of police and other would-be authorities in recent years.

As singer-songwriter John Legend described it during his monologue about social justice at last night’s event: “These killings made clear to the general public what Black folks already knew: Racism is real, it is ugly and it is woven into the systems that govern our everyday lives.”

But, when it comes to issues of racial injustice, 2020 — for better or worse — marked the year of powerful shifts.

Within hours of feeling “so over it,” James started a nonprofit, The 15 Percent Pledge, which challenges major retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black businesses.

“As a Black woman living in America in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and many other people’s senseless murders, that was what I needed in order to feel like corporations were supporting Black people,” she explained. “So I wanted to make a clear ask and I wanted to give people the opportunity to step up and meet me where I am or to quite clearly disappoint me.”

To date, Sephora, Rent the Runway and Macy’s Inc. — the largest department store in the United States — have answered James’ call to action by signing the pledge.

James Whitner, founder of the Whitaker Group and recipient of the 2020 FNAA for Retailer of the Year, is a little more than 15 years removed from the day he woke up strapped to a hospital bed after being shot during a street brawl in Pittsburgh.  The friends who visited him as he recovered in that hospital room have all since died.

James Whitner
James Whitner
CREDIT: Courtesy

Whitner, too, likely had that feeling.

That feeling where you could look back at your life and all of the losses, false starts and disappointments and think: “What’s the point? Things will never get better … My small efforts to create change will never amount to enough.”

Or, you could take the hop, step or jump.

The running start that — while it doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the race —  begins moving you towards the goal: The finish line.

This year, Whitner whose banners A Ma Maniere, Social Status, APB and Prosper have become a formidable force in the streetwear and fashion lifestyle sectors, used his platform as a safe space for powerful conversations and action around racial justice and equality for Black people in America.

For instance, The Whitaker Group closed its banners on Aug. 28 to protest racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Three months later, as the country readied for the most unprecedented presidential elections in modern history, the stores closed again on Election Day and shifted all their resources to getting out the Black vote.

Proof his running start was a jolt toward progress? In late October, Social Status in Charlotte, N.C., welcomed a high-profile visitor: then-Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris (now VP-elect), who saw James’ store as a critical stopping point on her campaign trail.

D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy and recipient of the 2020 FNAA Icon Award for Social Impact, grew up Inglewood, Calif., in the heart of South Central. At 17 years old, he was a high school student working at McDonald’s and sketching sneaker designs on his lunch break. That same year, he won a Reebok design contest but was turned away from receiving a job with the brand, which recommended he go to college for a footwear design degree — something he couldn’t afford to do.

Again, that feeling.

The overwhelming sense that options are exhausted and there is no path to your goal — or that the goal itself is too insurmountable and small steps do little more than exhaust you of what little energy you have.

D'Wayne Edwards
D’Wayne Edwards
CREDIT: Courtesy

You could — you should — stop right there.

Edwards, of course, did not.

Thirty years later, his far-reaching efforts to build and develop a pipeline for minorities into footwear have been instrumental in reshaping the lives of thousands of Black youth who may have otherwise lacked avenues for career advancement. He launched Pensole in 2010 and has steered the design academy to fruitful partnerships with New Balance, Puma, Under Armour and Vibram.

What’s more, the industry veteran is one of only six designers to ever design an Air Jordan sneaker.

Those accomplishments, as lofty as they may be — are due in no small part to his will to start the race — to join the fight.

As a recovering perfectionist who on a daily basis grapples with my own analysis paralysis, I understand all too well where many Black people in America are today — and where we all were when we watched a white police officer kneel on the neck of a Black man for more than eight minutes in May.

It’s a dreadful feeling.

It makes you want to give up. If we’re not going to fix racism is one fell swoop, if we can’t make all the bad things turn good right now, why even bother?

Well, I don’t know about you but I sure am glad that Aurora James bothered; that James Whitner got up from that hospital bed in Pittsburgh; and that D’Wayne Edwards knew his destiny was far greater than a McDonald’s break room in Inglewood.

When it comes to issues of racial equity, the footwear industry — and America — is not even close to where it needs to be, but we can’t stop here.

Feelings come, feelings go.

But meaningful change is everlasting.

Let’s go.

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