How Two Powerful Voices in the Sneaker Industry Are Working to Revitalize Milwaukee — With Plans to Build a Community Center

Creating change for the better becomes a bit easier when you’re doing it with others.

Eight years ago, with no prior experience in sneaker retail, Eric “Shake” James sought help from industry veteran Jazerai Allen-Lord to get his first Milwaukee-area store, Clicks, off the ground. However, in the time since, Allen-Lord, founder of creative agency True to Size, has become a central figure in his community-driven endeavors, which are primarily focused on his midwestern hometown.

“A lot of times, we look at big target cities, but we don’t think about where else we can make the most impact for our community,” Allen-Lord told FN. “This is why I go so hard for Shake’s work. What he’s doing, there’s very real change. You could see his impact in Milwaukee in a very short amount of time. With 10% of effort, you’re going to see a difference much quicker than you would in other circumstances.”

Their collaborative charitable journey will continue tomorrow, two months removed from the 10th annual Jam Master Jay Back to School Bash, when James and Allen-Lord will host two family- and youth-focused events.

First, they will deliver pizza, drinks and 100 backpacks and pairs of shoes — with the help of Adidas — to kids at the LaVarnway Boys & Girls Club, a short drive from Clicks. Later on in the day, they will give away 100 turkeys to families at the St. Augustine’s Preparatory Academy on the south side of Milwaukee.

Next month, James and Allen-Lord will adopt 150-200 families on Dec. 18, getting lists from them and shopping for the kids.

It’s events and initiatives like these that will inform perhaps the biggest project yet: a physical presence for youth in the community, which will be known as the J.A.Y. Academy.

To date, the J.A.Y. Academy — which stands for justice, arts and youth — has been used as an umbrella term for James’ community-focused initiatives. But his desire to take this further was bolstered recently with news of the LaVarnway Boys & Girls Club, the site of tomorrow’s shoe and backpack giveaway, closing by the end of the year.

“That club has been around for 64 years. It’s crazy for it to close,” James said. “I was really upset when I found out because I used to play ball at like club, I learned how to play pool there and how to interact with people. And I’m seeing this trend of those resources being taken away, which is super unfortunate.”

For years, James — who owns and operates the Clicks, Sneex and Black Market banners — has engaged in a variety of community-focused endeavors. Aside from the Jam Master Jay Back to School Bash, which has been going strong for 10 years, James added a community center called Study Hall to his Black Market store, which opened in March.

Allen-Lord said the years of work would inform the vision of a soon-to-be physical academy.

“I knew Shake’s long-term dream was to have his own version of a Boys & Girls Club for kids to be able to learn and develop skills to adjust to the climate that we live in. And he’s been forming all of the programing and the pillars that he wanted,” Allen-Lord told FN. “Myself and Dawn Martin, my head of experience at True to Size, we went into a bat cave for a week last year and put together all of the programing and created a pitch deck with all of the insights.”

When the academy comes to fruition, James will look to bring professional development, financial literacy, wellness education and more to Milwaukee youth. James said the hope is to give them the tools that they need, such as the importance of credit, tutoring, job interview training and more, to build a brighter future.

At the moment, James is awaiting approval of the nonprofit status for the J.A.Y. Academy. Once he has that, James said he will then look to acquire a building, and has his sights set on the nearby Memorial Lutheran School. Also, James said he will seek financial commitments from brands such as Adidas and Nike to ensure the academy’s longevity.

James said the J.A.Y. Academy will open sometime in 2022.

“I want this to be around 64 years like the Boys and Girls Club was,” James said.

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