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“Are you ready to be that force for change?” Joan Smalls on How Fashion Can Truly Become Diverse

Last month, Puerto Rican model and many-time Vogue cover star Joan Smalls took to Instagram to call out the fashion industry for its lacklustre response to the death of George Floyd. Shortly after, she set up a platform where people can donate portions of their wage to support Black Lives Matter organizations. Galvanized on her quest to rally support, here, she pens a powerful letter on what it’s like to be on the receiving end of systemic racism and what we can all do to help.

Joan Smalls, trunk

Joan Smalls. Photo: Luigi & Iango/Trunk Archive

Racism doesn’t only exist in certain industries. It is present in all professional capacities. Any person of color is subject to it no matter where they live or what they do because racial profiling and stereotypes exist in individuals that see skin color before the character.

As people of color, we have to claw and fight our way to where we want to be and overcome obstacles that try to keep us where some believe we should stay. The pressure of constantly having to prove ourselves, and go above and beyond any expectations can sometimes be draining, but it’s a task that needs to be done. To those people that try to hold us back, I say to you good luck! We are going to prevail and show the resilience our ancestors have instilled in us.

I have worked in the fashion industry almost all of my adult life and it wasn’t handed to me. I work all over the world and encounter racism in many forms, no matter where I go. And while I had those that believed in me and wanted to help me achieve my goals, many tried to hold me back. Unfortunately for them, my drive was bigger than their rejections and barriers.

The truth is that many in this world are held back and broken down because of the systemic racism that exists.

I looked adversity in the eye and took those hurdles as building blocks for the fire burning inside me to prove to myself, my family and the world that success can be achieved through determination, hunger, a positive attitude, and good work ethics. It’s not up to anyone to dictate my future or stampede on my dream because of my cultural background. But the truth is that many in this world are held back and broken down because of the systemic racism that exists.

When Covid-19 began making its way across the world and we all entered into quarantine, it required a lot of us to contemplate our lives and hold up a harsh mirror to ourselves — those that were willing to look with an open heart. Then police brutality, racism, and calls for racial reform spread like wildfire in front of us. Seeing all of the hate, all of the sadness and lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement from my industry made me feel ill. I love the fashion industry. I love the creativity it provides me and the outlet that it is for me. But I also knew that I couldn’t sit back and do nothing. The truth finally needed to be spoken and action needed to be taken.

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That is when I decided to release my initial statement to the fashion industry in June. I wanted to share my experiences and what had been weighing on me for years. I, like many others, needed the industry that I love to hear me and understand that silence is not only complacency, but it is detrimental to the progressiveness of our industry. That is why I also decided to found Donate My Wage. I wanted to provide a resource for people who were looking to give back and contribute to the cause at hand. Through Donate My Wage, people can contribute portions of their wages to Black Lives Matter organizations, whether it is an hour, day, week, or month’s wage. I chose 11 organizations to cover the whole sphere of communities in need of support, from education and women’s empowerment to media and inclusivity.

There has to be constant inclusion and acceptance in every aspect of the fashion community.

The fashion industry has a social responsibility to its consumers to be equally represented from the inside of a company to its images that narrate stories and visuals that reach so many demographics and inspire so many. It is time to steer the conversation towards a more inclusive normalcy. In addition, it can lend its platforms and monetary support to organizations making a difference in the improvement of the legal reforms that need to take place. There needs to be substantiated change. This is not a passing trend. Leaders of our industry must make it their mission to move forward in the right direction. If they are in the position of power to mentor and be the force that’s needed in order to see growth, then they must act. There has to be constant inclusion and acceptance in every aspect of the fashion community.

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The lack of diversity within fashion can be somewhat astonishing. Whether you are a model, photographer, casting director, make-up artist or fashion editor, there is a need for more diversity in every corner of this industry. It is up to us, the people who have found success, to raise up others. Brands, corporations, publishing houses, agencies, and more, must act to put processes in place to change the dynamics of their institution. Create opportunities for people of color to shine and show their talent and worth. Create boards, committees, or whatever else you would like to call them that evaluate the professional diversity within a company or establishment and see how they can expand their talent pool to include more people of color.

Let’s hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask, ‘What can we do better?’

This is going to take a lot of work, long days and endless hours to create real change, but it is time. We need consistency and not one-offs. I don’t want things to go back to how they were. It wasn’t working. That’s not fair, or right.

So let us have those open and sometimes uncomfortable conversations and let’s follow through on an action plan that results in real equality and real change. Let’s hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask, ‘What can we do better?’ It is up to us and the people in power to realize that enough is enough, and change is coming. Let’s be a force for it. We are a generation of changemakers, rulebreakers, and creators. We must all donate our time, money, and knowledge to begin to see just the smallest ounce of change that is needed. But we have to do it together. Together, we are stronger. So the question is, are you ready to be that force for change, consideration, and solidarity?

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