Feb. 07, 2022

by Jonathan Vatner

FIT launched an unprecedented initiative in December to help diversify the creative industries. Through a comprehensive, multipronged approach, the Social Justice Center at FIT (SJC) is designed to provide opportunity and accelerate social equity for people of color who might otherwise be left behind.

With robust funding and a growing network of industry partners, the SJC, conceived by President Joyce F. Brown, promises significant and lasting change. But the idea emerged from a low moment for the college. At the Fashion Design MFA runway show in February 2020, one designer’s models were outfitted with racially offensive accessories. In the fallout, Black students took to social media to vent about their experiences with racism at FIT and their frustration that the faculty and student body were not more diverse.

In response, President Brown held a series of town halls for the FIT community, where students spoke frankly and demanded change. As the college’s first Black and first female president—and the longest-serving—Dr. Brown has worked to make FIT a place of safety, community, and opportunity for students of color. These town halls made it clear this work was not finished.

“It was very, very troubling for me,” she says. “I never again want to sit through sessions with students where they tell me those kinds of things. There had to be something we could do.”

No one knew that, after George Floyd’s murder in May, a racial reckoning would sweep the nation with an urgency not seen since the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Dr. Brown observed institutions across America paying lip service and throwing money at the problem. She knew that, as a college with close ties to industry, FIT could do better.

“It occurred to me that we were in a very different place than those who simply wanted to do something—and I felt very privileged to be in a position to make a difference,” she says. “That was my motivation: to create a different environment for our students, a different kind of pathway for our graduates, and a different kind of outcome for people of color in the industries we serve.”

The hallmarks of President Brown’s leadership style have always been partnership and consensus-building, and in designing such an ambitious enterprise, she relied on these skills. She assembled a group of faculty members and administrators who met to analyze the problem and brainstorm solutions. Why didn’t FIT enroll more Black students? Why couldn’t companies retain BIPOC high achievers? Why was it so rare to see a person of color in the C-suite or on boards of directors?

Improving FIT’s diversity will be a challenge, but fixing these problems in industry will require a broader culture shift, Dr. Brown says. “What happens to our graduates of color? Where do they go? Are they stuck in entry-level jobs? Do they get coveted assignments? Does their talent get recognized? Do they have a voice in the progress of the company? It would be useless to increase the number of students of color if the same things were going to happen to them.”

The Social Justice Center at FIT launched Dec. 8, 2021, with almost $4 million pledged by founding partners PVH Corp., Capri Holdings Limited, and Tapestry Inc., as well as G-III Apparel Group, which made the establishing gift for a scholarship fund for BIPOC students.

SJC programming will address each of the identified challenges separately. Expanded precollege outreach will expose more BIPOC middle school and high school students to the creative industries, and ultimately diversify the pool of applicants to FIT. The college is already providing more scholarship funds to qualifying students, and that amount will grow. A speaker series will feature BIPOC executives sharing their stories with students. A Fellows Program will provide mentorship and paid internships to students of color while at FIT, and several companies have pledged to help BIPOC interns get jobs and to nurture these employees in order to retain them.

Dr. Brown believes the impact of this approach is clear. “I don’t want people to think that this is about doing a favor for some poor Black children. This is about opening the vistas of career possibility and success to talented young people and creating a pipeline and an industry that we can all be proud of.”

She adds, “There’s a mix of heartstrings and the bottom line. And that’s good. All of these activities do redound to the bottom line, and they also speak to a society with a newly raised social consciousness.”

She named alumnus Jeffrey Tweedy, brand adviser (and former president and CEO) of Sean John as adviser to the SJC. As an industry veteran committed to working with emerging designers, his primary goal is to recruit more industry partners. (See sidebar, below.) A search for a permanent executive director has begun.

The center’s advisory council comprises 16 industry leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among them are several Black trailblazers, including Sheryl Adkins-Green, chief marketing officer of Mary Kay; Brandice Daniel ’12, CEO and founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row; and model and activist Bethann Hardison, also an FIT alumna. They will provide counsel and help measure progress toward achieving equity in the creative industries.

Dr. Brown emphasizes that success will be measured quantitatively. “The only time people think it’s sufficient to say that they’re doing better without any real metric is in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she says. “But we will measure it with numbers: how much we increase the diversity of our student body, how many internship and job placements we have, and how many mentoring relationships we develop. This is an action-oriented, goal-directed, measurable program. If we do it right, we will be in a position to touch a lot of lives.”

Featured photo of President Brown and Jeffrey Tweedy by Joe Carrotta ’17.

Jeffrey Tweedy. Photo by Shareif.

Three Questions for Jeffrey Tweedy

Getting to know the former president and CEO of Sean John, Menswear Design and Marketing alumnus, and adviser to the Social Justice Center at FIT

Throughout your career, you have helped people of color succeed through your work with the Black Retail Action Group, Figure Skating of Harlem, and the Piney Woods School. What drives you to give back?

As I was going through the ranks in my career, from Ralph Lauren to Hugo Boss to Willi Smith, there were very few people of color in these organizations, and none at the executive or management level. I looked at it as, “How can I help change this?”

How have you experienced racism in your career?

Let’s not call it racism—let’s call it not being accepted right away in the industry. At some of the bigger companies I’ve worked at, when I met other professionals, it was like, “How did this Black guy get to this level to be in front of me? Who does he think he is? There must be a mistake here.” I looked at that as an opportunity to get to know the people I was selling the brand to, or the accounts or manufacturers I worked with. I let them know I shared the same interests and passions and compassion that they do. I helped them understand that I understand this business and I deserve to be there. 

How would you describe your role with the Social Justice Center?

I’m utilizing my relationships with companies like Amazon, LVMH, Chanel, Southwest Airlines, and Coca-Cola, and sharing with them what we want to accomplish with the Social Justice Center. We’re not just asking for a financial commitment. We want our partners to be brand champions, to make sure their associates and customers know about us. We want them to advocate for change and inclusivity in their workplace and the whole industry. Each can build infrastructure in their organization for these students, so that employees are not jumping from company to company but being developed within those companies. And so that students are hired at the companies where they intern. We love the money, but to reach our goals, our partners need to commit to our mission.