In 2019 I attended a conference in Washington DC for African Americans in the Footwear industry. The sea of black talent in one a single room was a sight to behold. Nearly every company was represented, yet the numbers were small considering the impact our culture represents in the big picture. This was a safe space like no other.
After my panel discussion concluded I met a few new faces in the crowd. One of those faces definitely stool out like a sore thumb.
Nick Courtney introduces himself as a fan of my work — rare considering how much I stayed clear of any spotlight for the first 20 years of my career. But he clearly had done enough homework to know about my work in NSW and Cole Haan. He told me about his work with Native work being done in DC. He asked if we could take a photo and I obliged. Then we traded contact info and moved along.
There were several new folks and old that I connected with that day, but I was intrigued by Nick’s conversation the most. My grandmother’s family was native to this land but her family went out of their way to acclimate because it made their lives easier.
I wanted to learn more.
NinetyNine Products were already set to launch and celebrate Teachers so asked if it would be okay to connect with his friend Joey Montoya.
Joey is the creative genius behind Urban Native Era. I was already a fan of his work. The “You Are On Native Land” is one of my favorite collections, so I was excited to team up.
After a few conversations we landed on the idea of supporting Native students that wanted to attend Native school to become teachers that returned to their community. There are 37 Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs similar to HBCUs) and we wanted to elevate their status in the minds of their community.
The conversations with Joey and Nick paralleled the concerns within the black community in alarming ways. From the dismissive nature with which young Native students thought of TCUs (not as good as ‘their’ schools) to the need for Teachers from their community. Even the idea of ‘passing for white’ because of features and skin color was something I had not given much thought to.
The bigger difference was the complete lack of awareness by the larger population that the Native American population even exists. The cultural is practically invisible in modern conversations.
So here we are trying to make a difference in our community with a few fun projects that we are sharing with everyone. A portion of proceeds will go to Thirty7 where our focus on education will hopefully help amplify the voices of the folks looking to change the negatives in their community.
When I started working on this project I was excited to work these young, talented minds that helped me see the world through a fresh lens. I didn’t expect to be so touched when I saw teachers that looked like my grandmother. Representation matters.