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These Black Creatives Are Teaching Us How To Take Up Space

To take up space to some degree also means that you make room for others.

Human Interest

Living as a young black woman can sometimes seem like I am a walking threat. I am automatically "too much" for most when I walk into a room before I even speak a word. My existence alone is seen as intimidating. With all of that weight on my shoulders, it makes it extremely hard to show up and even harder to take up space.

To take up space is to acknowledge and accept your right to be, to exist, to have an opinion, to speak up, to simply be a body no matter what that looks like. But how can I live in all of that when I am inundated with society's definition of who I am? It's not easy but the defining factor is your choice to just be. My mom always told me, "Never dim your light for others because it's shining in their eyes." She didn't know it but she was telling me to take up space.

To take up space to some degree also means that you make room for others; by letting your light shine you empower others to do the same. The creatives on this list have made themselves responsible for telling our stories while also building more tables and more seats for others.

Ebonee Davis, Model & Activist

This top model has chosen to use her platform to be an unapologetic black girl which is no small feat in fashion. Ebonee Davis is a strong believer that fashion artists and creatives are the literal embodiment of free speech and they have a responsibility to use it wisely. In her powerful essay for Harper's Bazaar, she revealed some raw details about her upbringing. Being raised by drug addicts was one of the toughest things she had to overcome:

"Seeing my parents struggle pushed me to live beyond the status quo. Instead of living out my life as a product of my environment, I decided it was my job to break the chains of poverty, addiction and abuse; to rewrite my family history and live according to my own narrative. When I look back on my time in fashion, I realize that if it were not for my mistreatment as a Black model, I would not have the platform to inspire other young women of color to be their authentic selves, and to love themselves despite living in a society that constantly reaffirms our inadequacy."

When you see Ebonee on any red carpet or prime time event, she is representing the culture in ways little black girls must see. She had a wake up call in 2016 that catapulted her vision as a model. She started rocking her natural hair once she sat with herself and realized she had some subconscious beliefs tied to eurocentric beauty norms.

In a conversation with ESSENCE, she said:

"It just changed the way that I moved through spaces and now that I have access to spaces that aren't typically occupied by people who look like me, I feel like I have a duty to be outspoken. I am opening the door and I am leaving it open for people that are coming after me."

Kerby Jean-Raymond, Fashion Designer & Founder of Pyer Moss

Kerby Jean-Raymond founded the ultra-stylish and wildly woke brand, Pyer Moss, in 2013 as an art project. Little did he know that his art project would blossom into one of the biggest, most thought-provoking fashion houses in the game. With collections produced in New York, Italy and Portugal, Pyer Moss aims to use its voice and platform to challenge social narratives and evoke dialogue.

Noted for his "They Have Names" shirt featured on Colin Kaepernick, his "Stop Calling 911 on The Culture" design during the SS19 collection debuted at one of the country's first free black communities and every single moment during the SS20 collection at King's Theater this past September.

If you aren't hip to his magical designs and productions, then I am sure you may have recently seen his read on a major fashion publication. Business of Fashion has been naming 500 of the most innovative creatives for the past seven years and, this year, while the Haitian-American designer was a part of the list, he wasn't here for BoF's tomfoolery after a long list of hell nahs. Kerby took to Medium to pen a thoughtful yet truthful letter to the world.

My favorite excerpt:

"In short, fuck that list and fuck that publication. I take no ownership of choirs, Christianity or curating safe spaces for black people. That's a 'We' thing. Homage without empathy and representation is appropriation. Instead, explore your own culture, religion and origins. By replicating ours and excluding us — you prove to us that you see us as a trend. Like, we gonna die black, are you?"

Our boy could teach a whole class on taking up space because not only does he create spaces to tell our stories but he corrects those who frame it as such but only want to keep the culture as a fad.

Lindsey Peoples-Wagner, Editor-In-Chief of Teen Vogue

It's no secret I am obsessed with this human. Not many Editor-In-Chiefs have made it their business to show up for many underrepresented communities. At 29 years young, she is the youngest EIC at a major publication and that fact isn't lost on her as she continues to bring new and fresh perspectives to fashion.

Last year, we had the amazing opportunity to chop it up with her and she shared that she never thought that she would evolve from an assistant to an EIC. "I never thought it would happen but I'm so grateful that I am! I am really passionate about what I do, and I'm looking forward to using this platform to further conversations on inclusivity, diversity, and the future of fashion." Lindsay has always been a proponent of having larger conversations in fashion and not just focusing on trend reports.

In our exclusive interview she also shared, "I was always interested in fashion and beauty, but I think as a Black woman it just took time for me to really develop the lens in which I talk about those things. I've had a lot of conversations with mentors over the past couple years about who I want to be when I 'grow up', and I realized there were bits and pieces of a lot of different people and career paths that I wanted to mold into one, even if it didn't exist already."

Lindsay has always been open about what it means to have a seat at the table because it's more than pretty clothes. She believes that if you're at the fashion table, it's your obligation to move past the "gratitude" and move into the capacity to speak up and be the voice for those who have not yet made it to the table.

Melina Matsoukas, Visionary

Some call her the provocateur behind Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Issa Rae since she is responsible for some of our favorite visuals like "Formation", "We Found Love" and episodes of her hit show Insecure. Traditionally, Melina holds titles as a director of music videos and television shows. She began her journey snapping photos of her friends decked out in African garb. That led her to study film at New York University and cinematography in the graduate program at the American Film Institute. Her full circle moment happened this year when she was awarded the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal from AFI.

Most recently, with the talented Lena Waithe, she produced Queen & Slim, a film chronicling the journey of a black couple who go on the run after killing a police officer in self-defense. She told Variety.

"It's a story that I'm excited to tell because it challenges the idea of black love as well as the status quo. Lena and I hope that it sparks a dialogue and challenges people's views. I couldn't have made it through this process without Lena. On 'Master of None,' she trusted me with her personal story. Now I get to do this film with her — my soul sister."

As a creator, Melina finds power in documenting our stories in the most authentic ways. Most of all, her work is true to life. She never squanders an opportunity to bring light to injustices. For example, during the ELLE 2019 Women in Hollywood event, she dedicated her speech to Atatiana Jefferson by saying:

"I was up late last night trying to write my speech, trying to show my appreciation for the opportunities and the love and support I've been given."
"Trying to use my breath and my voice to create change and inspire on this stage today, but all I could think of were those whose breath was taken from us. All I could think of were my sisters who are not here, who could no longer speak, love, or thrive solely because of their existence as black woman. [Jefferson] was killed in her own bedroom, which is meant to be a safe haven for a person. She was murdered by someone meant to protect and to serve her. She was murdered because she was black."

Candace Marie, Social at Prada

She's the unapologetic black AF force behind Prada's social media and a constant street style killa. During an exclusive interview with us, she told us about her thoughts on inclusivity in fashion, "They can do way better. So much is hidden and deep-rooted that they don't realize what it is. I could be sitting in a board meeting and I question why am I the only black person out of 45 people that are here?"

She went on to say that she doesn't want to be the Bible for all things black but also realizes that there needs to be a shift and a change. "I honestly noticed it more as I started to travel and go to Fashion Weeks. You're not seeing any other women of color at the shows especially going into the luxury space. I remember a photographer told me he was shooting me because he wanted to make the street style some type of diverse. It's not their fault. Women of color are not being invited to these shows therefore you can't capture what's not there so it's like this domino effect."

That's why the Arkansas native pops out at international fashion weeks. To show up and take up space in her best cultured getups and hairstyles. She's leaving her foot print all over the fashion industry and we love that she's not afraid to be the first that looks like her to bring up topics and conversations outside of fabrics and designs.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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