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The Brown Bohemians Are Carving Out Space For Blackness & Intersectionality On A Global Scale

Meet the creative minds behind The Bohemian Brands, Vanessa Coore Vernon and Morgan Ashley.

Black Woman Owned

The word "Bohemian" has been used throughout history to describe a person who is socially unconventional and involved with the arts. However, Black people are essentially invisible when it comes to the bohemian lifestyle, even though we are the very definition of art. Being the change they wished to see in the community was imperative to the bohemians behind The Bohemian Brands, co-founders Vanessa Coore Vernon and Morgan Ashley.

As two nomadic spirits who started their career journeys as best friends first, their vision for The Bohemian Brands was birthed from the mutual desire to add much-needed representation to the community. Through The Bohemian Brands, they dared onlookers to see the lifestyle not just in color, but to see it in Black. Besides being rooted in self-care, as a brand, intersectionality is also at top of mind for the two creatives who fused their ventures together to address the fully-realized expression of modern-day bohemian Black and brown humans.

Courtesy of The Brown Bohemians

Vanessa and Morgan Ashley are providing the keys to the kingdom, granting entry to the wonders of the world on a global scale through their thoughtful curation and cultural finds, all while making art and culture that much more accessible.

Vanessa and Morgan Ashley have no doubt created a business relationship built on mutual respect and a harmonious balance, truths that can be felt in every thoughtful detail of their brand. With Vanessa serving as Creative Director and Morgan Ashley as Director of PR and Operations, the co-creators are taking their vision a step further with the execution of their latest project, Brown Bohemians: Honoring the Light and Magic of Our Creative Community, a 200+ page full-color coffee table book. In it, the two curated a beautiful celebration of Black and brown people around the world who share their most honest truths while representing the complexity of creative communities.

Without further adieu, meet Vanessa and Morgan Ashley.

Where did the idea of Brown Bohemian come from?

Vanessa Coore Vernon: Brown Bohemian started as just an online platform originally just to highlight the creative energy and creative spirit of brown and Black people. Since Instagram has been around, it has really allowed us to take control of our own images and our own narrative more than we ever have before because there's no red tape. I think it really enables a lot of brown and Black people, in particular, to lean further into their creative endeavors, creative spirit, [as well as] create adventures. Also, to really honor who it is they are and not feel like they have to wait or be subjected to someone choosing or asking them to be a part of something.

What is the significance of describing Black and brown people as 'Bohemian'?

Vanessa: I wanted Brown Bohemians to be a place where we can gather the images, gather the people and highlight them to create a broader tribe of people that look like you, think like you, dress like you, and speak like you. When you think of Bohemian, obviously from the 19th-century context, it was artisans from lower-income that found creative ways to do things. We wanted to make sure that brown and Black people took up space when you looked up what a creative person looks like or what Bohemian looks like. I wanted to make sure that our images were there and our stories were there.

"When you think of Bohemian, it was artisans from lower-income that found creative ways to do things. We wanted to make sure that brown and Black people took up space when you looked up what a creative person looks like or what Bohemian looks like. I wanted to make sure that our images were there and our stories were there."

Courtesy of The Bohemian Brands

What was the transition from going to the social platform into the business side for Brown Bohemian?

Vanessa: The transition came when I realized that we don't own Instagram. We don't own any of these social platforms and all of this gathering that we've been doing will at some point wash away, and we had no control. I was like, how amazing would it be to have a book sell with these images, these people, and these stories? Especially when the majority of the books that I have in this same realm are white people through and through. There might be maybe one brown or racially ambiguous person, but for the most part, they don't necessarily look like us. That kind of initiated the process of wanting to turn Brown Bohemians into an actual book, a tangible book. Something you can hold, something you can pass, something you can share, something that lived outside of ourselves.

What is it like to run a business with your friend?

Vanessa: It's really difficult to run a business with anyone much less someone that you are friends with or in a partnership with. A lot of people literally will tell you from the very beginning don't partner with your friends because if something doesn't work out, you not only lose a partnership, you lose the friendship. The strength that has worked for me and Morgan is that we genuinely respect how each other works and we like each other and do our job. So, I don't concern myself with any part of her business and she doesn't concern herself with any part of mine. We don't micromanage each other and we know that each of us are doing our job. That's a big part of our work ethic.

Morgan Ashley: I think if you're going to do it, doing it in the way that Nessa described, is just super important. Because in my mind, there can't be two CEOs that do the exact same thing or two artists to do the exact same thing. I think that's why it's been able to work. I don't ever really see myself wanting to design or do those things. It doesn't excite me. I think that what I do does excite me, and the same for Nessa.

Being Black queer women, how has this influenced your brand and business?

Morgan Ashley: I'm definitely loud about being Black first and queer. Those are things that I advocate for and am extremely proud to be and identify as. Identifying as a woman, a black woman, and a queer Black woman is extremely important to me. I would like to say that I put a ton of attention behind it and always want to put it on the forefront, but it just happens organically because those are things that I'm so proud to be. It just comes across in everything that I do. Blackness and conversations around race and ethnicity are in everything. So whether it is us publishing this book that's for our community or we are going to a restaurant and are the only Black people at a table, it's a conversation that we have to talk about. So, for me, it comes across in everything that I do organically because I'm so proud to be and identify that way.

Vanessa: I wholeheartedly agree. The thing I love the most, and that I know within our brand and within ourselves, is it is something that happens consciously and unconsciously all the time. It shows that we are unapologetic about who we are and who we evolve to be. For me, it was less about labels or how you identify or what you believe and more about are you living in love authentically and living in your highest and best life. That was always the most important thing and I made sure in our brand everything represents the people that are a part of it.

"Identifying as a woman, a black woman, and a queer Black woman is extremely important to me. I would like to say that I put a ton of attention behind it and always want to put it on the forefront, but it just happens organically because those are things that I'm so proud to be. It just comes across in everything that I do. Blackness and conversations around race and ethnicity are in everything."

Why were you the ones to tell this story and did you have any self-doubt?

Vanessa: 1000%, [we had] all the self-doubt because, who are we to think that we can publish a book? Being women; brown and Black women, just in life in general you can find yourself always being pushed down, pushed in a corner; shoved down. I think you question and second-guess yourself more than other people in that same situation. These opportunities don't show up at our door. Essentially, we have to show up for the people that showed up for us. It's more about fighting through nervousness and eagerness and saying we are absolutely worth it, we are absolutely showing up as ourselves, and this project is bigger than that. There were people we reached out to in the community that sent us their images and their stories, and they trusted us. I always looked at it like, no matter what, this isn't about me, this is about them; showing up for these people that trusted us with their story. So, no matter what, I'm going to make sure I see it through.

Morgan Ashley: I joined the project for brand Bohemian only a couple of years ago. I haven't been here since its inception, so I don't have the same feeling regarding self-doubt. What kept coming up for me is fight or flight. At that moment when she asked me for help, I had to do it or she wasn't going to do it at all. I didn't have the time over the years to have the same feeling. I just remember thinking at that moment, 'Holy shit, we have to get this done.'

How did you come to the decision to write a book?

Vanessa: The decision came from knowing that we wanted it to live outside of the social platform and then trying our hand at self-publishing. We were not just telling our story, we wanted the stories of all of these different brown and black people around the world to have their story shared through their work and images. We found we were more of a vessel or a conduit. We have 53 different brown and black people that have a quote in the book or a whole feature. That itself is a rarity and very, very hard to do. But it was our job to just get as many people from different places and different backgrounds as possible telling their story. It was important to make sure that their stories directly came from them, and were highlighted.

We didn't want to send off all of these stories and all of their images to our publisher. For us, the part that made our book special and different is we did everything. It was every single image, the color tuning of it, editing the text, the layout, the concept; every single element was done by us, by the three of us. To look at this book, know that it's black and brown hands and black and brown energy that created it through and through. We have everyone from different places, different backgrounds melted into this book, but still made it feel seamless.

"Being women; brown and Black women, just in life in general you can find yourself always being pushed down, pushed in a corner; shoved down. I think you question and second-guess yourself more than other people in that same situation. These opportunities don't show up at our door. Essentially, we have to show up for the people that showed up for us. It's more about fighting through nervousness and eagerness and saying we are absolutely worth it, we are absolutely showing up as ourselves, and this project is bigger than that."

Courtesy of The Brown Bohemians

How did you create the images in the book? 

Vanessa: In our community, we ride for each other, we show up for each other and that's literally how this happened. The people that are featured in the book are people we're inspired by and are our friends. Also, people whose work we aspire to collaborate with one day or that do beautiful stuff in our community. Everyone did this off the strength of the relationship we have or them being familiar with our brand or feel at ease to share their story. The book has a warm familiarity to it that can be rare and hard to find. It doesn't feel like this whole book happened outside of our community but happened within our community.

What is the Brown Bohemians book about in your words?  

Morgan Ashley: I think what you'll see and feel is yourself as a person of color in a way that you have never seen yourself before. The coffee table book is really about Black and brown folks, but it's our voices in regards to curating it and then the voices of the people who are featured. I think you'll see yourself in a way that you haven't before and you'll see Bohemian described differently in a way that we haven't been before. People look very different in this book than you would see when you're Googling or looking up the word Bohemian. So that feels really authentic because we are as a brand who our community is, and it felt necessary to do.

Vanessa: These are pieces from this ongoing story, and no matter if it's this book or 50 books in the future; there would never be enough books to house the complexities of us, the creative spirits of us, or our contributions. But, this is just our art and adding something to this big puzzle that is important. We hope that you see yourself reflected back to you in some ways because the most important part of this book is that you feel a part of this community, you know you're a part of this community and you feel welcomed here.

For more of The Brown Bohemians, follow them on Instagram. Purchase the Brown Bohemians coffee table book by clicking here.

Featured image courtesy of The Brown Bohemians

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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Featured image by Shutterstock

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