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How Melody Ehsani Defied Cultural Norms & Became The First Woman To Design A Reebok Pump

BOSS UP

At any given time of day, Fairfax Avenue turns into a catwalk for streetwear aficionados. They step out in neon Air Max's with doorknockers dangling from their ears while multi-ringed fingers snap and flick their latest fashion conquest. They're dressed to the nines in urban gear, and some even camp out for days outside the doors of popular skateboard and streetwear brands, vying to claim the title of being the first to scoop the latest release.


Photo Credit: Kiah McBride

In the midst of the “all boys club" of apparel stores is the boutique ran by designer, Melody Ehsani — a bright white shop with vibrant-colored threads, multi-dimensional jewelry and chromed-out bikes. Though she stands out by gender, her designs fit into the hip-hop culture of consumers that grace the gritty West Hollywood street. Her designs have adorned the ears, hands and backs of artists, such as Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and Lauryn Hill, and like her fellow soul sisters, she stands to ensure that we're not confined by societal norms — that we're accounted for and heard.

Redefining the proverbial rules is nothing new to Ehsani. She grew up in a Persian household that preferred fitting into molds over breaking them. “Parents Just Don't Understand" became her mantra as she fought to maintain her creativity and identity with little support from her family. Though her mother was a painter, art as a career wasn't considered realistic. It was good to be a doctor, being a designer was disgraceful.

“I wanted to be a pediatrician because I wanted to please my parents, and my culture identified being a doctor as the highest possible value in terms of role," Ehsani says of her days before design.

Though she didn't become a doctor she still went the “safe" route, trading in her stethoscope for social justice, and dedicating undergrad to prepping for a career in law, interning on Capitol Hill at the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, and working as a paralegal for a private firm before throwing in the towel a week into law school upon realizing that her purpose wasn't in legal.

“I still felt like I hadn't found a place for myself within the legal field," she says. “I had a meltdown when I found out how much law school was going to cost me, and knew that I couldn't pay off my loans unless I worked in the field, and that gave me major anxiety at the time."

She searched her soul, read self-help books, and consulted close friends who helped her to discover that she was repeating the patterns of her parents who subscribed to a culture where blueprints weren't created, but were followed. She credits prayer and meditation to being the catalyst behind her transformation and decision to follow her passion instead.

“I would have these conversations with God and be like show me my path, show me how to serve you, and show me what you look like to me!" she says. “Establishing that personal relationship with my Creator outside of any learned constructs was very powerful. I found guided meditation to work very well for me. I would literally put questions to my soul, and my soul would answer. My intuition has and continues to sharpen as a result, and it has helped me make a lot of decisions with a clear head while being true to myself."

At 23, she went back to embracing the real Melody who bumped N.W.A., studied hieroglyphics, and rocked bamboo earrings and three-fingered rings. She enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and interned at Creative Recreation before deciding to sketch out her own shoe designs. But becoming a designer wasn't an easy feat, and during the period in between waiting for her shoes to arrive, she started experimenting with the laser cutter at school, ultimately creating what would become the Melody Ehsani jewelry collection.

“Love is not this esoteric thing that's in the air. Its real, its powerful. Find what you love no matter how big or small it is and do it everyday, and I promise it will serve you," she says. “I think often times we feel bogged down because of the breadth of the work we think we have to do to 'find ourselves,' but start small. If you're asleep on the couch, just wake up. If you're awake on the couch, just sit up. If you're sitting, stand up. Just one small step and we can all move forward.“

Behind the Business

When I first came across Melody Ehsani, I was instantly hooked by her creative designs. I saved my dollars to make my first purchase — a pair of lightening shaped earrings that I still rock to this day—and waited anxiously for the mailman to deliver my goods. I opened the box and pulled out a card that read “Stop Waiting to Be Who You Already Are." The words spoke to me, and I later went out and bought a frame so it could sit on my desk as a reminder to no longer speak about who I wanted to be, but to boldly claim who I already am. Packaging is something sometimes overlooked, but when carefully curated can be just as distinguishable as your brand.

“I was really into package design, so I wanted it to be beautiful," says Ehsani about the decision behind her packaging. “I had an image of a certain warm pink and gold and I wanted to make sure my tag line “I see you" was on the box. It was “I see you" because the first friend that really mirrored back to me who I was, said that to me, and it was so powerful because I believed it. I also learned that in Africa, it's a common greeting from one person to the next. I found that to be the most beautiful thing ever. From that moment on I wanted to pay it forward, be it forward to everyone who wore or purchased my items."

Ehsani said the hardest part of the design process is the manufacturing. She spent a few months in China building relationships and researching the best manufacturers to produce her custom designs. “Now there is no need for this for people starting out. You can find everything online," she says.

Over the last decade she's built a distinguishable brand, developing a cult-like following of women who are just as in love with urban culture as the designer herself. But it's not just her colorful collection that is drawing people to the shop, but the message behind the material.

“I actually have been following Mel for a long time,“ says Daisy Espana, a model who doubles as an intern at the M.E. shop. “I liked how her message was that you can be yourself. You don't ever have to switch up or pretend to be somebody you're not; who you are is perfect. I love that because growing up I felt like I was an outsider; I didn't really fit in. But coming here, she was very welcoming and she's always been like that, and it's kind of like a big sister, somebody to look up to."

Authenticity is etched in her brand, from the designs often intertwining her Persian and American background to the motivational messages inserted into her packaging. Carving out her own lane has been just as fulfilling to her as it's been inspirational to others.

“I knew the only way I could serve myself and the world was by expressing it through doing something that I really loved. Having this understanding within myself helped me to overcome any fear and move forward with what I knew to be true."

Building Beyond the Brand

On an early Friday evening, a group of over 120 women and men packed into the M.E. shop to talk “Race, Racism & The Healing Process," one of the many discussions hosted by Ehsani and her select guests as a part of the Speaker Series, where she transforms her retail space into an open discussion forum on a variety of issues plaguing the community and society as a whole.

"I'm building a fashion empire, but in reality I'm really building an empire of service, fashion is just the vehicle," Ehsani says. “Using my platform to create community and try to move the feminine forward is my passion and my purpose. I like looking at trends in the world and figuring out what kind of messaging I want to create to support or refute those trends."

Being the only woman to open shop on a strip dominated by male-owned brands like Supreme and Diamond Supply isn't Ehsani's only breakthrough as an urban fashion entrepreneur. In 2011 she claimed the title of being the first female to have a pump sneaker with Reebok — her design sold out within hours — and has continued to collaborate with the brand on a number of custom design projects.

But still, being fearless enough to be the woman of the block is pretty damn awesome.

“It was very needed and very smart of Mel to do it like hey let's put this here," says Espana. “We're going to scream louder than any other shops here because we're the only girl store here, so girls love us for that. We started noticing that a lot of those stores started carrying girl stuff like oh okay, we're going to make this a real section in our store now."

Breaking barriers and defying the odds both creatively and culturally has enabled Ehsani to build a rewarding life instead of a regretful one. After all, well-behaved women rarely make history.

“It's always safer to repeat history, to do what's always been done, but that's not why I'm here; that's not why God created me," says Ehsani. “I believe each person on this planet right now is a special part of the remedy to all the ills that are happening. We can't afford to repeat history; we have to make it."

Precisely.

For more of Melody, follow her on Instagram.

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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