Rosario Dawson, Abrima Erwiah Talk Voter Registration, Social Change, Entrepreneurship

New York Fashion Week is all about change, so fittingly IMG started the week with a discussion titled “Fashion’s Power to Create Change.”

Presented by Visa and moderated by Tiffany Reid, the virtual talk featured Studio One Eighty Nine’s founder Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah, designer Tanya Taylor and Visa’s Mary Ann Reilly. In a wide-swinging conversation, they discussed how fashion can help to create social change, how small businesses can have a huge impact, the importance of female founders, their commitment to voter registration and the power of consumers’ voting with their wallets.

Dawson and Erwiah stressed the importance of speaking up — uninterrupted. They also championed Fashion For Our Future 2020, an initiative with other designers that offers products designed to encourage voting and inform voters. “We hope that on Nov. 3 we’re all going to turn up and celebrate our right to vote, because we can. And love ourselves and celebrate, because that’s what it’s all about,” Erwiah said.

Addressing the importance of voting, she noted how her mother was born in 1940 in Mississippi — one day before John Lewis. “She’s one year older than Emmett Till, who died in Mississippi [from lynching]. Imagine her mind-set at 14 years old, hearing about Emmett Till. In 1965, she was already 25 when she had the right to vote. Her father couldn’t read or write. When I think about that and I was thinking about this project that we all decided to do together, I remembered when I was allowed to vote, my mom took us. This was a thing. So it is less about whether you are Democrat or Republican. It became — I just have this right and I want to celebrate it…There are all these reasons why people can’t vote, but I can.”

Thanking Erwiah’s for her efforts, Reid said, “There’s so much pain in being a Black American in this country. There’s a lot that we want to forget and shy away from. The way that you’re approaching the pain and figuring out, ‘How can I make something beautiful and be a change agent?’ is really admirable.“

Taylor, like the Studio 189 founders, has designed an item to help Fashion For Our Future. Visa also supports the initiative. She recalled, “Everyone in fashion was not feeling clear about what they needed to be doing in September. Half the industry’s not showing a collection. It felt like a really confusing time. I felt that we should all use that time to promote something that we believe in. Voter registration is something that I really believe in.”

Noting her involvement in the 2016 presidential election “around Hillary Clinton as a brand,” the Toronto-born Taylor said, “I’ve never shied away from speaking political truths.”

After Erwiah suggested a group effort to make NYFW all about voter registration, Taylor later told her, “I have a friend, who has technology that you can put embedded buttons on our web sites. We can check people’s registration and allow them to register,” adding that Erwiah took that “tiny little ball and made it into this huge project so quickly. She put together decks in 24 hours.”

Erwiah spoke of situations where a white man was paid two to three times more than she was being paid. Her attempts to broach the inequality were greeted with, “‘Just wait your time. Your time will come. It’s because they’re older.’ There are always all these reasons, and you want to keep your job. You have so many other obstacles…but at some point, you pick your battle and [decide], ‘I’m going to let this go,’” she said. “I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I’m saying it’s a real thing.”

As for how young women and entrepreneurs can start their businesses, Reilly advised, “Feel your power. Have confidence. Don’t feel that you have to have your plan perfect with every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed because that man, who is going in asking for the same thing, does not have that. Do not feel that everything has to be perfect. If you have an idea, look for the resources, the networking…,” Reilly said. “Look for where you can get funding. We partnered with iFundWomen to fund women who are starting businesses and who need rounds of funding.”

The most recent round of funding was given to Black women, who own businesses, because women have a harder time getting funding than men, and Black women business owners “are even in a worse position,” Reilly said. Visa’s small business hub is a resource for entrepreneurs to learn how to put their businesses online and how to connect with similar businesses. Summing up her advice, she said, “Look for the resources, have your confidence, ask for what you want.”

During the Q&A portion of the talk, Dawson spoke about how her travels have changed her perspective of living in America. Having recently completed a cross-country road trip with her father, a pancreatic cancer survivor, she said traveling can be the best education that anyone can get.

“When you go around the world and travel, the thing that I am most amazed by is just how similar so many cultures are gathering around food and music and sport to connect with each other…The distinctions about how different we are are so important as well. Coming from New York, which people like to call the melting pot, which I have kind of gone with because that is the vernacular, what I have since picked up and very much like is the salad that we are. It is about recognizing and keeping what makes us distinct, coming together in collaboration and making something that otherwise wouldn’t happen — but not diluting yourself in any way and what value comes from having different perspectives, different upbringings and things that resonate culturally.”

Making the points that it is hard to make a business, it’s hard to make a business as women and it’s hard to make a business as women of color, Dawson spoke of working in Ghana. She said, “Then you go to a place like Ghana where there you’re having rolling blackouts, dealing with floods, illness and different kinds of ways and recognizing the change that goes along with it. We disproportionately send our waste, garbage, toxins and other things and we export them around the world. Or we pollute communities in America that are more disenfranchised and maybe don’t have as much political power. We create these dead zones on our waters, in our air…there is a cycle and a connectivity that I see everywhere I go that often isn’t elaborated. That responsibility falls on us.”

Dawson continued, “How we use things and waste things here directly impacts places around the world and what they’re capable of and creating. What they’re creating — the information that comes with dealing with Ebola, cholera and all these other things is vital information that we could really use, if we respected the people that we could get it from because we value their impact in a way that we so often marginalize because [we dismiss], ‘Oh, that’s Africa.’”

Taylor said women can support each other while competing for business by shifting their mentalities and seeing each other as resources. During the pandemic, people in the fashion industry have been much more inclined to share information and resources. “Seeing women as allies is step one, and not as competition. At the beginning of COVID-19, I wrote e-mails to the 70 scariest people that intimidate me in fashion, saying I need help. ‘What should I do with factories, delivery cadence or finances?’ And I was blown away by the responses mainly from women, who were willing to jump on a call and help.”

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