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Hannah Sizelove

In Fashion at Brown’s powerful and thought-provoking Activism in Fashion event, Isabelle Yang, a senior at Brown and Director of F@B’s photography team, interviewed two extraordinary guests. Abena Boamah, mental health advocate, is the Founder and CEO of Hanahana Beauty and host of the Conversations podcast. Jeannie Jay Park, model turned activist, is the founder of Sanitation Nation and organizer of Warriors in the Garden. The three had an informative and passionate conversation about the intersection of social justice and activism with fashion and beauty.

As a first-generation Korean-American, Park expressed that “Fashion and race are inherently inseparable for us as women of color. Historically fashion has…been this means of privilege.” Given that fashion is one of the most labor intensive industries in the world, she reflected on the need to challenge the corporate “erasure of humanity” and “dismantle and unveil this red curtain of fashion, because behind it lies human hands.” Furthermore, Park deems fashion to be a powerful “vehicle for racial exploration and awakening.” She drew on Janaya Future Khan’s quote, “If we're talking about what the work of activism really is, it's about seeing the world as it is, not as we're told.” Part of ‘seeing the world as it is’ is recognizing that the rise of anti-Asian hate is both a social justice issue and a fashion issue, as they are shaped by the same power relations. 

When questioned on the biggest challenges each speaker has faced when working at the intersection of fashion and beauty, Boamah highlighted the issue of transparency. Marketing terms such as “clean” or “sustainable” might heighten the price, but they often reinforce capitalist, white supremacist, and profit-driven structures by obscuring information on how ingredients are actually obtained or worker dynamics behind product production. Sourcing directly from producers and farmers and hiring other first-generation women, and black women in general, are part of her very intentional process of building the foundation for a “sustainable” brand, which is a collective process rather than a greenwashing term.

Building off of Boamah’s thoughts, Park discussed how education around the meaning of sustainability is lacking. Understanding it as an issue that is systemically rooted in “labyrinths of white supremacy layered with capitalism,” emphasizes the need for building connections between the consumer and the humanity behind fashion products: “All of our work is feeding back into the community, and moving with that intention centered is important to be able to reconnect.” In an industry that erases the diversity of Black and Asian cultures by collapsing different national, cultural, and ethnic histories into a single label or aesthetic, the process of "reclaiming your culture that this industry has taken" is central to building sustainable systems.

Both panelists have meaningfully thought about these systemic issues in their work. Park shared her experience with Sanitation Nation, a non-profit collective that merges fashion and activism. Birthed out of the rise of anit-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group works to create collections and spark conversation around the issue. It directs 100% of profits towards creating community care and partnering with local, grassroots organizations such as Womankind, which is a charity that supports Asian sex wokers and immigrants in New York, and Warriors in the Garden, of which Park is a lead organizer. Warriors in the Garden is a non profit collective of youth, Gen Z activists in New York city that arose out of the George Floyd protests and efforts to protect communities of color against all forms of systemic oppression. Through capsule collections, a regular newsletter, and building intentional partnerships, Park’s activism work with Sanitation Nation seeks to create discourse without supporting mass consumerism. It embraces fashion as a space to sustain conversations beyond temporal moments of trauma and challenge long-term, deep-rooted systems. 

When Park was asked about her partnership with Bloomingdales, in which she modeled alongside her mother and grandmother, she reflected that “It was definitely really emotional and incredible to be able to have that privilege to express my culture in such a boundless and intimate way, especially in a brand scape as white dominated as Bloomingdales, you know they have never had images like that.” In the shoot, Park and her family modeled a traditional Korean garment called the Hanbok, which is one of the most sacred pieces of clothing in Korean cultures and worn on special occasions. During this API heritage month collaboration, Park made it clear that she wouldn’t move forward with the project without the creative agency to express her ethnicity in a way that was authentic to herself. Going in with the understanding that heritage months are a subset of capitalism, and can often place enormous pressure on the communities that are meant to be celebrated, she wanted to disrupt the way shoots are traditionally done: “Facing all those obstacles and bringing in such deep tradition in such white spaces, I was able to like dismantle a lot of my own Asian shame, which is always an ongoing process. But it was great to be able to experience what it really felt like to embrace my asian joy in an unapologetic way at all these intersections of what I do.”

Boamah’s journey with Hanahana beauty has been a space for her to work and build community with intention, and center her identity as a first-generation Ghanian-American. During Boamah’s previous careers as a teacher and therapist, she found herself learning from YouTube on how to make different shea products for her own use. In fact, a conversation with a middle school student sparked a deeper interrogation of being intentional about what you put in and on your body. Boamah circled back to Park’s comments on being mindful of the people behind the fashion and beauty industries, noting the importance of asking: “How do you bring a level of humanity into…the space?” For Boamah, this means working directly with farmers and producers. On her journey to starting Hanahana beauty, she traveled to Costa Rica to learn from farmers in the coffee industry, and later to Ghana. Building a slow intentional foundation, with a holistic view of sustainability, has been key to building her business. Now, Hanahana is considering how to maintain this foundation while scaling up with intention and care. 

Boamah also launched a podcast in 2018 called Conversations, in which she sparks meaningful conversations with people around the world and recently collaborated with SoHo House. Her podcast is grounded in her experiences as a therapist and teacher, in that she understands that anxiety can disable a way of learning. Boamah works to create an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable and vulnerable around sharing their ideas and connecting with others: “I love being able to create space around learning.” 

This panel conversation was certainly a space for the audience to learn and grow alongside two icons; F@B is so grateful for the opportunity to work with such powerful leaders during this year’s fashion week!

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