IOWA CITY — Monday marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in a nod to King’s work, Andre Wright is spreading empowerment and activism through fashion design.
On Friday, Wright was at City High in Iowa City for the school’s annual MLK Day events, a day where the normal class schedule is replaced by about 150 sessions for students, including discussion groups, movies and workshops that focus on King’s legacy, the civil rights movement, activism and more. School is out Monday for the holiday, so the event is held the Friday before.
“For me it’s a day of service to the community. That’s truly what Dr. King’s legacy is,” Wright said about the annual holiday to observe King’s birthday.
King would have been 90 years old on Jan. 15. The civil rights leader was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis.
Friday’s sessions included Wright’s Humanize My Hoodie workshop, hosted by the 40-year-old activist and fashion designer who hopes to de-stigmatize hoodies through what he calls “fashion empowerment” and show the community black men like him don’t lose their humanity when they put their hoods up, he said.
Friday’s Humanize My Hoodie workshop was a special event at City High, where students learned about the movement and got to screen print their own T-shirt.
It’s also part of Wright’s fashion line — Born Leaders United — and includes a traveling interactive art exhibit that provides discussion and training for white allies. The exhibit has traveled to cities around the country and will be at the University of Northern Iowa starting Tuesday.
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“It’s bigger than just a sweatshirt,” said Wright, an Iowa City resident. “We just hope that we are able to have more conversations about what’s happening to specifically black and brown people in our country. We’re just wanting to change the hearts and minds of people who might not see it the way we see it.”
Began as an experiment
The idea for Humanize My Hoodie began in 2017 after Wright’s friend, Jason Sole, a criminal justice professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., began an experiment of wearing a hoodie in class every day while teaching his students.
“The idea was to change the perception of how black men were looked at when they wear hoodies,” Wright said.
When he saw Sole’s experiment shared on Facebook, Wright was inspired to use his background in fashion to share the idea with a bigger audience.
“I was like, ‘Let me see if I can help him from a branding standpoint and not just make it academic. How can we activate the world with this hoodie?’” Wright said.
The Humanize My Hoodie movement came about five years after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Fla. Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, was wearing a hoodie and walking to his father’s home from a convenience store when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting that gained national attention and helped to spark the Black Lives Matter movement, which aims to bring attention to violence against black people.
Hoodies become a symbol of support for Martin and of the movement as a stance against negative assumptions made of black men.
“There’s a million Trayvon Martins out there. He’s not the only person that we’re talking about when we say ‘Humanize My Hoodie.’ What we’re saying is like, ‘Humanize me before I die. I’ve got a family. I’m a professional,’” Wright said. “Don’t just look at me as some negative person or have a perception that I’m some kind of criminal.”
Making a mark on students
During Friday’s workshop, Wright said he hoped to show the City High students an example of people having positive impacts on their communities. His talks with students focused on sharing his story as an entrepreneur and what sparked his call to incorporate fashion with activism.
Keith Murray II, a 15-year-old sophomore at City High who attended Friday’s workshop, said he was intrigued by Wright’s back story about how he came to be a designer and activist.
“I really like his message. I really like what he had to offer,” Murray said.
Julia Coelho, a 17 year-old senior, said she heard Wright speak before and appreciated his efforts to inspire young people. Coelho said she hopes to help children, too, one day by becoming a math teacher.
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“I’m not very artistic, so I’ve never really thought about” fashion empowerment, Coelho said. “In the hallway, I see there are some kids who wear the sweatshirts, with these hoodies, and it just reminds you of the privilege that I have and that all white people have.
“I think it’s important to remember that privilege.”
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