In Conversation with Ben Yisrael
- For Black History Month we wanted to get his unique take on all things that are culture. Enjoy a frank and open discussion about where things are in today’s climate.
Ben Yisrael is a cultural curator, community advocate, poet, and Ph.D. His work includes advocacy for health equity as the coordinator for the Healthy King County Coalition, a coalition of over 40 health-based organizations in Seattle and King County. As a strategist, Ben Yisrael has over a decade of experience as a consultant/research director at the Houston-based, international firm Elite Change, where he serves as the Chief PolicyAdvisor. He has extensive experience in building community relationships, grassroots campaigns, and organizational strategy in North Texas and the Pacific Northwest. He is a nationally recognized poet whose artistic resume includes organizing hundreds of concerts, curating art shows, and culturally focused events. His aim is to use his experience to curate a world where social and cultural design is informed by equity and understanding.
Interview by our own Yoly Rojas
Yoly: All right. Thanks for meeting with us, Ben Yisrael. Tell us a little bit about who you are, what do you do?
Ben Yisrael: Um, first and foremost, I am an artist, I love art. I love poetry. I'm a writer. And kind of my first community here in Seattle was poets, I was a poet. We have kind of a big national poetry scene. And so that was kind of my intro into the culture here. But I also love to curate events, whether it be parties or pop ups, that's like, that's my life. For money, I do organizational consulting, strategic planning, I have a PhD in public policy from Texas A&M, and run the healthy King County coalition, which is a Health Coalition of over 40 organizations that do health equity work here in Seattle, King County, and throughout the state. Also I’m a policy partner with a strategic firm that has a national reach called elite change, which is a Black owned PR strategic firm. I'm also a policy fellow at the Center for Justice research that's out of TSU in Houston.
Y: So what don't you do?
B: Shut up. [Laughs]
Y: Oh, my God, I didn't know that about you. All right. Well, we are at Likelihood, which is one of many white-owned sneaker businesses. How can people enjoy sneaker culture without appropriating Black people?
B: Yeah, you know, we've had conversations about how a lot of fashion, especially sneaker culture comes out of Black culture. And obviously, I don't think we should say, “hey, Black people make this popular. You can't wear sneakers.” But I think it's important that people understand the history and respect it. And I think people can wear something that another culture has made popular without turning it into a costume.
Y: How does one draw the line, At what point is it appropriate? And what point is it just enjoying it?
B: I think it's the way that you wear it too, right? For example, I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. And at the time when I was coming of age, the whole gang war was going on. And everybody was wearing Dickies and we were all starched up. And of course, there are certain things that come from Black and Latinx and indigenous culture, right? So like, Okay, if you're white, like nobody's gonna tell you can't wear Jordans. But if you're wearing Jordans and you're wearing Dickies and you're sagging, and you got a teardrop tattoo, what are you repping? Do you know what you're actually wearing? And have you earned the right actually, because in our cultures, a lot of the things that you wear, you have to earn that right? You can't just wear something. So like, if you're not an Army Ranger, you can't go around dressed up like you're an Army Ranger. I think people need to understand that what we wear means something and you can't just buy your way into the culture. You have to be a part of it.
Y: Yeah, like du-rags.
B: Exactly. Du-rags and wave caps, all of that. Right. Like it's not just something cute. And I think the other thing too, is acknowledgement. When we talk about braids or cornrows. When Black women wear them, It’s considered unprofessional or ghetto. But when a white mom starts wearing it, then it becomes trendy and they give it a whole new name.
B: When white people cosign for our culture, then it becomes much easier.
Y: So we were talking about style, for Black people style is a form of survival. Growing up in the 90s. We had baseball players, basketball players, entertainers. Everyone dresses, amazing. You don't get to look sloppy, or disheveled. It's a matter of like, if you're not dressed this way, you're not getting the job, because you're not considered professional. You have to look right.
B: When we talk about our style, it's not just to get a job, right? It's also to protect our lives. I can't afford to walk around with a hoodie on. Because I don't want to get stopped by the police.
Y: There are lots of clubs and bars that won’t let you in because they have a dress code specifically saying no fitted caps, no Jordans, or no hoodies on Mike. So all things that essentially Black people would wear and that [white people] would wear anyways. Now it's considered unsafe.
B: We know there's a double standard. it's not just about protection and style. It's also about access. I can't afford to make reservations at a nice restaurant and have the night ruined because I'm not dressed nice enough to look like I have the money to pay. So I think it's always been a weapon. And it's always been about status. Which is why like Black people put so much emphasis on their shoes. Because it was a sign that we're not poor anymore or that we've come up in society.
Y: We've got some Jordans coming out in the OG colorway, it was like a baby blue and white. I remember when those came out, we couldn't wear them to our neighborhood school. Those colors were banned, because they were gang colors, rival gang colors.
We were kids, and you had to choose between groceries, bills, or paying so much money for shoes that you couldn’t even wear because it was a neighborhood school. But if you went down the street to the private school, they could wear it. They can not only afford it, but they can wear it.
B: I remember the two teams that were the hottest in the 90s were the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Cowboys. I grew up in Dallas Fort Worth, so we couldn't wear Bulls jerseys. I had the 45 Jordan jersey. We literally had a police officer come to our school and tell us we couldn't wear Dallas Cowboys jerseys because cowboys stood for Crips.
Y: So you were saying something about how white owned sneaker companies and businesses can give back to the communities that they're benefiting and profiting from? You mentioned the Toms model, which I was like, why?
B: A lot of people are familiar with Toms. It was kind of patronizing, right? The whole thing with buying the shoes, and they’ll give a pair of shoes to some kids in Africa, Mexico. It was this whole charity thing. The point is, well, if you have enough money to spend 600 bucks on sneakers, why can’t for every pair that you buy they will donate one to a Black or brown kid, or something like that? Because it is our culture that made them popular anyway, people wouldn't be spending 500-600 bucks on shoes If it wasn't for Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Kanye West who all made this popular and made it cool. And nobody's ever been cooler than like, Black rappers, or Black athletes.
Nobody's wearing the freaking Kenny G's
Y: Also to be like, Damn, I was begging to be a part of the conversation and at the table as a Black designer. And now everyone's at my door, begging me to do a collaboration to help their brand, help their image. But where were you when I was trying to eat?
B: People are realizing you can't sell culture without us period. Nothing rocks, unless we put our approval on it. One of my friends from Chicago said we are the hands on the clock. People look to us to see what time it is. If we say something's not cool, it's not cool. Once white people start liking something we need to invent something else. There's a reason why when Black people see each other in certain parts of the country, we hit it off with each other because it’s an acknowledgment, I acknowledge your experience, it may not be the same as mine. But I know what you're going through.
Y: And how can non-Black people be aware of some of the violent ways that harm is being done?
B: Yeah, I think one of the first steps is always acknowledgement. if you are using someone else's culture to make your living, I think one, you need to acknowledge that. And two, you need to pay your tithes in some kind of way. What has happened to us in sneaker culture is no different than what has happened to us in technology, what is happening to us and politics and what is happening to us in music. We have literally created a culture and we have been exploited. If you're white and you want to be an ally, acknowledge who's at whose culture you're actually profiting from. And give back to that culture. If you want to continue to succeed because of us. If we die where are your ideas gonna come from?
Y: I mean, first and foremost, it's pay.
B: Yes, pay us. And the crazy thing is, you'll still be rich. The people who are paying Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan they're making millions, it doesn't hurt you to give honor where honor is due.
Y: I'll end with this question. What is there a sneaker that you wish you had when you were younger that is on your to-buy list now?
B: I will say that the Yeezy sons did not exist back then. But if I had known that was coming, I would have invested in Yeezy back when I was 18 even though it didn't exist. But, I didn’t start buying sneakers that cost me money until after I was like 25 because I was too broke. I was able to wear the shoes I wanted to wear, but I had to wait like 2 or 3 years. It's a shame that we can create and make something popular, but we have to wait till we have a nice job.