James Whitner, owner and founder of The Whitaker Group, is using fashion as a platform to empower Black communities.
The company, comprised of a network of men’s wear stores like contemporary A Ma Maniére, streetwear and trend-driven shops Social Status and APB, and streetwear label Prosper, has embraced social outreach to help local consumers learn about financial literacy, professional and business developments, housing education, voter suppression, health and wellness, food education, political education and prison reform.
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Whitner is starting the year with a conversation on Jan. 28 under Free Game, one of the Whitaker Group’s six flagship programs, with Alesha S. Brown, founder and executive director of advocacy group For the Struggle, and is launching an entrepreneurship program called Product Swap. While the talks were once live, the pandemic has put a pause on that.
“Before COVID-19, I would show up in our cities and [in] the community, but it’s different now,” Whitner said. Now, the up to three-hour sessions are held on Zoom and have hosted as many as 500 guests, who all have an opportunity to interact and ask questions of experts present.
The first virtual Free Game session was held in April 2020 and, leading up to the election, Whitner hosted one on voter suppression and financial literacy, to help empower people to make sure their voices were heard and their votes counted. In addition to Free Game, the company hosts other outreach programs, like Brand(ed), Women Within, Bag Talk, Fight With Rights and the sports clubs Run Clubs, Hoop Clubs and Bike Clubs.
Whitner’s latest endeavor, Product Swap, will aim to create pathways to legal entrepreneurship for those who want to establish more secure and sustainable means of income.
“I grew up in the projects and most of my friends dropped out of high school at young ages,” Whitner said. “People were just trying to figure out how to make it. I watched a lot of my friends go to the streets [out of] pure necessity. Public education in poor neighborhoods [isn’t] set up to help Black children get into college the right way. We have to catch children when they come out of middle school. They don’t make it out of middle school whole and so they don’t last through high school.”
Whitner sees Product Swap as an education in entrepreneurship for those who didn’t have the opportunity to learn things the right way. A legal hustle.
“Product Swap is something I was truly intentional about having be a part of our program,” Whitner said. “It’s a hard transition to leave fast money alone. I want to help people make that transition. We need to be intentional about road mapping for our kids. There are a lot of options open to people if they understand how to pivot.”
In driving that lesson in pivoting, Whitner had some help from Vice President Kamala Harris.
After Harris visited the Social Status store in North Carolina in October, she suggested Whitner add lessons in street law to his outreach programs. So he did.
“Most Black kids don’t understand what their basic rights are when dealing with law enforcement and landlords,” Whitner said. “If no one is informing us of our rights then no wonder we’re being taken advantage of.”
With his effort and others like it, Whitner is hopeful about what the new administration could mean for more ethical law enforcement and greater racial justice.
“We’ve had the most divisive president of our history. A president actually ignited racial violence,” he said. “Vice President Harris has been able to shatter the ceiling. The momentum that’s happening and using our voices for change, I feel like President Obama started it. We took a few steps back with Trump, but my hope is we’ll be able to get in and get some level of racial equality and justice and help the communities that need it the most.”
The Whitaker Group is comprised of 17 locations across four retailers in Whitner’s hometown of Pittsburgh, as well as Washington, D.C.; Jersey City, New Jersey; Atlanta, and the Southeastern U.S. Whitner has his sights on Baltimore and Detroit next, two cities largely populated by Black communities, for new Social Status stores, as well as Harlem in New York City.
“Harlem is definitely happening.…It’s about being in the community the right way. The idea to be in the heartbeat of sophisticated Black culture, art, music — Harlem was the melting pot for that so the idea for me is to bring the modern Harlem Renaissance back,” he said. “You innovate or be innovated. Innovation is at the heart of pushing our communities forward. I’m super excited to get in and continue building on the legacy of what Harlem has been and bringing innovative ideas to that community.”