Vassar hosts annual Black History Month Keynote Address virtually for the first time

Annabelle Wang/The Miscellany News

On Monday evening, Feb. 15, Vassar’s Black Students’ Union (BSU) and the ALANA Center hosted their annual Black History Month Keynote Address, for the first time over Zoom. Close to 200 Vassar students and faculty members logged on to attend the event and celebrate the history of the African diaspora together virtually.

The address, entitled “The Pandemic and Black Lives Matter: How Young People Are Building a New Normal,” featured The Cut’s Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner. The event was moderated by the Director of the ALANA Center Kevin Collins, BSU co-chair of the Political Education Committee Chelsea Quayenortey ’22 and BSU co-historian Kiah Matherson ’22.

Matherson commenced the program with a reading of her own poem, called “The Black Print.” Collins followed up with a brief introduction to Peoples Wagner and explained why the members of BSU and the ALANA Center selected her to be the 2021 keynote speaker. 

This past year’s events—such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurrection of the Black Lives Matter Movement incited by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—made this year’s Black History Month particularly prescient. “It was important to BSU and to the ALANA Center to bring a voice that could speak to the specific times we are in. And I think we selected the perfect person to do so,” Collins said. 

In 2018, Peoples Wagner was appointed as the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue at the age of 29, making her the youngest, as well as the third Black, Editor-in-Chief of any Condé Nast publication. Peoples Wagner assumed the Editor-In-Chief position at The Cut this year. Collins relished the opportunity to welcome the accomplished editor. “Sharing her own personal and professional experiences, branding savvy and leadership expertise, Peoples Wagner will provide honest, authentic advice that not only inspires, but will give us the tools to take action,” he said.  

Peoples Wagner then began her keynote speech. She opened her address with her personal life mantra, “inclusivity being the lens in which we see everything.” This is a refrain that guides all her work.

She remarked, “There are a lot of people who have been able to have a seat at the table. I think what has changed things…is really having that seat at the table but also then shaking the table and making changes and actually using that table so that you can push things forward.”

When she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue, she wanted to ensure she used her position to change the fashion industry for the better and strive for racial inclusivity. Peoples Wagner proceeded to recount her early encounters with racism in the industry when she started out as a fashion editor at The Cut. 

She recalled one photoshoot she had with Emmy-nominated actress and writer Issa Rae in 2016. When Peoples Wagner tried to reach out to luxury brands for clothing and jewelry, they refused to lend any of their products because Rae did not fit their brand.

“It was a really big moment for me, personally,” said Peoples Wanger. “All these brands say they’re so woke, they say they care, they say they care about diversity. But then when it came to me shooting a Black woman who is doing incredible things, it’s like, she’s not our aesthetic.”     

The presenter then spoke about her most critically-acclaimed work “Everywhere and Nowhere: What it’s really like to be black and work in fashion.” In this article, Peoples Wagner interviewed and collected over 100 narratives from Black professionals who held mid- to senior-level positions in the fashion industry, revealing the daily struggles faced by even managerial-level Black professionals.

Peoples Wagner recalled the fear she had prior to publishing the piece: “This was really scary … There were so many senior Black people who…warned me that I would be blacklisted…if I wrote a piece like this because it was too honest and it was too transparent of what was happening in the industry.”

Still, she is glad to have published the piece because it “led to so many conversations of ‘Okay, this is not just a moment in time. How do we make this a movement? How do we actually change the industry?’.” 

One way she has been trying to create systemic change in the fashion industry is through the Black in Fashion Council (BIFC). Spurred to action by her professional experiences and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Peoples Wagner co-founded BIFC with public relations specialist Sandrine Charles to set a new standard for inclusivity in the fashion industry. The council is intended to promote accountability and transparency among brands that elect to be a part of the coalition. When a company decides to partner with BIFC, they are obligated to work with the council for three years to ensure substantial change is made. As of now, over 100 brands have signed up to be a part of BIFC.

To hold brands accountable, BIFC has established a Corporate Equity Index, which is a new set of industry-wide standards for beauty brands. For example, all beauty editors are required to have extensive knowledge about Black beauty in addition to European cosmetic standards.

Peoples Wagner concluded, “What we’re really trying to do with that Corporate Equity Index is challenge a lot of these really important things that I think are long overdue. It really is an industry-wide standard to really see how we can really put those policies into practice.”

Peoples Wagner’s presentation was followed by a Q&A session during which she answered a variety of questions from both the moderators and the audience. The exchange covered a variety of topics ranging from activism during the 21st century and career advice to her current favorite Black-owned businesses.

At one point, she candidly spoke about the trials and tribulations she faced during her journey in fashion journalism. She reflected that ever since college, her life has always been “about the hustle.” She detailed her first time interning with Teen Vogue, during which she was paid $9 per hour and had to work three other jobs to stay afloat.

This particularly resonated with Quayenortey. In an interview with The Miscellany News, she shared, “For Black women, Black students, especially low-income Black people, you can’t survive in the fashion industry without having two, three, four jobs on the side. There’re so many of us who have these talents, aspirations and these goals to make it in the industry…but we can’t for no other reason except socioeconomic injustices.” Quayenortey continued, “That really hit for me because it’s not just specific to the fashion industry but it’s every other industry.”

Further on in the Q&A, Peoples Wagner explained how she is thankful to have obtained the position she is in now because she is able to “readily make culture and not chase it.”

Towards the end of the discussion, Peoples Wagner provided young people in the audience, specifically young people of color, with some career advice. She advised burgeoning professionals to be “less thirsty for the attention, less thirsty for how it looks on social media, because if you are hungry to do the work, all that other stuff will come.” 

After the event, many attendees expressed their appreciation for the program despite it not being in person. 

BSU Secretary Jade Smith ’21 reflected on the broader importance of such Black History Month celebrations as the Keynote Address: “Black History Month is important for America, especially in our politically charged time of police brutality and mass incarceration, two traumas that deeply impact Black people.” She continued, “Black History Month is especially needed on Vassar’s campus. Vassar needs more Black people, from Black students to Black professors. And it needs to highlight the Black students and professors we do have on this campus, who are putting in the work year-round to create better relationships amongst Black people.”

Vassar’s BSU and ALANA Center will continue their virtual celebration of Black History Month with more events in the coming weeks. On Feb. 26 at 10:30 a.m. EST, the ALANA Center will be co-hosting a virtual lecture on health disparities affecting communities of color with an emphasis on how COVID-19 has impacted Black communities disproportionately. BSU will be hosting a poetry reading and Q&A featuring accomplished Afro-Latina poet Dr. Raina Leon and 2020 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellow Luther Hughes on Feb. 26 at 5:00 p.m. EST. 
For a recording of Lindsay Peoples Wagner’s full Keynote Address, email KCollins@vassar.edu.

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