Elon Byers: Being Your Most Authentic Self
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
When you enter a classroom to teach young adults here in the United States, you notice right away that you are not the only one with experience in life. Your students come from a variety of backgrounds and have life experience that you could never even have understood unless you were in their shoes. To me, this is a humbling and unique experience to be able to connect with humans who come together in one space, yet have the most diverse background imaginable. It is then up to you as the teacher to provide a space where they not only will learn new things, but will feel comfortable speaking up, showing up, and providing the opportunity for their classmates to notice and be aware. There are a lot of changes happening, and one such that I am proud of the Fashion Studies program at Columbia College for stepping up to these new challenges in higher education. With the help of a new chair, it is becoming a place where diversity and inclusion is not just something to work on, it is making it's way into the curriculum. The major strides it has done in the past two years is only going to be stronger, as more students come to the program wanting that change, and with their help, it will become a success story that challenges who I am as an individual, teacher and human being in this society. Those are the places and spaces I feel most comfortable in, and that I give my time and energy in helping see succeed. We can't be an educational system without students, and their voice should matter to all. It is the first thing I want to hear the first moment I meet them, to the last thing I want to hear when they leave my classroom. Their values, opinions, beliefs, passions, are endless and their quest to be unique in this world is inspiring to me.
I had the pleasure of gaining a little more insight with another one of my former students--Elon Byers. From the first day of class, she made it clear that she had something to say. I value and appreciate that, and wanted her to have yet another space to talk, now that she has moved on from Columbia and is pursuing her career. I want my students to be their real authentic self, regardless of where they are, where they go to school or who they might challenge while doing so. With someone so passionate about a particular topic, I would only imagine that the place she chooses to work for after college will have to uphold the same values or at least show that they are open to change. That is exactly what Elon did, and she continues each day outside of the classroom to make her voice heard.
Tell me a little about you. I am a young very unapologetic Black woman from the Northside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have a passion for Diversity and Inclusion within the Fashion Industry. Growing up, I had the unfortunate opportunity of knowing what it feels to not be included. There are even times during my adult hood where I feel I just don't belong. As a Black woman, I feel uncomfortable in almost any area outside of my home. I feel this is because of the lack of representation in the media, the Blaxploitation in films, and just the lack of education on my culture overall. Because of this experience, I am very interested in Fashion Campaigns, Fashion and diversity, and really just being a Fashion Diversity and Inclusion Advocate. I studied Fashion Merchandising and a minor in Cultural Studies with a Social Media Marketing Certificate at Columbia College Chicago. During my time at Columbia, I studied abroad one month in Paris focusing on Creative Writing, and I studied abroad one month in Rome focusing on Exhibition Management: Visitor Engagement. I was also the Academic Coordinator and Workshop Programmer for a Non- Profit titled Project Style. Project Style is a Fashion Program that focuses on building confidence. In my role, I was in charge of programming the confident workshops, setting up the donated Pop-up shops, and training the interns coming in how to teach young women of color. In addition, I was also the lesion between Project Style, and Kids of The Kingdom, Chance the Rapper's summer program.
My passion is to make people feel welcomed.
Tell me about your Columbia College experience.
I would honestly say that my Columbia College Chicago experience was super unique to me, and this is how I feel college should be. During my incoming Freshman tour, my tour guide told me that this was a school that not only focuses on Diversity and Inclusion, but believes in it as well. My first week of class, I knew this statement couldn't be true. Anytime class got on the topic of Diversity everyone in the class looked for me for the answers, including the professors. There were many times diversity issues stuck out in class, and it was up to me to educate the teacher on those issues.
For example; In one of my Fashion courses my Freshman year, I wanted to focus my research paper on one of the first "mainstream" Black designers. My teachers told me I couldn't do him because he wasn't "popular enough" during that time. I wrote a paper about history during this time and why he wasn't popular, my teacher then let me continue the research topic after finally understanding why a Black Designer just wouldn't have been mainstream. Another incident I ran into, a teacher wanted us to go ask our grandparents how they went back to school shopping. If you couldn't reach your grandparents you were allowed to substitute for just someone "older" in your family. I then had to explain to my teacher segregation was happening around that time, and that my grandparents didn't have those same opportunities. She then wanted me to stand up to the entire class and explain why I couldn't do my assignment, which was very humiliating for me at the time.
These are a few examples of assignments that show lack of diversity in Columbia but that doesn't include the actually Diversity I see day to day. I noticed all security guards, and janitors were people of color, and I also noticed that MOST people in leadership positions in the Fashion department were NOT People of color. Overall, these are just a few issues I noticed. but not all, every day was a unique experience from me being too loud, too bold, too unapologetic. Being at Columbia and hearing stories from people of color and how they truly felt misplaced in college encouraged me to study Diversity. I want to be that person who changes the way we look at Diversity not just black and white, but including tattoos, models with disabilities, religion diversity, and so much more.
In the end, I feel like tools weren't easily accessible at Columbia but if you reached out for things, with work and time you will be able to get it. I knew very early on that I wanted to have a successful college career, I made relationships with my leaders, my teachers, advisors, and people that just passed by. I did this to have people to lean on not only during my college career, but after. Columbia College Chicago definitely has a lot of things to work on, but the thing I have to give them credit for is Columbia understands the work they have to do - now it's up to them to do the work.
I hope that the curriculum becomes more inclusive and understanding to all. That as the times change, professors are open to change as well. I hope that the school shows more authentic diversity outside and inside the classroom. I would love to see more professors of colors, students of color, and leaders in the building of color. And I would definitely love to see more support for students of color inside and outside of class. I have so many ideas on how these ideas can come to life. I would actually love nothing more than to have the opportunity to push Columbia to its greatest potential to all.
What career do you want, and what change do you hope to make in the diversity in fashion.
My ideal career would be to Curate Fashion Campaigns doing contracted work for different Fashion Companies around the world. Diversity in fashion is limited. I see black, white, skinny, and curvy and that's all. There are categories companies forget to dig into, and I want to be the person who makes ALL Diversity a normal thing, and not something we do to fit trends. I want to see more models with disabilities, more models in hajibs. I want to see the curvy section go away and combine that with the Woman section overall. I want to see curves outside of just the curvy section, and models from all around the globe. I want to see models with different hair colors, blue, green, models with tattoos, models with acne. The list continues. I see opportunities that people are missing, and I want to catch them. Instead of following diversity trends within Fashion I would love to create Diversity Trends in Fashion. I want to be an advocate for the unheard, and get those stories listened too.
Can you talk about your experience working for Target and is the company making positive changes and reacting to our health crisis or diversity in the way you feel safe and appreciated?
I am currently an Executive Team Lead at Target Corporations Downtown Minneapolis. Target is amazing. I love everything about Target from how they treat team members in stores, to how they handle the entire guest experience. One cool thing about Target employee's in stores is there are no titles on name tags. That way, there are no ways to tell a "manager" from the "Janitor" and that is something I think all companies should consider. Target has a lot of Diversity work to do, especially in stores. BUT I will say that Target is one of the most dedicated Retailers on DNI. From age diversity, model diversity, and leadership diversity Target truly understands. Every week we get new DNI updates. My very favorite upcoming on his putting "Black Owned" tags on products owned by Black Companies, and they also just added Juneteenth to their Holidays! I honestly can't wait to see where the next few years takes Target. During the riots in Minneapolis, Targets in different areas were looted, and destroyed. Target then immediately released a statement stating that merchandise can be replaced, and Black Lives can't. After that incident I honestly didn't want to work anywhere else. From a safety standpoint - I think there are a few more safety precautions Target can be taking due to Covid 19. But for now, they are doing a really good job at keeping us safe and finding solutions. Team members now have tons of Covid related resources they can use like day care. And if you feel uncomfortable working during these times, you may take a leave and come back to your job when you feel comfortable again. Target values humans. They treat their staff as humans, not robots - and they really dig into who YOU are. I absolutely LOVE Target and I stand behind them 100%.