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August 13, 2020
The Spark: Talking to 15 Percent Pledge Founder Aurora James


Photo Courtesy of Aurora James

On the streets of Brooklyn it’s not uncommon to spot a pair of Brother Vellies. They’re the kind of shoes that quickly get people’s attention whether it's Yin Yang shearling patchwork boots or fuzzy lilac marabou sandals. Founded by designer Aurora James in 2013, the sustainably-minded label quickly gained a following for its fusion of traditional African shoe-making techniques with interesting color palettes and silhouettes. Seven years and a CFDA award later, James is devoting herself to a new cause, confronting the issue of racial inequality by founding an initiative called the 15 Percent Pledge.

After the murder of George Floyd, James found herself frustrated and unsatisfied with the performative allyship of brands and companies demonstrated across social media. She created the 15 Percent Pledge to provide accountable action towards uplifting Black-owned businesses. The initiative calls on retailers to allot 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, a percentage also representative of America’s Black population. With companies like Sephora, West Elm and MedMen already committing to the pledge, James is continuously busy expanding her non-profit’s operations while still running a fashion brand.

August is National Black Business Month, which is a timely way to discuss and support Black-owned business (although consumers should be doing that all year). With that in mind, we caught up with the Toronto-bred entrepreneur to talk more about the pledge, the importance of accountability and what she’s up to next.

On creating the 15 Percent Pledge:

The pledge was created as a response to the murder of George Floyd. I saw all of these messages and statements happening on Instagram and in my inbox, but I wasn't necessarily feeling it. People were saying, 'I stand with you, I support you', but it wasn't resonating with me — I didn’t feel like these large corporations were really supporting me.

I had thought before about issues like economic inequality and how the country does not do enough to support Black-owned businesses but the idea actually came to me on the spot on a Saturday. An hour later I posted about it on Instagram. I wanted to put a metric on what meaningful long term, accountable support might look like. Black people in this country make up 15% of the population, they should have 15% of the shelf space, and these large retailers should be collaborating more with small Black-owned businesses. 

On how the pledge expanded:

I posted about it on Instagram on a Saturday, and by Monday afternoon we launched the petition. Within the first ten days, Sephora was the first company to take the pledge which was really exciting. We realized that there is a lot of work to be done, so we needed to make this a non-profit organization in order to keep doing this work. A lot of the companies that have taken the pledge are making multi-year commitments because there’s understanding that this isn't something that can happen overnight — it's going to take a lot of time.

On the importance of accountability:

I think a lot of these large retailers [who haven’t joined the pledge] don't want to have any outside accountability. It seems like they are not interested in letting Black people into the inner workings of their companies. It's easier for them to make a donation and continue on with business as usual. When you have a company like Target make a donation of $10 million dollars, it sounds nice, but Black people in America spend more than $10 million on any given morning at Target stores across the country. In the end, that donation isn't really enough: What we're actually asking for is economic equality. 

On Black Business Month:

With the 15 Percent Pledge every month is Black-owned business month, but I’m still excited that there is actually a month dedicated to supporting Black businesses in general. As consumers it’s good for people to keep top of mind which businesses they are frequenting, and of the products they're buying are coming from black owned businesses. It’s one great month to be especially aware of that. 

On growing up around cannabis:

I grew up in Jamaica so it was an omnipresent part of my existence, even though I’m not really dying to perpetuate a stereotype. My mom has smoked marijuana for as long as I can remember, and quite proudly. For me, it’s about trying to understand the medicinal values of cannabis, which was something my mom was also pretty passionate about. Several years ago I remember going to a protest with her in downtown Toronto after Woody Harrelson was arrested for planting hemp seeds, or something like that. In Canada cannabis was always spoken about as if it were only a matter of time until it would be legalized. It didn’t have the stigma that it has in parts of America.

On her relationship with cannabis now:

I thought about doing a lot of things in the cannabis space but I think it’s about waiting for the right time and the right opportunity. There’s a need for black women specifically within that space. That said, we did release a burning dish for our Brother Vellies subscription program called Something Special, and I really loved that. 

A burning dish is essentially a type of ashtray. My mom always had a great collection of really beautiful and different ashtrays, so it’s something that I’ve also always been very attracted to. It seems that a lot of people aren't smoking in the traditional way that they used to, but there’s something very ritualistic about it that I find mesmerizing. 

Last night I also had a really good bath with this CBD bath bomb that my friend Hannah made. These baths could be a ritual, but I have to make more time. 

On the importance of representation within the cannabis space:

There's room for every single industry to improve, and the cannabis industry has a long way to go. Advocating around black businesses to me is in relation to [addressing racial inequalities within the cannabis industry] because in that space so much has been done to oppress Black and Brown people when it comes to financial gain. 

Black people make up only 4.3% of the legal cannabis industry at an ownership level. Access to capital and social injustice are barriers that have kept many from applying for a license. MedMen’s support of the 15 Percent Pledge as a large cannabis retailer sets an important precedent for change as it helps to increase representation and financial equality for Black people in the cannabis community.

On the inequalities of the cannabis industry:

My main anxiety around it is thinking about how black people specifically are still incarcerated for marijuana related offenses, and how so much money is also being made by certain groups of people now that cannabis has become more available. The scale needs to be balanced and we need to ensure that resources and money is allocated towards revisiting cases where people are still incarcerated.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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