Open Letter to Gucci
On June 22, 2010 I was released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence, with seven of those years being in solitary confinement. When I walked out of prison I didn’t have much to call my own other than my dream of making a difference in the world. The day I walked out I was slapped in the face by the reality that there was a high expectation that I would return to prison after six months or so. I mean imagine walking out of prison after two decades with your head full of optimism and heart full of compassion, only to be told by the Correction Officer that he would see you back in six months. Well that was my reintroduction to society, however I had other plans in mind, including working hard to make sure young men and women growing up in my community didn’t have to suffer my fate. I began visiting schools in my city of Detroit as soon as I was released and within a couple of months I adopted two High Schools in my community. I started a mentoring program that led to me winning an award called Black Male Engagement Leadership award-even though they said I would be back in prison in six months.
In 2012 I was given the distinguished honor of being selected to the innaugural class of MIT Media Lab Director’s fellows alongside the likes of JJ Abrams, Maurice Ashley, Baratunde Thurston and many other luminaries. I started a project there called The Atonement Project which was nominated for a TED prize-I didn’t win however I was one of 20 finalist even though they said I would be back in prison after six months.
In 2013 I was hired to teach a class at the University of Michigan. I don’t have a Phd, a Bachelors Degree, a Masters Degree or Associates degree, I simply have a GED and a love for teaching. For three semesters I taught some of the most incredible students in the world-even though they said I would be back in prison in six months.
In 2014 I received a standing ovation at TED’s 30th anniversary and my talk was named one of the best talks of the year. That talk now has over 1.4 million views even though they said I would be back in prison in six months.
In 2015 I received Manchester Universities Innovator of the Year Award. Later in the year I was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey for her Super Soul Sunday show. She went on to say not only was it one of the best interviews of her career, she said it was one of the best conversations in her life.
In 2016 my memoir Writing My Wrongs debuted on the New York Times Bestsellers list. I was nominated for Ebony Magazines Power 100 and named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100 leaders-even though they said I would be back in prison in six months.
On June 6th of this year I launched a media company called Mind Blown Media. The purpose of which is to create highly entertaining content with deep social impact-even though they said I would be back in prison in six months. Now I know you are wondering what all of this has to do with Gucci, so allow me to explain.
Last week I was sent a message from a fellow Criminal Justice Reform activist name Leyla Martinez. She shared an article she had written about your Criminal Couture line. To say I was disappointed in your recent fashion campaign is an understatement. As a onetime loyal customer, not only am I disappointed, I am offended and disgusted with your line.
When I was in prison we weren’t allowed to make our own fashion choices, its one of the many liberties you lose when you go to prison. When I was released from prison it was one of the many things I wanted to change. I vowed to always make fashion choices that honored my sense of style and that reflected my current values as a man who has worked hard to build his dreams from the ground up. I grew up on Hip Hop and often took my fashion cues from artist within that culture. As I am sure you know the Gucci brand is a Hip Hop staple and its one of the things that saddens me the most. Your lack of sensitivity to the culture and the many consumers who come from the culture is the ultimate sign of disrespect. The fact that you are attempting to hide it behind humor is even sadder-as there is nothing remotely funny about people losing their freedom, being brutalized and tortured in prison.
What you have done is the musical equivalent of Miley Cyrus preying on the culture when it benefitted her agenda and then discarding us like soiled toilet paper after we have served our purpose. Did you not once stop to think about the 2.2 million men and women in prisons throughout the USA, where a large portion of your clientale live? Did you not once stop to think that your brand would now be lumped in with the rest of the culture vultures who pick the meat from the bones of our communities and then fly off to find more victims. Did you not stop once to think about the many people who select your brand, because they believe it represents excellence in the fashion world and a sign of success from those who come from nothing? I am one of those who came from nothing and celebrated my success by adorning myself in attire that I believed was a model for excellence. How wrong I was.
I purchased my first two pair of Gucci sneakers when I found out I would be speaking at TED’s conference. At the time I could barely afford them, but I felt like I deserved to treat myself and honor my success. I sacrificed what felt like a small fortune at the time, because I thought it was worth it. When the bloom line came out I purchased shoes and a jacket from your brand as a gift to myself for accomplishing a major goal-becoming a published author. While being awarded for my service in my community a group of students at Detroit Job Corp pooled their resources and surprised me with a Gucci watch-imagine how heartbreaking it is for me to tell them that I may no longer be able to wear that watch.
Whenever I go back inside prisons to speak I usually wear a pair of Gucci sneakers, because I want to remind the men and women inside that dreams do come true. I was intentional about letting them see the trappings of success, because its important for them to know that there is a life beyond the bars. So imagine my shock when I saw the Criminal Couture making a mockery of the men and women I work hard to inspire to be the best in all they do and to dream outside of their circumstances. It is hurtful, disrespectful, and dehumanizing to profit off the pain and suffering of millions who languish away in prison. Oftentimes they don’t have a voice or a say so in these matters-well all of that was changed the moment they released me and my colleagues like Leyla Martinez. We refuse to allow their voices to be silenced by bars.
In closing I encourage you to do the humane thing and discontinue the line and apologize to those of us who are fighting the injustice system. Have the courage to say you were wrong and didn’t think this through. Lastly a thoughtful gesture would be to hire people who were formerly incarcerated and give them a chance to succeed in a society that is often telling them they are unworthy.