Social Status x Nike Dunk “Free Lunch”: Interview with James Whitner


When James Whitner and I last spoke, the product as a vehicle for meaningful storytelling and societal change was one of the main topics. In streetwear and sneaker culture, which is inherently political, products can convey powerful messages. The various retail spaces and brands of the Whitaker group are no strangers to this tool. In fact, inspiration for the recently unveiled Social Status x Nike Dunk “Free Lunch” is at the center of one of Whitner’s most ambitious projects to date.

Collaborating with sneakers is only part of a multi-faceted approach to giving back to the community. Whitner reveals that the East Liberty Social Status store in Pittsburgh, Pa. Has been renovated and a community center has been renovated, opened and staffed in the old Whitner neighborhood in Mon-View Heights. But to understand the whole project, you have to understand the importance of the Free Lunch program.

The Free Lunch Program is the inspiration and the catalyst for the whole project. Whitner, who himself benefited from the program as a child, explains why Free Lunch was so important to him and the rest to many disadvantaged and disadvantaged children, many of whom come from minority backgrounds. “The free lunch was food for people who don’t have food. But you don’t realize how bad it is when you’re a kid, because you’re just living in your existence, ”he says. “Is there joy in the struggle, if that makes sense?” This is probably the easiest way to put it.

The joy Whitner refers to is the camaraderie, people, and community that are built around programs like Free Lunch. “You start to find connections with people who all want to find their way [of poverty] for different reasons, ”he explains.

But the narrative goes beyond a simple government aid program – an ironic program in the sense that it alleviates a tiny part of the burden of inequality, while existing only because of said social inequality. Its existence is good, while its necessity is a symptom of social and political failures.

“It’s a project that has been in the mix since the end of 2019,” explains Whitner. “On a larger scale, it’s about education and rights. It is about understanding that much of the world does not have some of the same privileges. Is it a child’s fault that he was born under these circumstances? What are some of the systemic issues? It’s about shedding light on these issues and trying to get people to really invest in the idea of ​​systemic equality.

Echoing our last conversation, Whitner says it’s all about humanity, and that you are only as strong as your weakest link. “Humanity cannot be better unless we are all shaken up. When 80 percent of the school lives in poverty and the resources it obtains are very different from those of its counterparts with very different income levels, are they really shaken? ” he asks.

This is the goal of the latest collaboration and the projects that accompany it: to try to give underserved groups the resources and tools to build a better life. One of the main drivers is the beSocial community center that Whitner and her team have built in Mon-View Heights. The community center, where Whitner himself went for free lunches as a child, is staffed and staffed by a dedicated team of the Whitaker Project, the non-profit arm of the Whitaker Group that also manages programming. and beSocial spaces in its various cities.

“I watched for years without resources how the people in this community tried to help as best they could to supplement what the children didn’t get in school or what they couldn’t. get at home. They just never had enough resources, ”says Whitner.

Now, with the resources to help make a difference, Whitner and his team have a goal and a clear idea of ​​how they’re going to achieve it – although he admits they won’t be able to make it day in and day out. the following day. “The aim is to stabilize the education of children. Then our next goal would be to stabilize the education of all the children in a household, so that they get a high level of education. Then we can simultaneously make sure that the parent in the household is educated to a level that allows them to get gainful employment, ”says Whitner. “Once they have found gainful employment and have a stable income, we can start working on the idea of ​​homeownership. “

Homeownership is a key step in changing the fortunes of families living in Mon-View Heights, 80% of which, according to Whitner, are single-parent households and female-headed households. Whitner explains that these housing projects were never meant to be permanent living situations, but rather transitional living spaces. But when resources like the community center and local government failed to provide adequate support to people living in these communities, people ended up stuck for generations.

The beSocial community center is the first step in changing this. “We are working in partnership with Mon-View Heights to examine the programs as being offered in the city of Pittsburgh and how can we integrate some of these services into this center,” Whitner said. “We’re the one who comes in and we say, okay, how do we take this thinking and now are we really focusing on building the community in a meaningful way?” “

Another big part of community building is how the Whitaker Group has used their respective outlets to educate their consumers, disseminate information about social justice and inequality, and simply be a place where like-minded people ideas can connect to each other. The entire East Liberty location has been reworked so that the internal beSocial community space is the first area visitors and consumers interact with when they walk through the door. It is only when customers browse this internal community experience area that they enter the Social Status retail space, where they can purchase products.

“In this case, it was very important to lead with community and engagement, especially in a place that was very difficult,” says Whitner, noting that the store’s location intersects with three historically black neighborhoods in Garfield, Homewood. and Larimer. “Normally, our community spaces are behind the retail business. [After going through the community space and checking out the retail area] you can either take the elevator or the stairs to the third floor, where there is a new art space, art gallery 38a.

Art, and equal access to it as a creator and a consumer, is incredibly vital to Whitner and his team. “Art can be so important in bridging the gap between cultures and really breaking down walls,” he says.

In addition to Art Gallery 38a, where local artists and creatives can show off their work and launch their careers where they might not have been allowed to enter the exclusive art world, the space community on the first floor will present a range of interactive screens and digital tools to allow the community of each store to interact with each other.

It’s a concept Whitner has already introduced to some of its other stores and will continue to do so. The evolution of the East Liberty store probably would have happened anyway, but the Nike Dunk “Free Lunch” was the perfect opportunity to wrap the project up in a great storytelling moment and come full circle, starting in Pittsburgh.

The community center and the remodel will obviously have more direct impact on the community than a shoe that will sell immediately after its release. But the Social Status Dunk – Whitner is quick to say that the Dunk was created specifically for this project and therefore not a Mid but simply the “Social Status Dunk” – is special in itself.

“I don’t like to use the word Mid, but it’s more of a lower or lower that has never been made at Nike Sportswear level. We wanted something of our own to continue telling this legacy story. Whitner explains. “Right now, we own it. This model does not exist. It was built especially for us. People will know, the only time you’ll see this product is when we tell a story.

The idea is that this Social Status Dunk can be harnessed in the future to tell more stories, which comes down to the strategy of using products to initiate meaningful change. In this case, the “Free Lunch” Social Status Dunk raises consumers’ awareness of endemic social inequalities but is also part of a deployment that directly helps a large number of people.

It’s clear who this Dunk is for: young people. “You are serving an older and more established population in A Ma Maniere. They made their decision. They know what they want and they have disposable income, ”says Whitner, comparing the drop to the A Ma Maniere Air Jordan 3 that dropped recently. “The kid who goes to Social Status wants to take risks. They create the new. They then create.

As serious and important as the theme of the sneaker is, Whitner and Social Status approached the campaign visuals with the aforementioned glee in mind. “Everyone expects the idea of ​​unhappiness and sadness. It will definitely make you realize that there are people who have completely different economic circumstances, ”he says. “But you will see that there is joy in all neighborhoods. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re not having fun.

With the release still a few weeks away, the Social Status team began to feed the drip community with content and teasers. The widespread positive reaction to the shoe means the Social Status Dunk is already shaping up to be the sneaker of the summer – not just because the product lives up to it, but also because of the masterful storytelling and tangible impact. that it will have on the community.

Stay tuned for more information on Social Status x Nike Dunk’s “Free Lunch”.

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