Aurora James, the founder of fashion company Brother Vellies and the Fifteen Percent Pledge, an initiative that calls on major retailers to stock their shelves with more Black-owned brands, is passionate about empowering the Black community to reach their full potential, whether it be through fashion, business or politics. Ahead of this year's midterm elections, she partnered with the well-known spirits brand Johnnie Walker for its First Strides initiative, which provides Black creators and other disenfranchised groups with opportunities to excel in their endeavors.

In light of the midterm elections, the initiative is also assisting in promoting the nonprofit organization She Should Run’s the mission of encouraging 250,000 women to "imagine their name on the ballot" by 2030. James also created a sweatsuit set inspired by its mission, with all proceeds supporting the nonprofit.

Below, James spoke with EBONY about her partnership with the brand, the importance of the midterm elections, and why women should seek out leadership positions in politics.

EBONY: You have a proven display of activism through your creation of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which has significantly changed the game for Black-owned businesses. What influences initially sparked your activism? 

Aurora James: I grew up between Canada and Jamaica, and I have a mom who is wholly herself and wants to show up entirely as herself in every single space, no matter what. Growing up, I saw that that was a much easier proposition in Canada than what I later learned would be true in America. Coming to the United States and understanding a little bit more about some of the weight of being American and, for example, not having access to health care at the ready. On a cellular level, understanding this difference and how it can inform your every day was eye-opening. Not to mention some other inequities we see, such as pay inequity. My activism was sparked as a reaction to the environment and the feeling that something needed to be done about these issues. Even as a creative person, you will only create or exist within your own capacity. When you are not giving people resources to exist and to show up fully, wholly, and healthfully, you will never be able to get or see the best of that person. I genuinely believe, from the bottom of my heart, that everybody deserves an opportunity to be at their best. In a country with a lot to give and is incredibly wealthy, there's no reason every child that's born shouldn't have the opportunity to reach their truest and fullest potential. It's not only important for that individual, but it's also in the country's best interest.

Why are midterm elections so important, this year especially?

I didn't understand how powerful the machine that strives to keep voices down in this country and tells folks that it is not to their benefit to be heard. Black women are incredibly powerful and a whole force at work tries to keep our voices quiet, cast doubt in our own community, and be divisive. We cannot fall prey to that. We must stand up for each other, support each other unabashedly and give each other the benefit of the doubt. It's especially important to support and rally behind Black women who seek to take on such roles as public office. For example, Stacey Abrams has done so much over the past few years, but when I look on social media, I barely see people supporting her. She is the woman that we need and want to see making change. So, how can we take what we're doing and carve out just a little bit more time to show up for these women who are putting themselves out there in service of their community? How can we support women we know will make a positive impact? Because of where I was raised, I've seen what happens when a country can run with access to free health care and government assistance in many ways. My friends who are artists at home get grants all the time from the government to work on their creative projects. What happens when you start restructuring parts of the government to be in service to people, in service of the community, and in service of black people?

Having worked on the Fifteen Percent Pledge for the past two years, I know firsthand that restructuring existing systems to be in service of diversity is not only the right thing to do, but it's also an innovative thing to do. It's also a healthy thing to do for organizations, companies, and the country. When we look at organizations like She Should Run and their quest to get more women to consider public office, it's a critical action. The more women we have in these roles, the better off our communities will be.

Can you share why She Should Run, and Johnnie Walker’s “First Strides” partnership inspired you and made you want to align with the two?

I'm grateful that Johnnie Walker has chosen to amplify She Should Run. It's an incredible organization. I remember meeting someone from She Should Run, and they gave me a sticker to write the name of a friend of yours that you thought should run I thought to myself, "Oh, my God, can I have 15 of those?" because there are so many women in my life that I think should run for office. It's easy to feel like we are not the right person for a job and that someone else should do it. But that's wrong, we are the right person. Women spend so much time advocating for their communities and families. What happens when we start doing that on a larger scale? I couldn't be more excited to amplify this organization because they're doing the work and will hopefully inspire some women to consider a run.

You created a midterm election-inspired sweatshirt design co-branded by Johnnie Walker, and She Should Run. What went into the ideation and design process?

I'm also a shoe designer, right? When I first started designing heels, my mom reminded me that high heels were historically used as a tool to stop women from being able to run away from men. I always had that in the back of my mind and wanted to find a way to use shoes and heels as a tool to empower women instead and feel like they could go the distance. I wanted to do this not just for women with the financial means and privilege to purchase the shoes but also for the woman involved in the supply chain of actually making those shoes so that they're paid fairly. That's how I equate luxury—as being a healthy ecosystem. It does not have to do with like interlocking letters of a brand, it has everything to do with the intention behind the brand, the supply chain, and how that brand shows up for its customers. So in looking at shoes that way, I also look at clothes right. I've been thinking about myself and some of the work that I've been doing over the past few years that I think has been, at times, has been very emotionally draining. I'm a fashion person, but I didn't purchase my first pair of sweatpants until January 2020. I had a weird mental thing where I felt I didn't deserve to be comfortable. With that said, I wanted to create an outfit that would allow me to show up as comfortably as possible and wear my values on my sleeve. That was what I was focusing on here, and I think that's what I did with this collaboration.

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Johnnie Walker x Brother Vellies x She Should Run Sweatsuit, $225, BrotherVellies.com. Image: courtesy of Brother Vellies