In the summer months of June through September, countless Americans across the country gather for a special tradition known as the family reunion. For Black Americans, the practice is steeped in a rich history, whereby African Americans took out ads in hopes of reuniting with lost family members to help define the family unit post-slavery in their new status as free people.
Today the reunion continues for much of the same reasons—to reinforce family connections and celebrate the joyous moments that have taken place between events. Fitting then, that in June, after a two-year hiatus spurred by the pandemic, the New York Urban League (NYUL) gathered a room full of professionals, politicians, sponsors, and supporters for the 56th Annual Frederick Douglass Awards Gala. They dubbed the midtown Manhattan event the “family reunion gala.” The night honored Rashida Jones, President of MSNBC; Tony Award-winning actress and civil rights advocate Phylicia Rashad; Joi Brown, founder and CEO of Culture Creators; and impact leader and former chairman and CEO of Ashley Stewart, James Rhee.
“I paused when they emailed me and I think I looked at the email for several days,” Rhee, an Asian-American business exec tells EBONY weeks later about the email he received from NY Urban League President Arva Rice stating that the organization wanted to recognize him. “It was just one of those really deep appreciations that you can physically feel in your chest. That's how I felt. It was not an appreciation in my mind. It was more in my soul.”
For more than seven years, Rhee was at the helm of Ashley Stewart, the New Jersey-based clothing company founded in 1991 as one of the first and only fashion brands for plus-sized, African American women. But Rhee didn’t simply manage the company, he invested in it, reversing a 22-year profit loss for the plus-sized chain by prioritizing African American women and ensuring that they feel seen and heard.
“It wasn't the financial success, the business success,” Rhee says of the reason NYUL offered for wanting to recognize him. It was the fact that you were registering women to vote. It was because we could see the faces of the women that you were interacting with every day for which you unleashed their spirit and you let them be them.”
Rhee says creating that kind of environment is rooted in kindness. “We create an environment where the Ashley Stewart woman could finally just be. And that's very rare for all of us, but particularly for women—Black women, plus-sized Black women, moderate-income plus-size women,” Rhee says. “I don't think there are a lot of places that she gets to be like that.”
Rhee stepped down from the company in 2020, but that didn’t stop the Urban League from celebrating his accomplishments with the brand. “During our celebration, we acknowledge esteemed honorees that have a steadfast commitment, dedication, and influence that have led the charge for advancing the rights of generations of underserved African Americans and salute their seminal work elevating communities,” reads the gala’s purpose. Proceeds from the dinner support programs and services that fuel our abilities to Empower Communities and Change Lives. develop new policies, and empower our fellow citizens. And because of contributions and support, At the June event, Rice iterated to attendees how wonderfully Rhee’s former and current work aligned.
Since 1919, the New York Urban League has centered the entirety of its efforts on elevating communities. The Frederick Douglass dinner has long served as a way to help raise funds to support new and expanded programming and community services to further the League’s mission. This year New York Urban League raised over $800,000 for the event. Those honored by the storied organization are an embodiment of the work that the organization does across the five boroughs and beyond. It is their nod to change agents who give of themselves for the betterment of others.
“I'm such a 'put my head down and do the work' kind of person. I get a lot of joy out of seeing other people be celebrated and acknowledged.” honoree Joi Brown shares. “I always try to make sure that people who deserve their just due get it. So it’s weird, if I’m being honest, to be on the other side of it.”
In 2016, Brown founded Culture Creators as a way to connect industry vets, whom Brown refer to as cultural pioneers, with the new creators of culture. The idea was to bring these groups together through thought leadership, education and ideation across passion points to ensure authentic influence and growth. Brown started in the music industry in the late nineties, also the tail end of the glory days of the music industry and entertainment business.
“You had a whole generation of people that came up under us in this digital world and didn't live to see what it looked like to be able to reach across the aisle at the same church to your neighbor, to talk to them and figure out what synergies you could create together unless you were in a job that called for it,” Brown shares of the impetus for her work. “I just feel like our success is collective. We are built to be in community. And the only way that we can do that is we reach across the aisle to talk to people and figure out what they have going on.”
Brown is motivated by a desire to help people work together to invest in each other's ideas and amplify what others are doing. Each year the New-York based exec puts on her own event, recognizing innovators and leaders. The organization also hosts an annual HBCU conference for college students looking for career opportunities in business and entertainment. In the future Brown dreams of building a fund to invest in Black entrepreneurs and Black startups, providing financial support and incubation to better equip these individuals and entities with the tools needed to succeed.
Brown’s particular brand of community engagement has changed the lives of the aspiring and accomplished, alike, as have the efforts of Rhee and the other honorees. On that joyous Thursday in June when the spotlight was turned on them, it was clear that at the New York Urban League family reunion, they were introducing a love of community, pride in transformational work and joy in being together again, one more time.