A brand must stand for more than its product to be relevant, engaging and true to the people it serves. Converse, at 114-plus years old, is a prime example — the brand has a deep history of showing up in moments of progress and change, most recently with its commitments to the Black community.

Since 2015, Converse has pledged and donated nearly $3 million in grants to support the Black community in the United States and the United Kingdom, says Ilana Finley, VP, Social & Community Impact. This sits next to the collective contribution of $40 million from the NIKE, Inc. family, which is dedicated to ending systemic racism. The brand is also sharpening how it engages with Black Americans, specifically to break down barriers for young people via social justice partnerships and youth creativity in Boston, the brand’s hometown, by enabling the transformative work of community partners who are doing great things through mentorship, access and creative. Last, and equally important, says Finley, Converse is passionate about seeking new ways to empower Black creatives, inside and outside the company, 365 days a year.

These efforts are points of pride, professionally and personally, she says. “I’ve been with this company for 20 years, and I think that we’ve always had a commitment to doing this work,” says Finley. “But it is exciting to see the conversations we’re having now. The tone is more urgent and the actions more intentional than ever to drive lasting change and impact.”

Here, Finley highlights five ways Converse is strengthening its relationships with the Black community — now and for the future.

Empowering a Worldwide Creative Community

’’Creativity is core to who we are, so it’s a natural connection point for us to look at how we can support creativity in our community in general, and specifically within the Black community. Yes, the money is important. Partners need money to do powerful work. Equally, we want to look at how we’re partnering with Black creatives to design programming that celebrates creativity in new and different ways and ultimately encourages future careers. We want young Black creatives to think of Converse as a place to work and a brand to work with. To that end, we have a powerful engagement program called the Converse All Stars, a group of more than 2,000 creatives from across the globe who we’re committed to putting both in front of and behind the camera to develop our brand campaigns and assets.

Our success in engaging Black creatives is clear. Since January 2021, more than 50 percent of independent creative partners who supported the production of our brand campaigns and content in North America were BIPOC creatives: photographers, stylists, hairstylists, makeup artists, post-production, digital tech, sound design and in-front-of-camera talent.” 

Investing in Local Black Artists

’’In 2021, we partnered with For Freedoms, an artist-led collective organization in Los Angeles, to celebrate Black joy through a grassroots campaign – Hear, Her, Here, centered on art and creativity. Together, we’ve launched a salon series for young Black women, and sponsored public activations in historically Black L.A. neighborhoods. One example: collaborating with the Black Image Center on The Black Family Archives, a three-day activation providing equipment for Black families to catalog their photos and preserve their memories. This collective of young, Black L.A. image makers — all part of the Converse All Star Community — aims to cultivate imagination and economically empower Black storytellers and image makers.

Our teams also directly commission Black creatives to enrich neighborhoods in our key cities. For example, we’ve sponsored the creation of nine community murals by Black artists across L.A., Toronto and Boston, and more around the world. My team uses the murals as Zoom backgrounds — a small but meaningful way for us to celebrate the work internally.”

Bringing the Next Generation In

’’Careers can begin in the most unlikely places. As I’ve moved into the current phase of my career, I feel a strong desire and responsibility to build a new legacy. 

We have the opportunity to do that with our 34 community partners in Boston, L.A. and New York that are just as passionate as we are about driving positive youth development. More than 80 percent of the individuals served by that programming in our fiscal year 2021 [June 2020 through May 2021] were from Black and Brown communities.

Take our partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We sponsor their teen curatorial studies program, which taps high school students to research and put on an exhibition in the museum, encouraging them to seek a career in the curatorial arts.

Another incredible partner is The Possible Zone, a nonprofit that advances economic equity by teaching kids entrepreneurial skills. We’ve actually created a new engagement model with The Possible Zone, where we invite kids into Converse’s process and teach them how to build, design and develop footwear and apparel, opening up the pipelines for a potential career within our company.”

Using Product as a Ready-Made Canvas

’’For years, we’ve been looking at every opportunity to bring Black stories to life through our product. We are a brand that is uniquely welcomed by so many communities around the world; how can our canvas sneaker help reflect back their stories? Earlier this year, we partnered with two of our social impact partners, The Possible Zone here in Boston and the Boyle Heights Art Conservatory in L.A., to have young Black and Brown designers help create jerseys for the Ruffles NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. That was a huge win to bring youth into the design process for such an important and visible moment in the NBA calendar. Can you imagine, as a kid who loves design, getting to actually create a jersey for All Star weekend? It’s insane.

We’ve had a series of collections and collaborations during the years with prominent Black creatives, including Shaniqwa Jarvis and Sheila Bridges, who, if you love wallpaper design like I do, you have to check out. We’re also superexcited about an upcoming collection, which shares the journey of progress from three of Converse’s own: WNBA athlete Natasha Cloud, Converse designer Marissa Bynoe, and Converse product merchandiser Javon Martin.”

Focusing Inside the Company as Much as Outside

’’Internally, we have been really intentional about driving more representation and creating access. A recent example is our All Star Design Team Apprenticeship Program. Our first cohort — six creatives from diverse backgrounds who spent six months working with more than 20 members of the Converse team to learn all aspects of design — came in last year, and we hired two of those creatives for full-time positions. We’re pumped to kick off cohort number two in June. This Converse program and others are an opportunity to shift paradigms, build a new legacy, and have a direct hand in creating opportunities for the Black community.”