Breaking stereotypes with fashion
Over the past decade, Jason Sole has been a staunch supporter of criminal justice reformation and motivating Black youth to excel above stereotypes of violence, drugs and criminal activity.
A convicted felon, Sole published his own story of redemption — From Prison to Ph.D.: A Memoir of Hope, Resilience, and Second Chances — in 2015, served as president of the Minneapolis NAACP and was the first director of St. Paul’s Community-First Public Safety Initiative.
He is currently a visiting professor of criminal justice at Hamline University and is now working on stopping the stereotyping of Black youth (and adults) based on how they are dressed via his clothing line Humanize My Hoodie.
Starting as a hashtag in 2016, it has grown into a full-fledged fashion campaign with hoodies serving as the foundation for training workshops on such topics as leadership and healthy masculinity, along with a traveling art exhibit.
The MSR sat down with Sole to learn more about he’s using fashion to challenge the perceived “threat” of Blackness.
MSR: What is Humanize My Hoodie?
Jason Sole: What started out just as a [fashion] project quickly became a movement. My friend Andre Wright, who’s a fashion designer, reached out and said, “let’s let the world feel it.” Since we started having [the message] on our bodies and allowing others to wear it as well, we’ve heard a lot of amazing stories. A lot of people say, “I feel more protected when I have on Humanize My Hoodie because they can see the good in me rather than looking at me and seeing the worst.”
MSR: So, it’s a clothing line?
JS: It’s not just hoodies. We also do workshops and art exhibits to let people talk about their implicit biases or their lack of cultural competency.
We already have about 120 allies trained and we’re going to go up to about 500 by the end of next year.
MSR: What does it mean to be an ally?
JS: The only way you can [become an ally] and receive an ally hoodie is if you go through the workshop and actually know the history of the hoodie, know what the hoodie meant when Trayvon Martin was killed.
MSR: What inspired you to start this movement?
JS: Going into my eighth year as a professor of criminal justice, I was walking into Hamline [University] as a visiting professor teaching three courses. That mixed with how I was treated when I had on hoodies and ball caps versus when I had on a suit with a briefcase. I was tired of it, and I definitely wanted to do something important for Trayvon Martin.
I realized that we all have biases when we look at someone’s clothes. I wanted them to understand that while they’re young. I wanted my students to deal with their biases up close and personal. These are traditional students, 18-23, who are going to have careers in criminal justice or sociology where they are going to be working with people intently.
For me, it was more trying to change perceptions and hearts and minds of people that have issues with someone that looks like me.
MSR: What was the initial reaction on campus?
JS: Over the course of that first semester, those 97 students were like, “You helped me realize I got some stuff I need to work on” or “I was definitely feeling an uneasiness when you got closer to me with your hoodie.”
A lot of other students said it was unprofessional or that they think I’m lazy. They had all of these thoughts and it made me think about all of the people that had been killed by police. You never see someone in a suit get killed by police.
Even in the pushback when people were like, “You just aren’t taking the time to get ready,” [I challenged them to] measure me by how effective I am as your professor: Am I getting your emails back in time? Am I on point when I’m lecturing? If you ask me a question, do I have answers? Measure me by that, don’t measure me by the clothing.
Even on the academic level, I had some of my colleagues realize that they had biases. People who knew me normally when I had on suits, they didn’t recognize me when I had on a hoodie. These are people who know me and know my family. I had to tell people, “you saw me last week. You didn’t recognize me and I think it was the clothing.”
MSR: Have the reactions changed since then?
JS: I definitely saw students grow [and] saw some challenging their family members, too. That was pretty hard for some of them.
MSR: Is there any profound moment that you found most impactful?
JS: I wouldn’t say me, personally. The story that sticks out the most to me is [from Minneapolis NAACP compliance officer] James Badue-El. He [once told me about a time he] was going into a gas station in Richfield. When he came out, a White guy walked up to him and said, “I need to apologize to you. I waited here because when you went in with your hoodie on I thought you were going to rob the place. When you came out I saw it said Humanize My Hoodie and I just need to apologize to you.”
MSR: How has it impacted the community the most?
JS: I’d say the youth. Having them feel that it’s something they can carry and own. With me being a little bit older, I think I get better treatment. The youth, they don’t really get treated respectfully. It makes me feel good knowing it’s something the young people can feel good about and wear and really feel like they have a voice.
MSR: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
JS: I’d say make sure whatever your vision is, that it’s supported by lawyers putting their eyes on that paperwork. Some people just jump out there with a grand idea and end up having somebody steal it or mimic it. Even when we started Humanize My Hoodie, there was somebody who jumped out there and created a hoodie that said “Humanized.”
MSR: What are some of your goals and vision for the brand?
JS: I want you to see that 15- or 16-year-old and understand they might be the next scholar, they might be the next philanthropist, they might be someone who changes the world.
I want it to be global. I want people to understand it’s not the clothing that you’re afraid of — it’s more of the perception you’ve been sold. We have colorism everywhere.
We [also] want to continue to stand behind the young people who have to deal with [discrimination] at a greater level. I know people that are Islamaphobic and they have issues with the hijab. If I can help people understand that you’re looking at someone from the wrong lens, if we could expand these conversations beyond hoodies and start talking about people who have issues with how people identify and really take that to universities and community members, I think [we’re on the right track].
For more info on Humanize My Hoodies training workshops, exhibits and clothing collection, visit humanizemyhoodie.com.
Chris Juhn is a contributing photographer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.