Fashioning A Better World
Susan M. Soper
HE HOBNOBS IN CANNES with Sharon Stone, Sheryl Crow and Ashley Judd. He pals around with Robert Redford, vacations in Martha’s Vineyard, snowboards in Aspen, belongs to two private clubs in Westchester County and has played golf with Bill Clinton. In September, the 15-handicap hosted a $2,500 per player golf tournament to raise money for AIDS research.
On a more personal note, he’s married to the daughter of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and was People magazine’s Sexiest Businessman in 1998.
But on a recent New York summer day, sole searching designer Kenneth Cole is surrounded by 12 unknowns – rising juniors and seniors from Atlanta’s Emory University. Bleary-eyed from a too-early flight to New York, they have hurriedly changed from shorts and jeans to a decidedly more “business casual” look to join Cole in the cafeteria of his Hell’s Kitchen corporate offices.
None of them is wearing products made by Kenneth Cole.
Not to worry. They have bought into the designer himself. And he has bought into them.
In 2002, Kenneth Cole – Emory Class of 1976; Chairman, CEO and Creative Director of Kenneth Cole Productions – provided a $600,000 grant to his alma mater to fire up The Kenneth Cole Fellowship for Community Building and Social Change. During a 12-month program, dedicated, diverse students are selected to practice the theory as well as the hands-on components of collaborative community work, learning to build bridges and become agents of change and empowerment.
Cole had been contributing to Emory as he was growing his company, but not at that level. Michael Rich, director of Emory’s Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP) – deliberately designed to connect with a variety of Atlanta communities – had a vision for a flagship fellowship to show \ “how you can combine research and service in a meaningful way.”
William H. Fox, who had known Cole when he was just an undergrad from Long Island, “before he was a household name,” encouraged Cole to step up to the plate. Fox, then senior vice president for institutional advancement, says, “I wanted to help him do something that would help transform the world – which is his passion.” Soon, the Kenneth Cole Fellowship in Community Building and Social Change was off and running.
“The problem with traditional service learning, as I see it,” says Rich, “is it’s very difficult for students to get deeply engaged, working a couple of hours here and there, balancing with other courses and activities. They can only scratch the surface.”
The itch at Emory is to get the students more intensely engaged, not only with their studies and projects but also with each other. “We wanted our students to work as a team. Their entire undergraduate career is working as an individual,” Rich says. “We wanted to foster an appreciation of the joys and challenges of teamwork.”
Students apply for the fellowship in December, are selected in January and spend the next year in a three-pronged approach that includes:
- a three-course sequence in community building and social change, in which students study the theory and analytic framework of change;
- an annual conference on leadership headlined by Cole himself and often featuring celebrity pals (Redford and Harry Belafonte are two who have participated so far);
- an intense summer of field work partnering with public, private or nonprofit organizations in the Atlanta community and weekly Wednesday night dinners to talk about work and career paths with local luminaries (school board presidents, media representatives, elected officials, foundation representatives, health officials and even bankers).
The summer also includes a trip to Cole’s office building on West 50th Street, a turn of the century (the 19th century) former horse barn owned by the Astor family, thoroughly rehabbed to industrial chic: hardwood floors – some of them still ramps where horses were led in – exposed beams and fixtures and, of\ course, state-of-the-art electronics.
Cole’s office, appropriately, features antique shoe lasts, a worn cobbler’s table, boots and shoes from other worlds, other times. There’s also a partner’s desk with two chairs to accommodate both sides of his brain: the right side for creative con- centration and the left for the business side. Just outside the door is a sleek scooter, perhaps for speedy transit from one tightly-scheduled meeting to the next.
The visit with the students was slotted between a review of men’s sportswear, a Fall ’05 fashion show meeting, an agency presentation about fragrance ads, a session on financials and Cole’s nephew’s high school graduation. Along with lunch on trays, the students got a short pep talk from Cole.
“I’m very committed and I work very hard and you need to, to be successful,” he says between bites of shrimp and vegetables. (A watchful eater, Cole eats nothing white.)
“I love that Emory has committed to this. You have no idea what a gift this is to you guys. But you’ve got to be selfmotivated. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.
“You’re going to get out of it what you put into it.”
Soon, he’s back on his omnipresent cell phone and off to other meetings, other people, before rejoining the students that night, with his wife Maria, at a nearby restaurant for more motivational exposure while the students ate.
The students spend the afternoon in the Bronx at a shelter operated by HELP USA, which is chaired by Maria Cuomo Cole, a true partner in the vision of improving and empowering less fortunate people. HELP USA has provided services for 5,400 homeless and low-income people each day and more than 9,300 each year at 20 facilities throughout the United States. The students are genuinely interested in how the shelter works and ask questions that show a level of awareness of the social workers’ challenges.
Service leadership is a growing area of study on college campuses around the country. “It’s no longer enough to send students out into the world armed with theoretical knowledge and some do-gooder points,” said Sam Marie Engle, director of the Emory fellowship, which is housed under the OUCP.
Reeling off the names of other schools – Duke University, Mills College (in Oakland), Reed College (Portland, Ore.), the University of Missouri among them –she says, “Students always say, ‘I want to build a career around doing good,’ but they don’t know what that means. We give our students a competitive edge – providing them with more focused pathways for connecting their service activities with their academic coursework and research opportunities.” On Engle’s small off-campus office, a picture of Kenneth Cole sits on her desk. On her door, a photograph of the 2003 Fellows is inscribed: “Thank you for helping us to be the change we want to see in the world.”
So far, 33 students have completed the program. This past summer, collaborative community projects included building a neighborhood support network, greenspace preservation, maximizing the involvement of parents of middle-school children and boosting the library of a lowincome neighborhood from its unofficial “town hall” status to an even stronger role in the social fabric of the community. Partnerships were formed with the National Wildlife Federation, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, the Center for Black Women’s Wellness and the Atlanta Housing Authority, just to name a few.
Through site visits and case studies the students learn how to create a critical framework to analyze the issues that confront them and juggle the roles played by government, corporate and community players – and the people they’re helping.
Sarah Osmer is one of those students who knew she wanted to do something “good” but, beyond majoring in sociology and religion, wasn’t sure what or how. The 23-year-old from Princeton, N.J., was in the second group of fellows and graduated this year. Over the summer she worked as an intern at Emory before moving to Chicago with the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellows, a yearlong leadership development program that will train her to be a leader in the fight against hunger.
“I’ve known for a long time I was interested in poverty issues and community- based work,” she says, “but I really had nothing concrete behind that. The program was transformative, in terms of my knowledge of social problems and ways to address them.”
When Julius “Chaka” Jessup left his poor, rural home in North Carolina for Emory four years ago, he was hell-bent on a law degree and the tools that would come with it: skills to write legislation and to lobby, confidence to challenge authorities about issues, and the influence and know-how to create and empower advocates with strong voices.
Along the way, however, he tripped over the Kenneth Cole Fellowship and is still reeling from the change of direction. “If you had told me four years ago, I was going into social work and be a marital family counselor, I would have said no way,” says the self-described “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” 23-year-old.
“I loved the idea of counseling and advocacy but it was really hard for me to narrow this down. I did not want to be a social worker. I did not want to be a teacher. I was dead set on going to law school.”
So much for that. Jessup, with an evergrowing focus to his passion to improve and empower, is now enrolled in Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences to earn a graduate degree in community development policy work.
“The fellowship changed my life.” He nearly bellows: “It chaaaaaaanged my life!
“For the first time I realized I could broker resources for the population I was interested in working. …It helped me to understand the power of service, of giving back to my community. It planted this seed in me to empower people of color and from low socio-economic backgrounds.”
When Jessup and three other fellows worked on PhotoVoice the summer of 2003, they were charged with helping teenagers from one of Atlanta’s most ethnically diverse high schools tackle threats to their quality of life: crime and gang activity, maintenance and security of the apartment complexes, community health (including pollution and ethnic separation) and the physical environment of their school, Clarkston High School.
In a collaboration typical of these summer projects, the teams of college and high school students used photography and PowerPoint to make their cases to local and state politicians, the DeKalb County Board of Education, the mayor of Clarkston, the Clarkston police, the zoning commission and Keep Georgia Beautiful officials. Not only did the high school and college students advocate for change, they made it happen. There were school cleanup and beautification efforts initiated; improved code enforcement at rental properties; and, once they realized and effected the power of pictures, the establishment of a photo club at the high school.
Jessup, a Democrat, says one of the most valuable lessons of the summer program was working with a Republican fellow on the PhotoVoice project. He learned that they could agree on issues – if not the causes – and that finding a middle ground was key to navigating their way to a successful solution. “We were a team,” he says, “and any chaos or dissension was apparent to the students so we really had to be a cohesive unit. … With us being so firm in our beliefs and who we are, it was really important to work together as a group.”
Turns out that Republican fellow, Kirsten Clark, ended up going corporate – but corporate with a cause. The 22-yearold political science major from Tampa, says, “When I came into college, I was going into the business school to do whatever I had to do to make money. But I hated accounting and loved political science. Then when I did the fellowship, it seemed like it was real life, real examples of community building, and I saw firsthand what worked, not just the theory of it.”
Ultimately, she says, it made her want to do “something nonprofit.” So where did she land? In the best of both worlds: She’s working in a newly created position at Kenneth Cole Productions that fuses fashion, fellows and community service. As public affairs coordinator, she will search out more opportunities for KCP associates to connect with and volunteer in the community and help them find time and flexibility in their schedules to give back. She’s in good company. Other Emory alums in-house include the company president, the assistant general counsel and the vice president for catalog operations.
Of her “boss,” who she occasionally spots in the company cafeteria, she says, “I think his role really is motivational and inspirational. ...I wasn’t expecting him to be as down-to-earth and open and easy to talk to. That there are heads of huge corporations willing to give this kind of a boost to us is cool.”