The lack of investment in public schools—specifically those in underserved neighborhoods—is one of New York’s most pressing issues. Research shows that although New York spends more money on students than any other state in the country, the funds are not equally dispersed among schools that need them the most. Harlem-bred designer and stylist Ashlee Muhammad is using fashion as an avenue to benefit public elementary schools in her community through a collaboration with the nonprofit #TakeCareofHarlem and the handbag and accessories company MZ Wallace.
Muhammad—the founder of the lifestyle brand BeEyeConic—credits her grandmother for introducing her to fashion. “My grandmother was a very stylish lady,” she told NewsOne. “Something that she instilled in me from a young age was that your appearance speaks before you get to say anything. That stuck with me through adulthood. I started creating cool things for my daughter and I to wear and people would ask me to make garments for them. My journey in fashion naturally progressed from there.” Muhammad says Harlem has long since been the muse for her work. She’s inspired by the neighborhood’s grit and the aura that individuals in the community exude.
The same place where she developed her love for fashion has felt the wrath of educational inequities. Muhammad has witnessed them firsthand. “My grandmother worked hard to get me into gifted and talented programs outside of the community. My friends from my neighborhood who went to school in Harlem definitely experienced inequities when it came to education,” she said. “I remember they thought it was so foreign that I would take a school bus to school.”
Those inequalities persist for today’s generation of youth. A study revealed due to the poor quality of education, less than a quarter of children living in school zones in Harlem and other gentrifying communities throughout the city attend schools in their neighborhood. In turn, zoned schools are left with meager financial resources due to the lack of enrollment and it directly impacts learning opportunities for students attending these schools.
Cognizant of the educational climate in her community, Muhammad says that its essential to instill pride in underserved students and believes it starts with physically transforming their learning environments. “What’s unfortunate is the schools that take the biggest hits are the ones that are in low-income poverty-stricken neighborhoods and it makes our children feel like they aren’t worth having nice things in their schools,” she said. “I generally believe kids take pride in calling something their own when it looks cool.”
Through her collaboration with MZ Wallace and #TakeCareofHarlem—an organization that has been dedicated to empowering the people of Harlem through a wide range of community initiatives—she has designed a bag that will help with the beautification of two Harlem-based public schools. Proceeds from the bag, which retails for $285 and is slated to launch February 2020, will go towards #TakeCareofHarlem’s “Art Lives in Harlem” initiative which brings vibrant murals to schools throughout the city.
Muhammad—who serves as a style curator for Harlem Haberdashery—and Lucy Wallace Eustice, MZ Wallace’s co-founder and designer, were intentional about every single intricate detail of the fanny pack; from the type of material that was used for the bag to the zippers and lining on the inside. The MZ Wallace brand has intertwined fashion and social impact by using their products to support several nonprofits. “I was extremely grateful to be a part of this collaboration,” said Muhammad. “The company worked with me to design this bag from top to bottom.”
Muhammad has continually used her platform to empower. The innovator’s brand BeEyeConic is built on the foundation of inspiring individuals to take pride in being their authentic selves. Muhammad—who says her husband and three children are her support system—has led several other philanthropic initiatives in the community. She co-founded an organization with her friends which focuses on helping women and children in need.
As far as what’s on the horizon for the entrepreneur, she plans on launching a cut and sew collection this year. All in all, she wants to make an impact in her local community and beyond.