By Leighah Beausoleil
Senior fashion major Gabriela “Gabby” Mendez-Acevedo’s hand shot in the air during the Q&A portion of a guest speaker’s visit to her fashion class.
The speaker was Kyle Fortin, an FSU alumni and product developer at Puma – her dream company, Mendez-Acevedo said.
“Does Puma have a plan to implement diversity, equity, and inclusion to their company? If so, what are they doing and how are they doing it?” she recalls asking.
The speaker explained Puma’s “reform website,” where it details its plan to dismantle inequalities within the company, as well as its newly implemented position – director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Mendez-Acevedo said.
Upon being given an assignment for her class to do a case study on a company, Mendez-Acevedo chose to do her’s on this new position held by Michelle Marshall, she said.
Mendez-Acevedo said what she found was the difficulty for Marshall being the first to hold this position and the only person working in this area of the company as a Black woman.
“It’s extremely stressful,” she said. “Departments should not be run by one person. I get it’s a new department, but it’s a lot.”
Mendez-Acevedo described how everyone “pulls” Marshall around because diversity and inclusion are such integral pieces to every part of the company.
For the assignment, she said she proposed various solutions, and while interviewing Marshall asked if there was an internship position available.
There was and she applied, Mendez-Acevedo said. She now works as the intern for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Puma.
She emphasized how “tiring” the position is as a woman of color, where every day she has to face her own trauma as well as that of the company’s employees.
Following the completion of her Bachelor of Science in fashion merchandising with a minor in diversity studies this semester, Mendez-Acevedo said she will be working fulltime as an apprentice for apparel development at Puma.
Though this was the position she’s been dreaming about since attending FSU, she said, “I don’t want to do that forever.
“I am grateful for everything that I’ve experienced in the internship. I’m sure I’ll love the apprenticeship,” Mendez-Acevedo said, adding, but “I don’t want to sit here forever.”
Mendez-Acevedo explained she’s learned how “vicious” corporate culture is and described her other career aspirations.
“I want to teach other little girls like me that they are beautiful – that they are valued,” she said.
Mendez-Acevedo said growing up, she did not know she was an Afro-Latina because her mom relaxed her hair.
In November 2020, she said she decided to begin her hair journey by cutting all of her hair off.
“It’s been a fun time experimenting with my hair,” she added, explaining how she would like to write a book about ethnic hair.
Mendez-Acevedo said her ultimate goal would be to open a school for underrepresented students interested in pursuing a career in fashion.
“I can teach them the things that I wish I learned in college because I didn’t learn everything that I wanted to,” Mendez-Acevedo said. “There’s aspects of the Fashion Department where they miss diversity completely.
“The industry for a white student and a Black student is completely different and that’s what they don’t really address in the Fashion Department and I wish they did,” she added.
“My professors have helped me succeed,” Mendez-Acevedo said. “But as a student of color, I have to work 10 times as hard as my white peers to be noticed.”
She explained how the department has allowed her the space to speak up, but that there is still work to be done and she had to remain persistent.
“I really now understand what it’s like to be a student of color, or just a person of color, in the fashion industry because of the Fashion Department.”
Along with her internship this semester, Mendez-Acevedo said she is also doing an independent study with Fashion Professor Laura Kane, where she is completing a project titled, “The Community Upcycling Project.”
For this project, she said she collected clothes donations from the FSU community with help from Millie González, interim dean of Henry Whittemore Library, who stationed a donation box at the library’s entrance.
Mendez-Acevedo described her surprise at the amount of donations received, with the library’s bin having to be emptied four times.
She said she sorted the clothes into two piles. The first was donated to a community-based nonprofit, Homes2Homes.
The nonprofit is located in Ashland and is owned by FSU alumni Rebecca Carter, she said.
The second pile was used for two workshops that were held Dec. 2 and 3, where fashion students took the clothes and upcycled them, Mendez-Acevedo said.
The designs are currently on display in the library, she said, adding she will be giving a presentation on the project in the library Dec. 14 from 2:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Mendez-Acevedo said the reason she took on the project is because “sustainability has been very whitewashed.”
She explained many misconceptions are spread surrounding the topic of sustainable fashion, where people believe “sustainability is through shopping and buying products that were sourced sustainability.”
She added though that is an aspect of it, it’s not everything.
“Thrift shopping isn’t everything,” Mendez-Acevedo said, pointing out how much of a trend it has become.
“Someone actually needs these products,” she said, describing how people will go into thrift shops with the wrong intentions.
Mendez-Acevedo said growing up, she had no choice, but to shop at thrift stores because she comes from a low income household.
“People don’t realize people like me – like Black people and people of color – grow up sustainable because we don’t have the money to just go buy a bunch of clothes,” she said.
Even as a fashion major, Mendez-Acevedo said she considers every piece she buys and asks herself, “Am I going to use this forever or is this just going to go to waste?”
Mendez-Acevedo is also a student co-chair for the Council for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI).
The Council met with students Nov. 30 to prepare a proposal for the incoming FSU president.
It provided a space for students to discuss concerns and what they would like to see in the future in order to “address aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus,” she said of the event.
She added some of the concerns discussed among the affinity group leaders is the need for a more diverse curriculum and more diverse professors.
Concerns have also been discussed in regard to campus organizations, Mendez-Acevedo said. As an example, she explained how the ASL Club has to pay for event interpreters out of its own budget.
“ASL needs an interpreter,” she added. “That shouldn’t have to come out of their budget.”
During the Board of Trustees’ last meeting, Mendez-Acevedo was bestowed the “Student-in-the- Spotlight” award – nominated by Fashion Department Chair Haewon Ju.
Ju said when she first heard the award’s qualifications, she immediately thought of Mendez-Acevedo and all the work she has done not only in the Fashion Department, but within the FSU community itself.
She said she first met Mendez-Acevedo when she came to her to share her experiences and opinions regarding diversity and inclusion within the department’s courses with the goal of sparking a conversation between faculty and students.
The department was able to hold a meeting last year where those conversations took place, she added.
“It was a really good initiation,” Ju said. “We really had a valuable, insightful time.”
During this meeting, Mendez-Acevedo proposed a strategy plan for anti-racism within the department, Ju added.
“She is actually making a really positive impact on her peers and the department overall,” she said.
Ju said the department is working on various ways to implement what students have shared to improve the courses and student experience.
Fashion Professor Virginia Noon said, “We have many fantastic students, but she’s very driven and passionate around this topic [of diversity, equity, and inclusion], and wants to improve things for all of the students within our department – within the University.”