Dominique Drakeford is a sustainability trailblazer amplifying the works of people of color, disassembling systems of oppression and actualizing educational habitats. In 2017, after earning her master’s degree in sustainable entrepreneurship and fashion from NYU, Dominique founded MelaninASS (short for Melanin & Sustainable Style), a platform for bringing melanin to the forefront of sustainable fashion. “My real frustration [with sustainable fashion] was when I saw the style sensibility was all the same and that I was not represented in any way shape or form,” Dominique explains. “Not on the panel, not in the audience, not as models, not as creatives or designers, and most definitely not when discussing solutions for our community!” Then, in 2018, she also co-founded Sustainable Brooklyn, a resource focused on making sustainability inclusive through education and events in Black communities. In the following interview, Dominique talks further about how she is disrupting mainstream narratives and creating change.
Through MelaninASS, you provide a multifaceted platform that brings people of the Diaspora toward the forefront of sustainability. What propelled you to get into sustainability and start MelaninASS?
Growing up, I was privileged enough to not only have easy access to beautiful wilderness-oriented spaces but I was also able to engage in various outdoor activities. I manifested a very organic appreciation for the outdoors, especially during my 5 year-span of backpacking. I was learning about sustainability in elementary school without even knowing it. My public elementary school was an urban Pan-Africana oasis and that’s where I first learned about composting! Simultaneously I also loved fashion — especially thrifting, Hip-Hop Culture and the energy of Black Liberation. I’m from Oakland so The Black Panthers fueled a lot of that. All of the people who thrifted and vintage shopped, mainly due to affordability, were Black and were style geniuses.
Naturally, my experiences were a recipe for sustainability — although my ideology never quite reflected the mainstream movement. I attended undergrad for Business: Environmental Management and moved to NYC shortly after to receive my Masters from NYU in Sustainable Entrepreneurship & Fashion. During that time through traditional education spaces, I started to really understand the value chain of neo-Colonialism and sustainability through the literature I read on environmentalism and through the educational programs.
Additionally, I was looking at the “leaders” of the movement — the bloggers, influencers and activists and started to look at the media coverage they received and how. Ultimately it boiled down to me having a responsibility to paint a new landscape, where I can disrupt the current BS this movement was feeding the world, and stimulate conversation about mainly Black and indigenous artists, innovators and activists who have always been doing the work that often is appropriated and made invisible. I didn’t want to just highlight these vanguards, I needed to have deep interviews with each of them and really share their beautiful voice and work — and that’s exactly what I did.
Not only was it imperative that I have [written] visibility, I needed to show that melanin humans could wear ethical fashion and look damn good in it. So I produced exclusive MelaninASS editorials as well — always with a person of indigenous culture — because up until recently, we were always seen in the space as laborers. Additionally, I realized that I could pivot those discussions into larger macro-conversations about colonialism, systems of oppression, white saviorism in sustainability, privilege, environmental racism and the contributions of African ancestry and modern environmental-based liberation movements.
Communities of color have practiced sustainable living for many generations. I can think of the very tangible ways my Jamaican-American mother installed sustainability into my life. In what ways did your upbringing influence your interest in sustainability?
One of the biggest inspirations for MelaninASS was the fact that across the African Diaspora we’ve been practicing sustainability from the very beginning. I think it’s interesting that as a Black American we are probably the most disconnected from traditional ideals of sustainability because unlike our first- or second-generation African and West Indian brothers and sisters, who are able to connect directly with their homeland, we can’t.
I remember coming to NY and experiencing the ways in which Caribbean and Afro Latinx communities could directly connect to sustainability through the heritage of food and wellness and how generations of knowledge was passed down. It frustrated me that many “Black Americans” had a hard time with sustainability culture, but it’s there — it just has to be taught. The entire Black diaspora has been sustainable both environmentally and socially in very different ways and that’s the beauty.
Now to answer your question: We reused butter tubes and jars over and over again; we saved plastic bags under our sink; we recycled (although now the system is totally corrupt); I was an avid vintage and thrift shopper; when I got older, my mom had an herb garden;w e often shopped at farmers markets; I always loved to support local Oakland brands; I always had to pass down clothes to my sister and cousins; I always loved to shop my grandma’s closet — and I still do.
What challenges have you faced through pursuing this work?
I think everyone who is a social entrepreneur, activist or organizer can attest to having financial issues. Finances has been a pervasive challenge especially those first two years. However, I would say one of the more interesting challenges would be the waves of imposter syndrome.
Being in the sustainability space for about 10 years now, I’ve seen how the movement fluctuates. I spent many years getting my content and project ideas rejected and ignored because anti-racism — although I didn’t call it that back then — works in a space that’s supposed to be doing all good.
Despite the fact that I’m a super confident person — self-doubt eats at you. I also experienced it with my family. My parents have both had successful careers and my path was never something they knew how to articulate to their peers or brag about to family and because of that, that unwavering excitement and support wasn’t always in alignment. So sometimes I felt like an imposter around what was supposed to be my strongest support system.
Finally, time management was and is a challenge. Being able to balance this work that involves lots of meetings, writing, photoshoots, brainstorming, funding and more with my personal care, wellness and family connections has been really tough for me. My flow changes every season but it’s a consistent work in progress.
Are there any people or companies that inspire you in the sustainability space?
There aren’t very many companies that inspire me. The people behind the scenes are more of the inspiration. But literally there are tons! My Sustainable Brooklyn partner Whitney McGuire whom I met just a year ago is huge inspiration. Especially as a mom while doing this work — she’s super dope… Honestly — I did a MelaninASS feature on 47 BadASS WOC in sustainable fashion — all of them!
How do you practice sustainability in your everyday and what are three easy ways people can integrate sustainability into their life?
I practice sustainability by supporting as many BIPOC communities as possible. That includes encouraging them to integrate their ancestry and culture into their sustainability. I encourage my community to not be a victim of toxic marketing and propaganda, and meet them where they are to make small changes. Writing articles, speaking at events and creating community are my greatest contributions because me practicing it is way bigger than myself. I fight for dismantling unsustainable systems by way of Sustainable Brooklyn.
In terms of my sustainability habits, I cut down tremendously on my shopping as a whole. Decreasing consumption and repurposing what you have is the absolute best way to be sustainable. In my home, I have started my first urban garden in my backyard so that eventually I can eat primarily from my garden. Most of the pots I’ve found on the street. I catch rainwater and use that to water my indoor plants. I try to minimize plastic as often as possible. I try to keep as much greenery in my home as possible. I shop locally as much as possible. I need to emphasize that I find a lot of beautiful home goods that are considered trash, especially in “wealthier” neighborhoods. I love pre-loved items! I compost my food scraps, paper towels, leaves etc. This country has a huge problem with waste mainly due to overconsumption… In short, I would encourage self-sustainability, education and minimal plastic usage. Start a garden, even if it’s one basil seed in a cup. Read one environmental justice-based book by a Black person. Try to carry at least one reusable item a day, like a tote bag or water bottle.
Join me in visualizing for a moment. What is your hope for the direction of sustainability as an industry? What is your hope for MelaninASS?
My utopia would be a complete moment of collective accountability that breaks down our current exploitative systems and rebuilds an entirely new one. America was built in such a way that it’s operating exactly how it was intended to.
The first unsustainable system we need to abolish is the prison industrial complex. It’s the key to racism and free slavery labor that has been an incubator for adjacent systems globally — especially in fashion. I believe that at that point we could actually create a paradigm shift, but first we have to even see the links between sustainability, race and prison. Oftentimes the movement just looks through an environmental lens, not realizing that the social, cultural, political and economic lens is intertwined. I can speak about this forever — in fact, I’m working on a book, so stay tuned.
With MelaninASS, I just want to continue to share stories because there’s hundreds of people whose voices needs to be [heard]. I want to keep producing quality content and add more of an educational component to the site.
In what ways can people support your work?
Follow my three platforms on Instagram: @dominiquedrakeford@melaninASS @sustainableBK. I’m really passionate about Sustainable Brooklyn, as my partner and I are working in the community to physically bridge the gap between the mainstream movement and the most targetedcommunities. Our upcoming symposium AIR is the second installment of our four-part series: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Here is a recap of EARTH which was hosted at Mara Hoffman studios in May. AIR, which will honor Eric and Erica Garner, will focus on sustainability in targeted communities through the lens of how we breathe; what we breath in; what prohibits our breaths. It will really hone in on environmental health as well as mental health.
If you’re of the Diaspora, follow me and really challenge yourself to find the meaning of sustainability that works for you! If you’re a personal of privilege, financially support the BIPOC brands and movements and use that privilege to tackle the institutional detriments that disproportionately affect low-income communities.