In case you haven't noticed, 2020 has been a doozy. The year started off with amazing prospects--we had such a well-balanced, exciting wedding season calendar!--and quickly fell apart. First COVID-19, now the events of these past weeks. Needless to say, it's been an emotional time.
While things have felt chaotic and unpredictable, there are incredible changes on the horizon. It's apropos that the advent of Pride Month--events for which were quietly cancelled months ago in the wake of the pandemic--and the upcoming Juneteenth holiday has seen the global surge of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the past two weeks we've been having discussions within our own team, our vendor network and with our couples about what all this means.
First, this is owner Kate writing and I'd like to call that out specifically. I'm a white business owner in an industry that is, while overwhelmingly made up of self-identified progressives, simultaneously rather segregated and often naively behind when it comes to representation and the clientele we aim to service. In writing this I hope to call out my own position and hold myself accountable. The power dynamic within Chicago Vintage Weddings needs to be constantly on my mind, and it's my responsibility and nobody else's to make sure I'm staying on top of these issues. When I say "we" I do speak for the company's overall values, but I also recognize that I have the unique power and obligation to shape company culture by voicing those values and putting them into practice.
There are a few comments to be made on where we position ourselves with racial justice in particular and with social justice in general. I was hesitant to write this for fear of it seeming opportunistic or tone-deaf in the context of other--frankly more important--pieces out there. However, I do feel it's important to post this, especially after some of the conversations I've been having with our team.
Our Foundation and Background
When I started the company in 2012, I had a background in activism and social justice work. Shout out to my mom, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement since she was a teen. She raised my brother and me to recognize our own privilege and the responsibilities that entailed, and she exposed us to activism at an early age. On the other side of the family, attending the annual May Day party was the closest we got to an official reunion. Given all this, I suppose it's not surprising that I turned out to have strong opinions about social justice. Once I entered college I pursued two fields: gender studies with an emphasis on racial and reproductive justice, and biological sciences (with an emphasis on conservation ecology and evolution, not that it's relevant here). Shout out to the Gender and Women's Studies, African American Studies, and Biological Sciences departments at UIC for their incredible research and teaching work! Following college and as the company grew, I started to experience some serious burnout and took a step back from activism.
The above details are simply background; they don't mean that I am somehow removed from an ongoing obligation to keep pushing myself and the company forward. Chicago Vintage Weddings was built on this progressive foundation but has not always explicitly called it out. Sure, it's part of our employee training, it's on my internal radar regarding representation and inclusivity, and it's something to which we occasionally donate. However, it's not out there the way some of our other values are. It's "safe" to say we care about the environment and animal rescue, less so to begin articulating more controversial stances. Frankly, though, caring about racial justice shouldn't be controversial; it should be the norm, and not in a quiet, background way but in the framework of an actively anti-racist approach. If someone has an issue with our stance on this, that's a good indicator that we might not be a good match. I absolutely credit the recent events and the Black Lives Matter movement with pushing me to articulate these values more clearly, another in a sea of examples of how protesting has generated change.
Our Company Culture and Values
We're a small company without an HR department. When we train a new employee, we work from a robust training manual. Here is a directly copy-pasted portion of that training manual relating to our values and culture, which was most recently updated last year.
"Mission: To provide excellent customer service and a creative, cohesive event experience for rentals and event planning.
Give back to the community through volunteering and in-kind donations
Encourage the strengths and growth of each team member
Develop a pattern of growth by thinking outside the box
Promote sustainable event and business practices
Communicate in a timely and effective manner
Provide cost-effective, unique event rentals
Provide high quality planning services
Create a positive work environment
Provide excellent customer service
Support local small businesses
Celebrate and affirm diversity
Focus on good design
Chicago Vintage Weddings is as enthusiastic about giving back as we are about event planning. Our main causes are sustainability, animal rescue, and marriage equality. "
This doesn't explicitly mention many of my own values and goals for the company, such as an emphasis on racial justice. "Celebrating and affirming diversity" is certainly a start, but it needs to be elaborated upon. We also need to revise our list of main causes to include some of the things we've historically supported but which I failed to include in this guide.
I welcome any past or current CVW team members reading this to connect with me regarding any input and concerns. We've already been having some of these conversations behind the scenes and I want to keep that momentum going. As another part of the training manual indicates, if for any reason you feel uncomfortable addressing this with me directly, please take it to another manager or team member who would be able to raise the issue on your behalf. If you're a member of our vendor community or a couple of ours (or a prospective one) please reach out with any questions and feedback you have, any time. We're here to serve you.
Our Role in Representation
First of all, this recent Instagram post says a lot about Chicago Vintage Weddings' take on representation. I've intentionally muted on social media this past week in order to give more voice to those who have a greater role in the Black Lives Matter movement. Follow some of these Instagram accounts here:
Representation is a tricky thing. Historically, the mainstream wedding industry is rather whitewashed when it comes to the images used for advertising and the standards it sets. Not just whitewashed, but typically also very representative of opposite-sex couples, traditional gender roles, thin bodies, etc. My aim has always been to show and celebrate diversity in our couples, in a way that doesn't feel tokenized or exploitative. It's harder than it seems, especially when it's all in my voice.The goal is to showcase and affirm our real couples and our real team, in a conscientious way that doesn't reduce anyone to their membership in a particular group. This can't be accomplished without constantly aiming to be aware and critical about what we're putting out there. On top of aiming for respectful and realistic representation, I need to take a more critical look at a few things:
How are we actively helping all inquiring couples feel included and normalized? When looking at our body of work, will everyone feel like they're part of the target audience?
What trends and behaviors are we both passively and actively supporting in the wedding industry?
Which businesses are we directly supporting?
How are we using our platform for good?
Our Role in Activism, and Next Steps
This section needs to be the meat of this post. What are we actively doing to support the Black Lives Matter movement? To celebrate Pride Month? Sure, we have our signs in our studio window. Sure, I'm getting out to protest. But we're a company, and that means we have financial resources at our disposal that we can't overlook. As a for-profit business, there is an obligation to put our money where our mouth is; otherwise, it's just lip service.
The pandemic has hit us hard. I'm barely making any of my own income this year. That said, I've already resigned myself to this so I might as well turn it into something positive.
For the rest of June, Chicago Vintage Weddings will be matching donations up to $2,000 (show us those receipts!) to the following organizations. If you don't donate, each one will still be getting a minimum of $500 from us.
This isn't just about the next few weeks or months, it's about long-term changes. This year has been full of lemons, so let's make some lemonade. Let's take care of ourselves and lend support where it's most needed. Let's keep celebrating love in all its many forms. Thank you for your continued support of our business and of the causes closest to your heart! We hope to make you proud.