Sean Williams

Design Conversation: Sean Williams on Inclusivity and Uniting Communities with Sneakers

Header: Sean Williams

Bringing over 37 years of expertise to the table, Sean Williams excels as a consultant, curator of compelling exhibitions, seasoned educator, and a guiding mentor for numerous designers.

Currently, Williams is the Engagement Manager at Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design. His versatile career started in the streets of New York City and shows his broad influence in the field. His work touches on several social issues, as he aims to bridge community gaps through the shared interest in sneaker culture.

Trusted sneaker industry consultant to brands worldwide, he has co-founded the SOLEcial Studies sneaker industry education program.

In this interview, Williams shares details about his professional path and efforts to improve education and create opportunities within the footwear industry.

Could you tell us a little bit about your professional journey?

It started for me at 13 years old, I’ve been in love with sneakers since that age. I was a young teen growing up in Brooklyn, New York, as Hip-Hop culture was a young and rapidly growing phenomenon. Sneakers were a part of the daily experience of “getting fresh”, meaning your whole outfit had to be proper from head to toe – dirty sneakers with clean clothes negated the whole thing. I still live by the importance of the sneaker in almost every footwear and apparel endeavour I’m a part of.

Having said that, when long-time friend Dee Wells (Co-Founder of OSD and SOLEcial Studies) wanted to start a sneaker talk show, I was on board from the very beginning in 2007. We just passed our 15th anniversary on August 27th. In 2011, we launched SOLEcial Studies as a result of seeing that there was a lack of education and opportunity for women and people of color. We’ve had great success with the program to date: we’ve taught students in 8 different countries and there are almost 100 alumni of the program who now work in the footwear industry.

Drexel Panel with Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design // USVI Kids
Drexel Panel with Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design // USVI Kids

When did your passion for sneakers and design start?

I became a graffiti artist at 14 years old, so having already been artistically inclined and already having a young puppy love for sneakers (which started a year earlier) meant stories were and still are very important to me. Seeing and wanting to know why/how things are made has been a part of who I am for a long time.

Can you explain to us your role as “Engagement Manager” and responsibilities at Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design?

This is a dream role for me as someone who has been a friend of Pensole Lewis College‘s founder D’Wayne Edwards since the very beginning of Pensole’s mission (before becoming an HBCU). My role as Engagement Manager is to do what I call “planting seeds and building bridges”. I build “genuine and organic” relationships with local Detroit arts and culture organizations, non-profits, and schools. I also regularly engage with other HBCUs and regular colleges and universities around the country.

It is my team’s role to spread the word about all the programs we have available and build a great working relationship that leads to increased enrollment in our programs every time we have them available. Before coming to PLC, I had over 30 years of experience working in a similar capacity in corporate America. I’m very happy to have this role which is really a part of a historic chapter in the Pensole journey. There’s so much more progress to be made in the footwear and fashion industries that every deed and every class is contributing to.

Can you share with us what the “ Kicks, Kids, and Cops” exhibition and discussion panel is?

“Kicks, Kids, and Cops” is my self-produced documentary short that I finally wanted to document since I started it (in 2018) along with my friend and longtime sneaker lover, police officer Zoe Strunkey. It was her idea for us to come together and use sneakers as a common building block to get police officers and kids in the same room. The idea is to do pop-up sneaker exhibitions that feature sneakers owned by police officers who work at local precincts in the area.

We also do a panel discussion that features the officers whose sneakers we are using in the exhibition. This allows the kids in attendance (and their parents) to hear from the officers in a way that humanizes them. We then allow the kids to do a Q&A and network with the police.

You recently hosted the 2021 edition, what were the community responses and how does it help break the boundaries between “kids & cops”?

George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 pandemic made police and community relations spiral down the tubes, so we decided to really push to host one with a sense of urgency to keep fighting to improve things in our community. For us to be able to have one during the pandemic and have it turn out really successful was something I’m very glad I documented. In some respects, it was our most successful one to date. Everyone left happy. The police, the kids, myself, and Zoe as well. We gave away A LOT of sneakers that day. I’m sure that helped! When we released the documentary short, in early 2022, it was very well received. I’ve even received requests from people in other US cities to bring it to their areas.

Video credit: Sean Williams OSD-SS-FTFU