Mama Muses with Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs, fashion designer | activist
Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs is a fashion designer who is paving the way in sustainable fashion with her zero waste clothing brands (check out Tabii Just and Livari) and the youth organizer with the Women’s March. Tabitha lives in Brooklyn, by way of Trinidad and Tobago, and like her Women’s March counterparts, she is an inspiring, beautiful person with sage advice and perspective. She offered her insightful musings on race relations, white privilege, raising kids to prize diversity, reducing household waste, and balance (or lack thereof). Read on for more from this fierce mama…
Contributed by Kacy Byxbee, editor, Your Zen Mama
Can you tell us a little about your background and your family?
I was born in Trinidad and Tobago. I didn’t grow up with much. I shared a bed with my brother and sister for most of our childhood, but it taught me valuable lessons that I apply to my life as a sustainable designer now. I now live in Brooklyn with my husband and son. I am a fashion designer and youth organizer with Women’s March.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the Women’s March came to be and how you got involved?
The Women’s March was started by a grandmother from Hawaii named Teresa Shook. A couple other women, including Bob Bland, had started Facebook pages the same day and they merged to create Women’s March. I got involved because of Bob, who I know from the fashion industry.
Where does your sense of activism come from?
I’m an immigrant woman of color. My sense of activism is just who I am, from that lived experience of dealing with race and privilege and wanting to make space for those who need it. I became more engaged with social justice after my son was born. My husband is white and my son has pale skin, blue eyes and ashy brown hair. To put it bluntly, he can present as white. The realization of being a woman of color with a child that will most probably have completely different experiences from me in terms of how this country treats people who look like us was something I had to learn to live with, especially as the racial trauma and murders of people of color by systemic prejudices continue to rise.
How have race relations in America affected you growing up, and how are you seeing them affect your child now? How do you talk to your son about race?
I grew up hearing the n word used in a derogatory way to describe my father back in Trinidad. I grew up surrounded by people who didn’t think that black people were worth much, even as I presented as a multi-racial child mixed with black heritage. It was all I knew, and I had to do so much work to unpack that. When I came to the US, my self-identity was as an immigrant first. It was only when my son was born that I was confronted with my lived experience of being a black woman in America. With my son, he sits in privilege and, even at age 3, he has already started to see biases. We spend time unpacking this with him and talking to him about racial identity. We also switched schools to a place that is more willing to confront race head-on with kids his age. Research shows that kids start to notice race as young as 2, and we wanted to have him be a part of an environment where it isn’t a taboo topic.
At his age, concepts are somewhat basic so we use his toys as examples. We ask him about the various colors that make up his figurines and show him that they are mixed, just like him. He is starting to understand the concept of mixed race but it’s hard for him to get the idea that he is half of mom and half of dad. The most important thing is that we keep talking to him about it in an open and loving space.
What do you wish white people understood about white privilege?
I wish they would understand that their guilt doesn’t do anyone any good. Some white people get defensive because of this guilt and it’s hard to further the conversation. I wish they were more open to unpacking their internal biases, even if that means undoing years of belief systems that they previously thought were adequate. I wish they would understand that they can be good people and still have white privilege that needs to be unpacked and worked on.
How do you start to create awareness and discussion about class, privilege, feminism and politics with your toddler?
Even at his young age, he was coming home from school saying that girls do this and boys do this and we had to try to remove gender from the equation. Kids are sponges and he was just picking this stuff up from adults around him. We try to refer to him as a child or a person and not as a boy so that he identifies the things we praise him for as attributes of a person, not specifically because he is a boy. He has long hair and one day, he starting crying because he didn’t want his hair touching his back because he said it looked like a girl. We told him if he wanted to cut it, he could, but we gently showed him all the people he loves and looks up to in his world that identify as girls. Now, he calls his long hair “rock and roll hair” and he doesn’t want to cut it. It’s fascinating to see how easily gender norms permeate his consciousness. Concerning politics, we try to be aware of our conversations around him because literally every day, there is something awful happening to one community or another. He is only 3, but he understands the concept of good actions and actions that hurt people, especially people like his mother.
What are some of the key ways we can raise our kids to prize diversity and grow up more mindfully and aware than we did?
Exposing kids to diversity in race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, body sizes, genders, ages, and religions is, in my opinion, the best way to raise a child who prizes diversity. Surround them with it through meaningful relationships and conversation. Make it their norm. I also think it’s important to start to have those difficult convos with kids from a young age. It is hard to break down concepts to be age appropriate, but parents should feel supported and seek out online resources and communities to help them know how to talk to kids about diversity.
I really admire your advocacy to reduce waste in the Fashion Industry. How do you implement your zero waste focus in your everyday life?
We are on a quest to reduce our household garbage. We compost weekly and we have two large recycling bins and only one small bathroom regular garbage bin that sometimes doesn’t fill up for weeks. We celebrate when garbage day passes and we don’t have anything to put out. We also try to reduce our waste with food. We’re big on leftovers, especially as busy parents. If our son doesn’t finish his lunch at school, he finishes the meal for dinner. In terms of our clothing, I mend my husbands clothing when it rips to prolong its life. My clothes don’t seem to rip as much but my guilty pleasure is a second hand consignment store in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Consignment. When I absolutely need a new outfit (like for the Glamour Women Of the Year awards) I go there so that I can give a second life to already worn clothes. I’m also obsessed with clothing swaps.
Can you tell us more about Livari and Tabii Just? What would you like to see these brands do?
Tabii Just was started 5 years ago as a zero waste clothing label, but it’s now expanded to include other facets of sustainability, like fair labor. Livari was launched last year. I partnered with Claudine DeSola, a celebrity stylist, and Alysia Reiner from Orange Is The New Black, to create a label that is responsible to the earth and to the makers while being fun, sexy and red-carpet ready. I’d like to see both brands grow thoughtfully over time at a pace that enables us to uphold our values.
How do you balance your work and mom life, and how do you stay centered? What does self-care look like for you?
The balance between my work and mom life is always fluid. Sometimes I am a better professional than I am a mother and then it swings the other way. I try to not be too hard on myself and remind myself that I can always do better tomorrow. Self-care for me is starting the day with a cup of ginger tea, a 5 minute meditation and 10 minutes studying my favorite form of talk therapy, which is like a religion to me. The days when I get to do this as usually good days for me.
Do you think it possible to get balanced news? Where do you get your news?
I don’t think it’s possible but I also don’t think the option is to not read the news. I read the news with a critical lense, looking for institutionalized biases and realizing that humans, flawed humans like me, are writing these pieces. I read the Washington Post, The NYT, Bustle, Teen Vogue, Al Jazeera.
Who do you most admire (historically or present)?
Right now, I admire Ahed Tamimi, a young Palestinian teenager who is in prison for resisting oppression. Her strength, bravery and perseverance inspires me endlessly.