Vesna Cremona is the CEO & Founder of Social Justice collaborative AMERI_CAN. Today she spoke exclusively with Art Insider about her beginnings and where she is today.
You are the founder of AMER_ICAN. A space where other immigrants can share their journey of overcoming adversity to drive change. Please could you tell us more about the company and why you started it?
AMER_ICAN is a multi-media social collaborative with a clear massage: we need to celebrate our shared identity. I’ve witnessed what can happen when people see an enemy in each other because of their differences. The country of my birth – Yugoslavia – spiraled into a brutal, 10-year civil war in the 1990s, and no longer exists. Who has an ex for a country? Not many people. It feels very surreal.
So, at AMER_ICAN we celebrate the individual power that is also the collective power. The AMER_ICAN state of mind that gives the country a unique can-do attitude. We focus on overcoming adversity as a superpower – immigrants and everyone else.
Coming from fashion and the luxury market background, I wanted to compel fashion brands to take action. To do more to activate their social voices.
Fashion is a microcosm of culture. In my first interview, for an article with Soho House in January 2020, I remember saying: “We cannot just go about business as usual while operating in the current socio-political landscape.” Then the world came to a standstill.
Since then, we’ve had time to reflect. The pandemic has resulted in desperate physical and economic suffering – so many communities are in need. The consumer is choosing to invest their dollars where they can make a difference, and I wanted to express a new approach to brand messaging, where communities benefit and people’s lives can change.
I feel we’re ready to throw our energies into creative collaborations based on a culture of participation and contribution. After two years of isolation, it is time to connect profit to purpose, and commerce to community. If we all come together, we can make real change happen.
Many readers do not know, you fought for over a decade to become an American citizen. Please tell us more about this personal journey and battle.
I actually had a very privileged upbringing in the United States, as a daughter of a diplomat. (An insider look: diplomats don’t pay parking tickets, we have special license plates, and we have separate entries points at airports). It was a very special experience. But my sense of entitlement landed me in a dire predicament.
The next ten years were brutal. I overstayed my student visa, thinking there must be a category for someone like me – someone who had grown up and been schooled in the States that has no accent. There was NOT.
I was out of status, illegal – an alien! To make matters worse, my case descended into deportation proceedings and even went to the appellate court. After 9/11, I couldn’t renew my driver’s license (because of the new 6 point system) and yet my job was to cover the whole East Coast as a wholesale jewelry representative.
What saved me was the Constitution- it gave me the right to fight. (Not many people know that regardless of status one has the right to appear in court)
I know what it means to have life as you know it depend on a cause that others are debating. I know what it means to live in the shadows. I know what it means to feel defeated. Many times. However this can also be your super power not to give up, which is also the inspiration for AMER_ICAN.
I eventually won my battle; many are still fighting for their rights. I never take my citizenship for granted. As Bronx rapper Dizzy Senze says in our AMER_ICAN signature track: “There are lessons in the scars.”
Our readers would love to know more about what AMERI_ICAN has accomplished in such a short period of time. Please tell us more about some of the work you have accomplished.
I saw a performance of a step team from the South Bronx called McKinley Clover Stepper and was so moved by their performance. They stepped with such power, like their lives depended on it – because they did! Their courage stopped gun violence for 276 days in their community.
I met their program directors and educators – Alisa Pratt and Amelia Moore – and today they head the AMER_ICAN chant and lead the AMER_ICAN original song, which will be out this year.
Witnessing what it was like in New York in May 2021 – empty and so low in energy – I was compelled to organize an AMER_ICAN event in Times Square for July 4th, to celebrate our triumph over adversity, to provide an opportunity for local talent, and to empower our community. Amelia, a tireless advocate for social change, insisted I meet Shelley Zalis, founder, and CEO of the Female Quotient. What a powerhouse for female empowerment and equality in the workforce! She loved the idea and we all partnered on the AMER_ICAN message, of individual power being our collective power. We produced the AMER_ ICAN video campaign with over 60 people participating! NYC.go helped us amply on social media for an end of year message.
The Clear channel featured seven AMER_ICAN billboards for 48 hours on the hour for July 4th 2021. It was surreal seeing myself and communities we featured towering in Times Square!
We also compelled fashion brands to donate to the Free Store 15104 initiative of Second Lady of PA, Gisele Fetterman, which resulted in more than $20K worth of clothing. We produced a photo shoot to raise awareness, that ended up on the Times Square Billboards We’ve organized a panel of industry leaders at Soho House on the topic of New Power in Fashion – examining how overstock and sample donation can change lives – and we’re working on more brands joining the cause. We are now producing a zip code campaign for expanding the Free Store initiative and opening Free Store LA next.
And in collaboration with Mana Arts, we sponsored an AMER_ICAN wall during Art Basel, Miami, creating an opportunity for artist/muralist Ashley Hoddar, whose work shows energizing rays of individual power connecting us into a blossoming collective.
This is only the beginning.
Since starting AMER_ICAN, what has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
The biggest challenge is explaining the multi- media part – using artistic expression and different mediums from diverse communities to create opportunity and make change. That could be anything from a mural in Wynwood during Art Basel, to a performance in Times Square, or an original music track.
Also, funding for any start up is a challenge. However, we believe the more we do the more we will show the necessity for our organization.
The beautiful part is that so many brands and individuals do understand the importance in this moment in time, love what we do and are excited to support us.
Where do you see AMERI_ICAN in five years’ time?
I see it affecting people’s lives and bringing about change through initiatives and collaborations like the youth movement STOMP gun violence; or different initiatives with focus on mental health. ART OVER 80, which works on the wellbeing of seniors; or the WALK OF TOLERANCE – all initiatives and activations that will be coming in 2022 and beyond. There is so much that can be done to create opportunity when we channel a participatory energy. And the ones who are empowered and inspired then go on to inspire others around them.
What advice would you give for anyone looking to start a social initiative like you have?
Find a mentor! Seek advice, and don’t be shy to ask. For anyone interested in doing good, please reach out and we’ll find you a mentor.
You have many upcoming initiatives, including a major youth video campaign to help prevent gun violence, and several more Times Square billboards. What else can we expect to see in 2022?
Hopefully you’ll be as excited as we are when you see everything we have planned. First off, please take part in our IG challenge by telling us about your individual superpower that can empower the collective. Join the party at @amer_icanican.
Without disclosing too much, we’d like to organize the Times Square Celebration of Triumph over adversity in Father Duffy Square again on July 4th. We’ll release our original track AMER_ICANICAN and engage dance studios and schools, and will be helping to bring the Tolerance Poster Show’s Walk of Tolerance to NYC, Miami, and the rest of country – the topic has never been more needed than now. After two years of isolation, it is time for a collective celebration! Get in touch with us at imin@amer-ican.
I CAN, YOU CAN, WE CAN, AMER_ICAN!!!