Streetwear entrepreneur James Whitner is coming back, and giving back, to his Pittsburgh roots with the creation of two new beSocial community hubs in East Liberty and West Mifflin. The Mon-View Heights native rose to notoriety in the retail world with his award-winning company The Whitaker Group, which runs the stores Social Status, APB, A Ma Maniére, and Prosper.
Since 2017, Whitner has been developing the nonprofit division of his organization called the Whitaker Charitable Project. Through it, he has been opening community spaces alongside Social Status stores around the country. It’s an extension of Whitner’s retail philosophy—one that looks to offer more than just new sneakers and clothes to his customers.
As he told Pittsburgh’s 90.5 WESA, “[The goal is] to help create an ecosystem for the consumer to not just take money out of their pocket, but as we take money out of their pocket, we put information and resources back into them and their lives.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, Whitner understands the value of those resources, as they weren’t accessible to him when he was coming of age. His story of hardship has been well documented. In his early twenties, financial pressures led him to get involved in street life and face incarceration.
Fast forward to today, and his journey to foster change in the city and beyond is the story that takes center stage. The East Liberty neighborhood, where he once saw firsthand the same challenges of crime and low opportunity as his Mon-View community, is now the site of his first remodeled space in the city—a full-circle opportunity for him to take an active role in the neighborhood’s rebirth. Among other things, the space features sleek white desks where people can gather to work and a flatscreen display for presentations.
“Our East Liberty location is special because it is the first to place beSocial in the front. This was done to illustrate our commitment to community first,” said the Whitaker Group’s beSocial team. “East Liberty is specific as it sits in the heart of our diverse community of people who shop with us and who also believe in our commitment to Pittsburgh.”
Both the Mon-View Heights and East Liberty beSocial hubs and spaces will offer kids mentorship groups, exposure to entrepreneurial opportunities, annual back-to-school activities, and other educational programming and events on an ongoing basis. Most programs will be open to all ages, with special attention to middle school and high school-aged children.
Above the East Liberty beSocial space, Whitner and his team also created 38a, a new art gallery and programming space for emerging artists.
“The space not only showcases local and national artists but will also house a residency program that gives local artists and curators professional tools needed to navigate the business side of art while honing creative skills,” the beSocial team explained. “Both community spaces will serve as a way to connect people to something bigger than themselves.”
The first 38a show ran from August to September and featured photographs of East Liberty scenes from local photographer Dominick McDuffie.
Whitner’s bigger vision with beSocial is to reach whole families through youth. As he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “That one child, in an afterschool program represents a family, the mother, the father, the cousin, the grandmother.”
By eventually working to provide educational programming for adults around financial literacy, professional development, homeownership, mental health, and other topics, he hopes the centers can make an impact that reaches across generations.
In East Liberty specifically, the beSocial team emphasized:
“It’s more than a pretty space and building that houses cool things, we want to be a space where the community can gather to activate tangible change, especially for the Black community. We hope to add resources, visibility, and exposure as a networking hub for East Liberty, as the city continues to grow and attract diverse people and talent from across the nation and region.”
Whitner and his team encourage anyone interested to stop by the beSocial East Liberty space at 5929 Penn Avenue Monday through Saturday from 12-7 pm and Sunday from 12-5 pm to check it out, say hi, and get involved with any of their upcoming programs or events.