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Bringing About a World That Ought To Be | Sara Ziff ’00

In New York City it is not uncommon to find students working part-time jobs after school and during the holidays. These jobs are often in retail stores, grocery stores or restaurants. From an early age, Sara sought her own path, and when she was scouted by a photographer, she signed with a modeling agency at age 14. Sara’s parents, both academics who stressed the importance of education, were unfamiliar with the fashion industry. For Sara, however, she “appreciated the power of image, the potential for financial independence, and figured it was better than babysitting.”

Starting every day with Quaker Meeting for Worship was a highlight for Sara at Friends. “There was a non-hierarchical atmosphere, no designated leader, everyone had the opportunity to speak or share their views. It was very democratic.” Sara sees this as a model for how the workplace should be. Since graduating from Friends, Sara has come back to visit the Meetinghouse to attend meetings on Sundays. When she speaks with her friends about her time at Friends, they are often taken aback that she called her teachers by their first name. “Friends’ social justice bent, its focus on simplicity and what is really important—compassion for others—and the School's commitment to community service” are what made the School special for Sara.

In 2012, Sara founded the Model Alliance, a non-profit focused on research, policy and advocacy to advance labor rights for people working in the fashion industry. The organization grew out of Sara’s own experiences as a model. Despite working for such well-known brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, Sara also experienced some of the pitfalls of working in the industry, including sexual harassment, lack of financial transparency and difficulty getting paid what she was owed. This ultimately led her to found the Model Alliance.

The modeling industry is one of the few industries where women make more money than men. In many ways, Sara was lucky to work at the highest levels of the industry. Coming from a relatively privileged upbringing, she said, “I didn’t have to send money back home to relatives, like many of my peers.” Though Sara had the opportunity to travel and earn money at a young age, she used this as an opportunity to advocate for reforms.

In recent years issues of exploitation have come to light within the modeling industry. Public figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and others have faced accusations of sexual abuse and harassment with court cases leading to convictions and prison sentences. In almost all of these high-profile cases, the victims were young women or girls sourced from unregulated modeling agencies. Sara’s work has highlighted the lack of regulation in the industry that allows for a system of trafficking. Those in power within the modeling industry have relied on the lack of regulation and exploitation for personal gain at the models’ expense. The industry is perceived to be glamorous, but the reality is often very different. Many young people who work or aspire to work in the industry endure these pitfalls.

Sara went to Columbia University, where she studied community organizing and the history of the labor movement, and ultimately formed the idea of the Model Alliance. She also earned her MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The Model Alliance has won multiple legislative victories. In 2013, the Model Alliance successfully championed the Child Model Act, which affords child models who live and work in New York State protections as child performers, including provisions for trust accounts and having a parent or guardian on set. Previously children under 18 years old who worked as models were not protected under labor law in New York. On May 24, 2022, Governor Hochul signed the Adult Survivors Act, another bill championed by the Model Alliance, which creates a one-year look-back window for survivors of sexual assault that occurred when they were over the age of 18 to sue their abusers regardless of when the abuse occurred.

Most recently, the Model Alliance introduced the Fashion Workers Act, which seeks to create financial transparency and accountability for models and creative artists working in New York’s fashion industry. Sara says, “In the beginning a lot of the work was focused on framing these challenges as labor issues.” Sara and her team of two also run the industry’s only support line and help connect models with attorneys and trusted journalists. She has worked to inject a labor consciousness in the fashion industry, often oblivious to concerns about human rights. “Often there is more interest in superficial concerns and not how people are being treated. Through our work we are building a sense of community and giving people an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

The resurgence of the labor movement reminds us that we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of where we work. Sara always had a broad vision for labor solidarity. She is excited to work together with other industry professionals to build a movement. This includes models, make-up artists, photographers and stylists, who have been holding rallies with other workers across fashion’s supply chain trying to win rights on the job. Sara has a broad vision for labor solidarity, from the runway to the factory floor.


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