You’re recognized as a leader for your work in sustainable fashion and your inclusive hiring practices. What prompted you to start Grant Blvd?
“I began thinking about mass incarceration, its systemic institutional maintenance and its cyclical impact while I was teaching a high school English course I designed about marginalization in the American story. Then, after watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th in 2016, I felt pushed/pulled to do something more to resist the cruelty of our criminal justice system. I began volunteering at a nonprofit in West Philadelphia called Books Through Bars, and that gave me a really powerful opportunity to hear from folks who were currently incarcerated and using letter writing as a means to get access to free books. Those experiences collectively forced me to see the entire system from a different altitude. Mass incarceration is about economic justice as much as anything else, and that’s ultimately about the need for positive economic opportunities (i.e., fair wage employment) for folks who face profound discrimination post-release. Grant Blvd was, and continues to be, my response to the ways in which Black and brown people have been purposefully shut out ultimately because of centuries of inescapable poverty.”
What’s something you’d like people to know about you or your work that they probably don’t?
“To begin, I’d like them to know how traumatic incarceration actually is on people, particularly folks whose lives have been so crowded with traumatic experiences, many of which began in childhood. Living in a crowded, windowless space with little access to fresh air or fresh food is an incredibly challenging experience to heal from. Our work is to acknowledge this and then work with nonprofit partners in the reentry space to create a safe, supportive space for this compacted trauma. I’d like them to know that reaching folks who live in the cracks of our communities is challenging—finding them is challenging, supporting them is challenging, and giving them access to the skills to reestablish themselves is challenging. But this is work we must all commit ourselves, our businesses and our neighborhoods to doing differently, because it’s what is in the best interest of the whole.”
Reaching folks who live in the cracks of our communities is challenging...But this is work we must all commit ourselves, our businesses and our neighborhoods to doing differently, because it’s what is in the best interest of the whole.
- Dr. Kimberly McGlonn
What are some of the obstacles or hurdles you’ve had to overcome to drive change?
“One hurdle is the adjustment folks are currently beginning to make toward accepting climate science and the living impacts of racism. That said, we’ve been designing from a new intersection: that of sustainability and real justice advocacy. Two years ago, that kind of innovation was a challenge to get folks to see the merits of—they thought we were attempting to tackle too much simultaneously. We’ve come a long way with that, but we’re still navigating the challenges that Black-owned, women-owned businesses have to overcome, challenges that really can’t be understated. Specifically, we’re least likely to get big injections of capital, the kinds of capital that other businesses are able to access. There’s a systemic lack of excitement about our approach to innovation, and that tends to slow our collective progress. We haven’t been able to play as assertively or as boldly as we plan to, but that’s not stopping us from sticking to our strategic plan nor quieting our enthusiasm for serving as change agents in the design space.”
This has been a trying year, to put it plainly. How have you been finding or seeking joy?
“I love talking, thinking and finding joy, especially right now—that pursuit is another act of resistance for me! I’ve been finding joy in hiking with my 12-year-old daughter, in hearing her laughter, in tending to her interests as they’re evolving, and in sculpture gardens. I’ve also found joy in all the nutrition my friendships (both ancient ones and the new gifts) have offered me. They have been such a socially distanced comfort! I’ve also found joy in reading the work of Black women writers like bell hooks and Octavia Butler.”
What advice do you have for others trying to advocate for change in 2020?
“I would offer the advice that has guided me: Focus on learning about our systems. Really study them—the longer stories, the myriad perspectives—so you can see things from a different altitude. Then, find where there is pain for you (where you see suffering) and where there is joy (for you). Work to disrupt in that direction, at that intersection. Finally, don’t forget that the kind of change we need will require a commitment not to sprinting but to a marathon. Get water, take rest breaks, but stay committed to the longer vision.”