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Making a Social Impact with Fashion

Written by Kimberly McGlonn, Ph.D.
Photographs by Grant BLvd

Businesses have always transformed our communities–they’ve given us access to what we need and what we want, they’ve been able to create jobs and drive revenue generation for our neighborhoods.

They have the power to transform what we value, simply by providing us with new options for thinking about our consumption. If the businesses that we support locally strive to create positive social impact, we as a community are collectively better able to meet those goals.

A social impact business is one that aspires to create responses to long standing social justice issues with a simultaneous mindfulness about environmental impact. This kind of business recognizes the potential for change. It shows a concrete commitment to rethinking traditional notions of sustainability, because those efforts were typically targeted at and led exclusively by those that have considerable privileges. The next generation of social impact businesses must widen this conversation to include black & brown folks.

The fundamental underpinnings of trying to find solutions to poverty through action, has always been with me—in large part due to Grant Blvd. That’s where I lived, in the house at 2677. It’s the place where my parents, both despite and because of their relative middle class life, found time to volunteer in service to other black folks. They came from struggle and want, and they understood the obstacles other folks (we) faced.

I was a kid who watched my mom drive on weekends to give emotional support to women who were inmates in a correctional facility.  And I listened to my dad who was engaged as, essentially, a food activist.

More fully, Grant Blvd is the story of two types of American families: those who know stability, security & hope—which, until I was 13, was us. But it’s also the story of families that collapse—families that face adulthood depression, self-medication, and weighing “criminal options” as a means of surviving.

Grant Blvd is the place where I learned the power of acting with love and of speaking out against inequity. It’s the place that I think best defines who I am and is what inspired my sustainable apparel brand of the same name.

Being inside a men's maximum security prison was, to put it succinctly, disturbing.

One event that shaped the launch of Grant Blvd was watching Ava Duvernay’s 13th, which led me to begin volunteering at Books Through Bars, a non-profit that is able to send books, at no cost to prisoners, into correctional facilities. This ultimately led to my first visit to a correctional facility.

By then I had already spent years studying mass incarceration, teaching about mass incarceration, and listening in deference to folks who had been incarcerated. But being inside a men's maximum security prison was, to put it succinctly, disturbing.

I traveled with a six person delegation of activists & PA State Representatives to deliver a message of encouragement to the entire inmate population about our collaborative fight to ease the struggle of reentry. But in truth the visit was a bitter one. We spent time talking in a breakout conversation with 35 juvenile lifers about their insights and my time with them affirmed how much more harm than good the prison industrial complex is guilty of.

These experiences were  my inspiration for founding Grant Blvd, a brand committed to environmentally conscious sourcing and using fashion to create sustainable employment opportunities for womxn who’ve experienced incarceration and/or homelessness.

We need to completely reimagine our response to poverty and to “crime”, yes, but we also have to radically change how we create pathways to self-sufficient living for black & brown people who’ve been incarcerated.

95% of folks who are incarcerated are eventually released. If they’re not given skills, if they’re not met with opportunities to work that pay a fair wage, they can’t find housing. And if they’re parents who can’t secure housing, they can’t be reunited with their children.

Grant Blvd is a response to slavery, to leased labor, to Jim Crow, to persistent economic injustice and marginalization.  Our work to use fashion to create employment opportunities and points of exposure to the skills we all need to find long term peace isn’t about supporting the othered “them” that've been incarcerated (mind you, too often due to poverty and trauma and untreated emotional or mental health struggles).

It’s about us, all of us, and it’s about designing radically inclusive pathways that pursue the long term plan of progressing our collective good.

We’ve done a remarkable job of creating partnerships with local non-profits supporting reentry. We’ve partnered with financial institutions to create financial literacy opportunities, and we’ve partnered with incredible folks working in mindfulness & meditation to create opportunities for improving self-care.

We’ve also done other kinds of important advocacy work—raising awareness in different spaces about the immense obstacles faced by those impacted by incarceration and donating hundreds of books to Books Through Bars for each garment purchased.

A successful social impact business is profitable, brings together incredibly diverse perspectives, clearly communicates it’s values, and is able to use it’s platforms to drive positive & timely change. 

Kimberly McGlonn, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Grant BLVD.

Learn more about Grant BLVd


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