An interview with Kimberly McGlonn
Founder of fashion label Grant Blvd shares how she is designing radically inclusive pathways through fashion.
I suppose trying to find solutions to poverty through action, has always been with me, mostly because of Grant Blvd. That’s where I lived, in the house at 2677. It’s the place where my parents found time to volunteer in service to other Black folks. They came from struggle and lack, and they understood the obstacles other folks, particularly Black folks faced. I was a kid who watched my mom drive on weekends to give emotional support to female inmates in a correctional facility. And I listened to my dad who was engaged as, essentially, a food activist. But to be even more transparent, 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 with cocaine, and the 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.
In a word, Grant Blvd is a response to slavery, to leased labor, to Jim Crow, to persistent economic injustice and marginalization. We need to completely reimagine our response to poverty and the criminalization of it, and we also have to radically change how we create pathways to self-sufficient living for black & brown people who’ve been incarcerated. 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, and let’s not ever forget, the good of our planet. Grant Blvd is about intersectional design. Grant Blvd is about the only way forward.
The above was written by Kimberly McGlonn, CEO & Founder of Grant Blvd, a truly sustainable and ethical brand based out of Philadelphia. While everyone on social is talking about “there is no going back to normal” and asking how to “change the system” Kimberly is leading by example by: using reclaimed material instead of buying new, manufacturing exclusively in Philadelphia, and by supporting incarcerated & returning citizens.
Wondering how she did it? Read on, to find out!
Hi Kimberly! We are so excited to learn more about the evolution of Grant Blvd. But before we jump into that, we need to acknowledge the time we are living in. For those who read this perhaps months or even years later, we are currently living in a time of uprising and revolution that we have never before experienced in our lifetime as well as a global pandemic with the Coronavirus. Being an entrepreneur is a lot. Being an entrepreneur right now is a lotta lot! So… how are you?
Kimberly – I got off the phone with a friend who said he’s doing “wellish”. I like that. We’re still at it. We’re alive to fight another day…so yeah, I’m doing wellish!
There’s a lot of change happening right now, but what I find really exciting about your company, Grand Blvd is how you are melding your work and life in a way that is organic and lovely. So I really want to acknowledge that.
Thank you. I work to have a purposeful design of my life. Which is, how do I make it count? How do I make sure I use my observations for the good of things that I know are of the light, that are true and really are in the service of –on a micro-level my 12 year old daughter and her friends whom I love, but also for all the young people who are going to inherit a legacy that they didn’t choose.
We are here having this conversation because our trajectory is to do what is within our individual control in terms of how we cultivate our own legacies and that’s what Grant Blvd is an expression of – my own effort to cultivate my own legacy.
You started Grant Blvd the same year you began working with Books through Bars (editor’s note: a volunteer-run organization that distributes free books and educational materials to incarcerated people). What was the evolution?
I was teaching english courses in colonialism and marginalization and Ava Duvernay’s 13th came out and I watched that in 2016 which was influential. Also my own autobiography has always kept me pretty close to poverty which is where a lot of criminalization comes from –a consequence of poverty– and so when I saw 13th it allowed me to see the issue of poverty and mass incarceration from a different altitude. I felt like I needed to show up in a different, more direct way so I literally started researching where folks in Philly who were doing that kind of purposeful work and I discovered Books through Bars. I started volunteering there on my own. I didn’t go with friends the first couple of times, I didn’t invite anybody to come, I just went on my own to see what it was like and it was powerful.
And how did this experience change you?
It motivated me to think about how I could show up in even deeper ways. People write to Books for Bars because they’re incarcerated and their libraries, if they exist in the facilities where they are being housed, are under funded and they’re looking for resources for things they’re interested in or for books to give them companionship.
I wanted to understand the system more so I started reaching out to other nonprofits who were working with re-entry and listening in deference to people who were either formerly incarcerated or who were serving those communities. And I saw that all of them face prejudice in re-entry in general but employment specifically. And if you can’t get a job then you can’t secure housing and if you can’t secure housing – and you’re a mom- you can’t be reunited with your children.
So it was “Could I create jobs?” That was the wild question as a classroom teacher I asked myself. Someone who has been teaching for 20 years, didn’t have a degree in business, could I create jobs?
What can I create as a pathway to creating jobs? And I thought about fashion. I’m a writer. My first creative alleyway is in writing and I thought, “where else do I tell stories?” and it’s in my closet. I have a lot of vintage pieces, I grew up in thrift stores, I time travel…like all of us –we communicate our moods through what we wear and I thought “could we communicate our values through what we wear?”
I started studying fashion and learned how horrible it is for the planet and decided I didn’t want to show up in the fashion space in a way that would misalign with my recognition of climate change. So it became “How do I design something that’s sustainable?”
That’s big! How did you begin?
Well I started assembling a team of people who had skills I didn’t have and insights I didn’t have and decided we were going to press play on what sustainable fashion might look like given our means, to start, and then what can we defend? I wasn’t comfortable producing garments in a way that wasn’t defensible. So that started our trajectory in remixing garments.
Did people volunteer, were you able to find funding?
Great question. In the beginning I used my salary as a teacher to do the foundational exploration. I had to get to the point where we had a product, we had a website, a trademark and those fundamental things that made it official. And once I had this foundation where I’ve done this work and I have a really fleshed out concept then I did a family and friends crowdfunding. I made a real effort to get shameless about asking people for money!
I love how you ask the question of yourself and then do the next little step, because I think people will have an idea but let the scale of their dream stop them. Your process of creating Grant Blvd seems to be a process of self education: learning more about the challenges of those getting out of incarceration –how to create a business that can help them via jobs, how to make sure that business does no harm.
You mentioned earlier that the conversations in your life – they’re all centered around teaching and change. I think in this period of time people are really owning the responsibility to teach themselves about how we got here. And you as a high school teacher as well are in the position to facilitate that, which is so important.
We are where we are as a humanity because of what we learned in school. Our understanding of sustainability, of justice, of equity of colonialism, of the modern landscape of capitalism are all rooted in what we learned in school, ultimately and so it’s been a gift to be able to draw kids into really meaningful nuanced conversations about how we got here.
A lot of what these conversations about sustainability, the environment and justice need is really for people to be doing their own research. For me that’s part of the art of teaching: empowering young people to learn how to do their own research and then critically think and critically write about what they’re synthesizing so it becomes teacher as facilitator versus teacher as the knower of all things. That’s the con, right? that because I’m the teacher I know everything and you know nothing but the truth is in between those things.
Even in this moment of fake news and manipulation it’s very interesting to think about “what is truth?” Who gets to decide what’s true, what’s fair, what’s just? And I think that might come from inside us too.
What has sustained you during this period of change/upheaval/uprising and Covid?
This week, one beautiful thing that I rediscovered was the book Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I’ve been giving myself permission and really owning it with a great sense of full indulgence these moments of finding beauty in art and for me I’ve never really had much time to do a lot of reading for pleasure –usually when I’m reading there’s like “an end game” ; I’m reading to understand something so I can apply it and this week I really loved reading this book. And I think when I first picked it up a while back I just don’t think I was ready for it so fiction by black women writers has been feeding my soul. In quarantine I read The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler which is also very powerful.
The other thing that’s been sustaining me has been spending time with my daughter on hikes. We go on hikes twice a week. So that combination of adventuring together – every time we go out we find a new spot to navigate – and the quality time of just being with her. She’s 12, it’s such a tender time, so it’s been really lovely to be alone with her in the expanse of nature.
Amazing! I’m excited to share your story as well as the books you’ve been reading with our audience. Thank you for talking to us!