In the District, where human development is not always as eye-catching as renovated property, there is one transformation that should not be overlooked. Some former members of Check It, a black gay street gang that used to wreak havoc in gentrified Chinatown and Gallery Place, have gone legit.
Using proceeds from fashion shows, T-shirt sales and seed money from the Jack Kemp Foundation, they recently leased a storefront building in Southeast Washington and started a modest clothing business called Check It Enterprises Inc.
For now, they are offering mostly T-shirts they design or embellish and a limited number of other hand-sewn items. That is a long way from the shoplifting, purse snatching and flash mob attacks that had become a way of life for some members.
“Making money the legal way, you don’t have to prostitute or do petty crimes just to get something to eat,” said Trayvon Warren, 25, one of the founders of the business who had also helped start the Check It gang. “When you make something with your own hands and sell it, making money by the book, you don’t have to worry about it being confiscated on the streets. You don’t have to look over your shoulder all the time. You feel better about yourself.”
For Check It Enterprises to survive, however, they’ll need what any start-up business would: money to upgrade equipment, purchase supplies and renovatetheir workspace to produce more clothing. Perhaps most of all, they need to purchase the building, near Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road in Southeast, and establish a toehold in that rapidly changing neighborhood.
“This is where a lot of people live who are like us,” said David Frye, 24, one of founding members of the business. “They know us. They trust us. We can help them and they can help us.”
Helping the business get the financial support it needs should not be a problem. Not in a city where big-time developers get “incentive packages” that sometimes include thousands of dollars in tax cuts and debt forgiveness. Not when the city can afford to plow $200 million into a streetcar system that’s barely two miles long. Or put forth legislation to spend more than $60 million to double police salaries when the most cost-effective way to cut crime would be to support these entrepreneurs and others like them.
Liberals in the city who find the bigotry, cruelty and greed of others to be abhorrent would do well to promote tolerance, diversity and equal opportunity in their own back yard. Support a black LGBTQ-owned business in the nation’s capital.
Conservatives who claim to revere the small-business owner but cater only to Wall Street ought to just shut up.
The District boasts of having a grant program for small-business owners seeking to upgrade their establishments. There is also a D.C. Commission on Fashion Arts and Events set up to “promote the fashion and beauty industry as a viable economic resource.” The group is still exploring ways to get financial help from the city.
So far, however, Check It has been relying on a GoFundMe page to raise $15,000 needed for renovation and extending their lease. That effort has netted only about $300.
It’s not as if these young adults have not paid their dues. Abused, neglected, ostracized and bullied as children, they found safety in groups of people just like them. On the streets, years of pent-up anger turned to rage.
After becoming sick and tired of getting stabbed, shot, beaten up, arrested and sent to jail, they decided to try to become the mentors they never had and create for themselves the safe space they always wanted. And when they became willing to change, help began to appear.
Ron Moten, co-founder of a gang conflict resolution organization, became a mentor and helped them get social services through Contemporary Family Services in the District. Philip Pannell, a community activist who is gay, got help through the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. The city’s Career Connection program also helped the youngsters with workforce development skills.
The Jack Kemp Foundation, named for the much-respected Republican congressman from New York, who died in 2009, has continued to support the group.
The triumphs and tragedies of the Check It Gang during the past five years is the subject of a documentary, set to be released in late spring. The young business owners hope that the publicity will generate the funds to help them expand. If they can hold on that long.
“We just want our business to grow and grow so we can give something back to our community,” said Star Ny’sha Bennett, the 26-year-old chief executive of Check It Enterprises. “We want to reach out to other LGBTQ youths who are still living in the shadows and suffering in secret. We want them to see us as role models and to know that if we can make it, so can they.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.
For information about Check It Enterprises Inc. or for those wanting to help, contact Philip Pannell at the Anacostia Coordinating Council, 2401 Shannon Pl. SE, Washington, DC 20020; or call 202-889-4900.