When Noel Gordon Jr., 28, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, learned that the state has some of the worst racial disparities in the U.S., he decided to co-found Reparations Media & Apparel to call attention to them. Based in Minneapolis, the political art and streetwear brand sells products that try to provoke conversations about race, racism and white supremacy. Its products include a T-shirt with the words “Black & Queer & Proud” and a sticker that says “Dear America: Make More Brown Babies.” At a time when more than half of Americans say that race relations in the U.S. are getting worse, according to a Pew Research Center report published in April, Reparations Media is trying to build points of connection between strangers through humor.
Q: Why did you and co-founder Ryan O’Leary name your company Reparations Media & Apparel?
A: The name is a testament to the fact that black people in this country and in many parts of the world are not in economic positions to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. It will require people coming together to advocate for reparations to be able to lift people of color and communities of color out of the economic situations they find themselves in and to allow them to create lives that they want to lead. It was both a call to action as well as a recognition of where we are and where we should be.
Q: How important is it to you that your product designs are created by a team of queer, women and minority entrepreneurs?
A: It’s important because there currently isn’t a very economically just ecosystem for artists and entrepreneurs, especially artists and entrepreneurs of color in Minnesota. That’s why we felt so strongly about making sure we could do this in a way that would allow people to be paid a living wage, while at the same time, giving credit to the artists and designers and making sure that their stories or visions are told. There aren’t many other places in the country, let alone in Minnesota, where you might get that level of economic, community or social support.
Q: What feedback have you received from people who have visited your pop-up shops?
A: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. The look that comes upon their faces is what gives me the motivation to continue going because it seems as though what their expression is saying is, “Now I feel seen or now I feel heard because perhaps no one was speaking for me in the ways that I wanted to, and your brand helps me do that in an unapologetic and honest way.” That has been the way that we’ve moved through the world and it’s been great to see people respond.
Q: What kind of revenue increases has the business seen?
A: Though we’ve been pretty steady from the beginning of Reparations Media & Apparel to the start of this most recent quarter, we’ve only started to experience growth, and I think that growth can be attributed to the collaboration that we’re undergoing with Progressive Threads. Progressive Threads is based in Nashville, Tenn. Most of their designs are on LGBTQ justice and LGBTQ justice apparel, and so in connecting our two bases of support together, we’ve been able to deliver products to two communities rather than me delivering to one and them delivering to another. The most recent success that we have had is I hope a good indicator of the continued growth that we’ll see.
Q: Are you actively looking for a business partner who can help you move from the growth stage to the maturity stage?
A: Yes. The pop-up shops have helped us network with other folks interested in racial justice to be able to say, “Hey, how can I help, how can I support?” That’s been great. That said, our attempts to find institutional support, an institutional partner, have not been that successful. There really hasn’t been, for me at least, a clear path toward figuring out who would partner with us to sustain and scale the business. I know that’s not only a challenge for me but for many minority entrepreneurs in and around the city. It really leaves us in a position where even if we want to be able to continue providing the services and goods that we have, it just isn’t realistically possible because there’s not a base of support able to invest in us and continue with us.
Q: What are your end-of-year goals and long-term goals?
A: Become a cash cow. We want to accumulate as much cash as possible to be able to make investments in new brands. The whole reason that we got into this enterprise was not to stop with Reparations Media & Apparel but to have it be the beginning to a whole world of brands that are about racial justice and racial equity. That’s where I think you’d see the energy of our company go toward the end of the year: positioning ourselves to figure out what are the next areas that there isn’t a unified voice around racial justice.