Social Entrepreneur & Activist
Founder Laura Jane interviewed Randi Gloss, social entrepreneur and activist, known for her apparel line GLOSSRAGS which, along with other social commentary collections, created a line of t-shirts emblazoned with the names of black men and women who have been killed due to police brutality. (Photo by Othello Banaci)
Laura Jane: You created GLOSSRAGS about three years ago. What is your company doing right now?
Randi: It’s gotten to a point where the shirts pretty much sell themselves. People have a decent awareness of GLOSSRAGS. But it’s also gotten to the point where a lot of folks struggle with wearing or buying a shirt like this because it’s heavy, it’s emotional, it’s traumatic, especially if you personally know someone who’s been killed by police brutality or just because of their skin—you know, being Black.
I’m trying to figure out how to create the infrastructure to create space for storytelling for the folks that we memorialize. I really want there to be a growth and development and an educational component with GLOSSRAGS. And I’m also thinking about the notion of productive discomfort. How can I get people to embrace discomfort in a way that is productive, in a way that can create a shift in them internally so that it opens up space for them to become an ally or how it can maybe open doors for them to ask more questions? For Black folks, this idea of productive discomfort can push them out of the place of complacency.
LJ: Can you walk me through how you started GLOSSRAGS?
R: So, my friend was working for a non-profit in Maryland that was working to close the achievement gap among Black and Latino high school youth. He invited me to come make signs with him and his mentees one afternoon in preparation for the 50th Anniversary for the March on Washington. That was August 2013. We were just sitting around talking to the students and I made about five signs that day. All of a sudden, I found myself writing Emmett and Amadou and Sean and Oscar and Trayvon. And then at the bottom of that sign, it said, “More than just Black faces in tragic spaces.” It kind of felt like I had the wind knocked out of me, like whoa, this something. And I thought, this is the one I’m going to carry at the march.
So fast forward to the march, I’m there with my friend and his group of students and my mother and her church group. I remember carrying the sign and every five or ten feet, someone was stopping me and asking to take a picture of the sign. And I was thankful to have sunglasses on because there were so many looks and reactions to the sign. When I got home, I really just sketched it out on a piece of paper, a rudimentary sketch with their names on it. I told my mom, I called her and said I think this can be something.
That was August 2013. I rode around with that Post-it note in my car. In February 2014, I reached out to one of my mentors and I said, Hey, do you think you could loan me $500, I have this idea and I want to print about a hundred shirts. And he was like, what? I had to explain to him, I have this feeling about this. And he basically asked for a business plan which I didn’t know how to construct. So I went to Google and tried to write up something that would convince him that I was serious and ultimately get him to say yes. The first time he said he needed to see a little bit more, that I needed to come harder. The second time he said okay and he went ahead a paid for my first 100 shirts. So GLOSSRAGS was officially born in April in 2014.
LJ: Can you tell me a little bit more about what the experience has been like since then? When did it really take off?
R: The original list was six names, was Emmett Till through Jordan Davis. I had the ampersands in between the names on the shirt but I didn’t know how to end it. One of my friends who is a poet from Chicago, Nate Marshall, said, what about an ellipsis? And I thought, wow, that’s brilliant. I didn’t realize at the time how much sense that would make and how tragically appropriate that was. Then, that summer, Mike Brown was killed as was Eric Garner and Ezell Ford and I’m sure other folks were killed that summer. So, I thought, okay, we have to add more names. We started advertising in late August and by early September, we had rolled out the Volume III with nine names. We added Eric, Ezell and Mike.
And then we also introduced the And Counting tees with women on them. I had taken some time over the summer to do some research and there have been women that have been killed by police and I knew of one in particular, Rekia, because she had been killed in Chicago the same year as Trayvon Martin. I knew about it because I went to Northwestern and we brought her brother to campus and another one of her family members to talk about what had happened. And then there was Renisha McBride who was killed on my birthday in 2013, November 2nd. So I had been making a mental list of women to put on a shirt as well. So that same month, we introduced the women’s list which was Volume IV. The even numbers are women, and the odd numbers are men.
LJ: What has the response been like?
R: November 25, 2014 was when the non-indictment for Darren Wilson happened. I remember I had just gotten home and my mom was sitting in the driveway and she told me they didn’t convict him. She was stuck. I hurried into the house and turned the TV on and was glued to it. And then my phone started blowing up because every order for GLOSSRAGS comes through my phone. In the next 24 hours, we got close to 200 orders. That was insane, because at that point, I was used to selling five to ten shirts a week. I pretty much stopped everything else I was doing. I didn’t know that I was creating something that people needed or wanted but that’s what it was.
After getting through that rush and my first retail holiday season (which was super crazy—the orders kept piling up!) I remember thinking how I could connect with people face to face. I started doing monthly events in DC and then in May, I actually did a traveling pop-up shop through the Millennial Trains Project to meet people and to document stories about everyday Black life. I think there is a huge gap in coverage and attention to of what I call Black life outside of trime, which is crime, trauma and drama. So when I was in those cities, I was thinking, what is it like being Black in cities like LA, in Austin, in San Antonio, in New Orleans. We aren’t hearing those narratives unless it deals with someone getting shot or an entertainer or whatever.
Every year the focus evolves because the And Counting Collection is always going to exist. I mean, I would like for it not to exist, but for the foreseeable future, that is our foundation. We are figuring out how to engage with people in different ways and I think that the Stay Woke Collection has opened doors for us to be considered in the realm of streetwear, which I grew up with and plugged into and draw inspiration from.
LJ: Why is it important that this message is on a shirt that people wear?
R: I was upset with all the parallels being drawn between 1963 America and 2013, at the time. There were all of these parallels being made between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, too. I was really frustrated because I thought, this isn’t going away and this continues to happen and it is really increasingly visible. What can I do? I thought, okay, everybody wears t-shirts. What’s a simple way to make a statement. Simplicity doesn’t negate something being profound. I thought, let me just do their first names. With this hashtag generation, sometimes it can feel like this is just another name attached to a hashtag. But no. These are Black boys and Black women and Black girls and Black men who are being killed primarily because of their skin.
LJ: Now that you have experienced this success, what has it been like to be part of the Instagram community? How do you think about your social media?
R: There are ups and downs of success or whatever you perceive it as. This work is immersive and toiling and consuming sometimes. I know that it can be really hard for me to navigate the immediate trauma of the most recent shooting or an acquittal or a non-indictment or no trial at all. And to balance that with my personal emotions while also being seen as the frontwoman of a brand that has these names is hard. Some days I feel like I need a break, or I’m going to cry. That can be really hard because I feel an expectation to deliver and to be strong and those don’t necessarily always happen because it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to navigate that emotionally tumultuous terrain.
LJ: How do you feel like being part of GLOSSRAGS has impacted your identity?
R: I don’t always realize it myself, but folks in my circle reminded me that I am a voice and have a voice and that people look to me for that voice and that message, especially when things are heavy. When Alton and Philando were killed over the summer, The Fader reached out and asked me what I did when I was in the midst of all this trauma. I felt humbled to be tapped for that and thought of as someone who could speak to what you could do. One of the things I said is that we still have to figure out ways to celebrate Black life. Because this shirt, the "And Counting" Collection, as much as it is a testament to our brothers and sisters deaths, it’s also a testament to their lives and that they lived and that they existed. By wearing the shirt, Black bodies on a Black body, you’re saying, "I’m here, they were here, and we’re still here, and that matters." If all I can do is wake up in this Black skin and get through the day, that’s okay. I think that sort of collective self-preservation is important and I’m just thankful because I had no idea what this all was going to turn into three years ago at all. I had no idea. Just to be able to still do it and have God hold my heart together on days that I can’t, you know, that is a blessing in and of itself.
LJ: Can you speak a little more to your identity as a Black woman and what that has been like during the events of the past few years and starting this brand? And how being an activist plays into your identity?
R: There is a lot of pride that comes with it. I’m proud to be part of a legacy of Black women who are fighting the fight and doing the work because now I think we get more recognition and credit. Back in the day, you had Ella Baker, you had Jo Ann Robinson, you had Rosa Parks, you had Angela Davis—and they were younger than me when I started, so in some ways I feel like I have some catching up to do You know, Rosa Parks was engineered to be the elderly woman on the bus that had been fighting for Black women and their rights but she already had a history of fighting for the protection of Black women against sexual violence and really just their humanity and right to feel safe as both Black and women. I just feel humbled to be a part of that legacy, though I still have a ways to go before I think I could be considered on their level.
LJ: When you think back over the past four years, does your identity feel different?
R: I think I feel a greater sense of responsibility, especially to my own people because I’ve seen things first hand. I’ve seen Freddie’s neighborhood, I’ve seen where he came from, I went to his funeral. I’ve seen Amadou Diallo’s mother time and time again, funeral after funeral, march after march. I’ve seen Trayvon’s mother and other mothers and family members who are still on the frontlines.
There is a greater level of responsibility when I think about these historical women, like Angela Davis and Ella Baker, who were in their 20’s when they were going hard. And I’m thinking, man I have to press harder, I have to dig deeper because they had three years on me. They were 23, I’m 26, I need to do more. Because it’s a grave reality. You never know what can happen when, to whom. Don’t get comfortable. And that is reflected in stay woke. Question everything that is going on around you, question who is doing what, where they are and why. It’s like the moment that you ease up and think we don’t have to fight for this right now, that is when you allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s not always about marching, it’s not always about protesting, because to me that has become more of a symbolic act. A lot of folks with protest for the picture and not really for the purpose. Thousands of people in the street marched to Birmingham to Selma, not just down Pennsylvania Ave. To me, the stakes were so much higher then.
LJ: What has social media been like for you? Do you feel supported?
R: I think it’s affirming because if I post a picture of myself or with people, those get more likes than product picture. And people will comment which is really nice and affirming. It’s okay to accept a compliment and hold on to a compliment. Because when I’m in a bad mood, sometimes I go and look at my Instagram and it’s nice to see that. You know, I’m single and it’s not like I have someone to give me that affirmation or to say, you’re beautiful. People don’t say that to you on a everyday basis. And when you have your head down, grinding, that’s a ray of sunshine I appreciate. And it’s something that I do, too. I’m not just double tapping, I’m like, 'Yo, you look so fly.' Or 'Your brows are everything' or 'Yasss, lip'. If you look awesome in your picture, I’m going to let you know. I don’t depend on that for my worth but it does bring some warm-fuzzies to me and I appreciate that.
LJ: How else have you seen social media impact notions of beauty?
R: This made me think about the power or the beauty of not knowing what you’re doing helps other folks feels good about themselves too. Over the summer, my brother got married. And I had this outfit, this two piece set with a pretty modest crop top because it was a wedding. But I had gained some weight because I had broken my collarbone last summer from a biking accident. I had bought that set in April and didn’t wear it until July and I was like, oh, I can barely get into this but I’m going to still wear it. I had cut all my hair off because of the bike accident, too, so I was working with a little baby fro. I had long braids in at the time of my accident but I had already been toying with the idea of cutting my hair because I had always had hair past my shoulders. I had my friend take my braid outs and then a couple days later, I went to the barber and had her cut it all off and I was bald and you know, it’s been growing back.
This woman, who I went to undergrad with messaged me on Facebook, said that she really appreciated seeing someone who looks like her, who is comfortable having short hair, and you know, just being in that body.
I think social media has given a way for Black women and Black girls to see that their hair doesn’t have to be straight all the time. Throughout high school, I didn’t have a perm, but I would get blowouts. I would go to a Dominican salon and get blowouts. My hair was almost always straight. And in college, I would let it air dry and that gave way to me experimenting with my hair. I think it’s about being comfortable with yourself and where you’re at. You know, you’re not always going to be able to live your best life. But you still have to love yourself through that. Embracing yourself throughout all of that is important.
Our size run has always been XS through 3X for t-shirts, and if you need a 4X or 5X we can make that upon request. I just packed up a 2X Stay Woke jacket and a 3X Stay Woke jacket. I think it’s important that whatever your size may be or you body type, that you have something that you feel comfortable in and that you can rock. And you don’t have to worry if it comes in your size, or is this me.
Photo cred in order: Emma McCalary, Shan Wallace, Othello Banaci, GLOSSRAGS Staff, Andrew Kung, Emma McCalary
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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