I was working as a student news journalist the week of the inauguration – that same January where the same field that held the officiation of nearly two years of poisonous rhetoric would later be overwhelmed with a force of people holding signs saying that no, they did not condone this. It was a powerful image reading all of those signs at The Women’s March, the airport protests against the Immigration Ban and marches with our local Black Lives Matter chapter in the streets that I was raised in. It made me start to think about what resistance meant, and how to actively contribute on the day-to-day outside of protest marches and editorial articles and petitions alone.
The thing is, I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a politician. I’m not a medic. And I’m not great in front of a crowd…But I am a designer. I’m an illustrator. I’m a portrait artist, and a journalist with a mad penchant for spending long hours investigating lesser-heard history (which drives my girlfriend a little bit crazy.) I’m also a firm believer that we all have different strengths and weaknesses and specializations for a reason, and that they all weave together into the grander tapestry of society. Whether it’s being able to offer on the spot legal counsel to a frightened family in an airport, or being able to make the perfect cup of tea to offer to your friend in a moment of rest, what you can do is important.
So, with that philosophy in mind, I threw all of my skills and interests into the ratty old laundry machine of my mind and came up with the concept for The Torch Passer Tee Project. I decided that the best way for me to show my resistance was to make shirts repping marginalized activists so that I could pay forward their legacies by funding relevant charities while also bearing witness to their stories.
At its heart, The Torch Passer Tee Project is a collaborative community based fundraiser, public art project and education initiative lifting up the legacies of lesser celebrated activists and funding small charities doing big things. The first step is research – digging up all of the information I can about the figures who fit under a certain topic, and then packaging it all into a digital zine about their lives and work. Like this one for some of the veterans of the Stonewall Riots. Next up is actually drawing the portraits of the activists who we’re trying to lift up, compositing the design and then off to the printers for a proof check! All of our shirts are screen-printed on ethically sourced threads by 13 Bricks, an independant poc-owned business in my hometown of Savannah, GA. Then, each one comes with a QR code printed on the tag for easy scan and go access to the zine.
When someone puts in an order for one of our shirts, the first thing that happens is the donation. As soon as the order comes in, we look at the submitted address on Etsy and start looking for organizations as local to the buyer as possible. This is because we’re really dedicated to benefitting resources not just in high traffic urban areas, but in the South and the Midwest and any under-served municipalities abroad. Even though there are some amazing blanket organizations doing great work at the national level, we wanted to focus more heavily on charities who are directly serving the needs local to their communities as a way to minimize bureaucratic trickle down and just get the money straight to the people who need it.
This sentiment possibly comes from growing up as a queer trans sansei in the South. There’s a common misconception in Northern liberal circles that all queer folks in the US migrate to big northern cities in order to thrive, and while that is common in some regards, it’s not always true. We live everywhere, and there are resources and support organizations for LGBTQ+ folks down here too, just not as many.
Then, once order quotas are met and processed, they ship out worldwide with a donation receipt and a little info card about your sponsored charity inside.
So far, our Stonewall Liberators shirt has benefitted charities such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (NYC), TGI Justice Project (California), Youth Services of Tulsa (Oklahoma), The Trans Health Initiative at Feminist Women’s Health Center (Atlanta) the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, SunServe – Social Services for South Florida’s LGBT Community, Action for Trans Health (England), Open Doors Youth Service Inc. (Australia) and the Skipping Stone Foundation (Alberta, Canada).
Why should you care abou this? Well, at the end of the day, this is a community effort. We’re a public art project in which you and your shirt get to be a walking monument to these faces and voices whose contributions to human rights have been omitted from the history books. This is a guerilla campaign for visibility. Maybe your white cis gay friend from college doesn’t understand what trans women have to do with the gay liberation movement in the United States. Maybe the stories of these activists, shared by you, will inspire someone else to mobilize their own strengths and get out there and make their own projects.
Currently, we only have the Stonewall Liberators shirt portraying trans activists of color in our store, but our next design is going to lift up Immigration and labor activists of the last century.
No matter what we make, we want the message to be the same: Sustainable threads saying hello, I see you and I’ve got your back.
Get your shirt here and follow Mel’s project @torchpassertees