Learning To Forgive And Help Individuals Re-Enter Society
Forgive Everyone is a clothing brand out of Grand Rapids, Michigan with one of the most powerful and resonating missions we’ve encountered so far — to help individuals re-enter society after prison. We spoke with the founder Skyler about what inspired him to bring awareness to the epidemic of mass incarceration by starting a clothing brand that features the art made by people currently and formerly imprisoned, and donates a percentage to the families and organizations looking to help these individuals re-enter society. In addition, Skyler talked with us about some of the impactful stories he’s heard thus far, his plans for the future, and how we can fight injustice as a generation and truly learn to forgive everyone.
Where are you from?
Skyler: I’m here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but I'm originally from south of Seattle in Washington state. I’m out here for college now. I’m not sure if I’m staying long term since my heart’s in the pacific northwest but we'll see.
When did you start Forgive Everyone?
Skyler: I got the idea and started it May 4th, 2018. So just over a year ago now. It was very much like I got the idea for it and started it in the same day.
What gave you the idea for it?
Skyler: I've been really involved in the space of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform for three years now. I always knew I wanted to do something to help in that space, especially in helping people after prison. But I thought it wouldn't be until sometime later in the future. But one day sitting in class I had the “lightbulb” idea of starting a clothing brand and donating a percent of the proceeds to make an impact. It evolved from there to what it is now but it started on a super simple idea.
Why did you decide to call it Forgive Everyone?
Skyler: So that’s funny. I was really into the band called “fun” at the time. They have a song called “Take Your Time,” and in that song they say “forgive everyone.” It really resonated with me because I'd gone through a period in my life where I needed to forgive people. I started by printing a bunch of circular stickers that said “Forgive Everyone” and I put them everywhere. When I got the idea for the brand it was a really good lineup because the whole idea with the brand is to help people who’ve done bad things in their lives turn their lives around.
What made you want to start a clothing brand?
Skyler: I’ve seen how clothing brands have had really huge impacts on the world. TOMS is a great example. It’s just a shoe brand that started with a super simple idea: donate a shoe for every shoe someone buys. But it turned into a really huge thing. I knew I cared about criminal justice reform and people reentering society after prison, but I didn’t see people acquainted with the issues unless they were already into it. I saw clothing as a unifying way for people who aren't normally acquainted with the issue to learn more about the message and make it something they care about.
What message are you trying to spread?
Skyler: Stripped down to its most basic form, the message is that every single person is redeemable. There’s people that've done horrible things in this life, but if people are genuinely trying to turn their lives around there isn’t a single person or thing that should stand in their way. In the United States 600,000 people come out of prison every year into a society that’s very unforgiving. It’s difficult for them to get employment opportunities, housing opportunities, and a second chance. We want to raise awareness of their humanity to help change societies perception. A big part of the brand is going into the community and meeting formerly incarcerated people and telling their story to help change people's minds. By doing this we can affect voting decisions which can lead to systematic change.
I know you donate a percentage of your profits to organizations looking to help previously incarcerated people re-enter society, correct?
What percentage do you donate?
Skyler: We donate 20% of the proceeds. They are donated to nonprofits that are organized and run by people who were formerly incarcerated. They provide housing, employment, rehabilitation, and mentorship services. We currently work with three nonprofits right now.
What are the names of the organizations you work with?
Skyler: One of them is House of Mercy, which provides transitional housing and rehabilitation mentorship. Another is called What’s Next Washington, which meets with HR departments in big companies to help change policies regarding hiring of the previously incarcerated. The last is Rehabilitation Through The Arts, which runs art programs to humanize this population going in and out of prison. The general recidivism rate (rate of reoffending) is 70-80%, however those that go through their program have only a 2-3% recidivism rate in comparison.
Talk about your recently released “Forgive Everyone, Throwaway People” shirts. What’s the inspiration behind your designs?
Skyler: So those I didn’t make. That was the first collection we made that was designed entirely in prison. Those were made by a man I came in contact with 7-8 months ago. A friend that runs a nonprofit called the Prison Arts Coalition which provides a platform for those making art in and around the American prison system was the one who introduced me to him. His name is Will Livingston. He went to prison when he was 28 for 50 years for killing someone while drunk driving. He ended up in prison and poured himself into art. He does incredible screen printing art. I was writing back and forth to him and we both expressed interest. He’d never seen his art on shirts and it was always something he wanted to do. So I got on the phone with his family and we started talking and worked something out. 50% of those proceeds went to his family to provide art supplies for him. A total of 70% of the profits either went to his family or to nonprofits. I’m be working with him again on another release soon.
Are there any other people that are incarcerated that you've worked with in the past?
Skyler: Our whole requirement for designing is that all our designs need to be made from someone who’s either an advocate for the cause, currently incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated. The vast majority have been done by me in-house. The eventual goal is splitting it into three different categories. The first being designs done in-house, the bread and butter designs of brand. The second being storytelling designs, based on stories of the people that we're sharing. And lastly, the original designs that are done by people that are incarcerated or were incarcerated. We have one coming out in the end of July by a guy in New York that was formerly incarcerated named Jaiquan Fayson. He has an incredible story.
Do you guys do your screenprinting in house?
Skyler: Yeah we do a lot of our screen printing in house. When I started the brand that was not the case though since I had no idea what I was doing. As I progressed I realized I was outsourcing production since I was dropshipping, and thus I had no control of quality and what I put in the package. I had no control over the brand itself in an essence. I was putting so much effort into the Instagram and story. But when someone felt moved enough to invest money to buy a shirt, all they got was a shirt in a bag. So I taught myself to screen print and started producing everything in-house. I can include a full story, picture, and a personal note which means so much more to me. If someone's gonna spend money on something I've created I want to give them the best experience possible.
All your pieces come with a fully printed photo and the story of a formerly incarcerated man or women, correct?
What story has moved you the most?
Skyler: That’s a hard question to answer. They all are definitely moving in different ways. I think one of the coolest ones I’ve heard so far is the most recent that isn't even out yet. This is Jaiquan’s story. He grew up in a hard family with a hard home life and was in and out of incarceration since he was 14-15 years old. He ended up in solitary confinement in Rikers Island, New York. He did 2-3 month stints in solitary and all he had was yellow pads and magazines. To keep himself sane he drew every single person and every single thing he saw in those magazines and filled up tons of yellow pads which made him fall in love with art. When he got out, he started working for a temp agency moving furniture into the New York School of Arts where he saw art students working on all kinds of stuff. All he could think was that he wanted to get in. He applied, got rejected, and went to community college where he worked his ass off and graduated at the top of his class. He then reapplied, got into the arts school and got his degree there. Now he's working as an artist where he's doing galleries and collections
, and he pays his bills doing handyman work on side. He turned a horrible experience into a great thing. Almost every experience we share is turning a horrible experience into a great thing.
How many people have shared their stories with you?
Skyler: I don’t have a good count but I’ve probably talked to 20 people so far. Not every person turned into a full written story or has been written yet. I think we’ve written 10-15 stories that are being shipped with orders or are online.
What the biggest thing you’ve learned in talking with people looking for a second chance after incarceration and running your brand?
Skyler: Really the biggest thing I’ve learned, which is somewhat controversial, is that there are no people that are bad "to the core." There are no people that are born simply wanting to do evil and that is all they're going to do and nothing will change that. I believe people have been born into really unfortunate circumstances. It’s not an excuse but a contributing factor. Everyone is redeemable, no matter how bad of a thing they've done. There really is good in everyone, and certain things can bring that out. So really emphasizing the things that bring that out is of utmost importance to society. I’ve met people that have taken other people's lives, and they’re now working on a masters degree in psychology to save people's lives. That can happen in a lifetime.
Why do you think these people never lost their will or hope?
Skyler: It’s hard to say, I think everyone has different motivations. For some it’s their kids. They didn’t want to watch their kids grow up behind bars. For other people it’s an intrinsic switch. And for some it’s people showing grace to them and giving them a chance. Maybe that first employment opportunity, where they don’t wanna let them down. One small step each day transforms them over the years. Some people never had that mindset, they were just caught in a bad situation, the wrong place at the wrong time. So when they get out they're ready to turn their lives around because they were never down a bad path to begin with.
Talk about the collaboration you did with Enron Hubbard. What made you want to work with him?
Skyler: He’s a local Grand Rapids artist. I reached out to him because I thought his art was really dope and he said we should get coffee. We got coffee and he told me he's been thinking about these issues for a really long time. He always wanted to make art but didn’t know how to apply it until this cause came along that he was really passionate about. We had this conversation for 2-3 hours over coffee. I hired him as a contracted worker so he helps me with the screen printing operations and has many other designs planned. He’s become a part of the team. The screen printing side of things is something we’ve expanded in the past three months by doing screen printing for the community. We’re printing for coffee shops, breweries, and student organizations. The eventual goal is opening a retail space that’s a combined screen printing and retail space where we hire people coming out on work release. This means people getting out of prison 6 months early with the stipulation that they have to get a job. We want to start by first teaching them screenprinting, then showing them sales skills and the general mentorship of keeping a job and being reliable. All this is done with the goal of helping them start their own business or be successful in whatever employment they choose to find.
How can our generation fight against the cruelty of Mass Incarceration?
Skyler: Some not cool facts are that half of U.S. adults have an immediate family member that’s been incarcerated, and half of the population in prison is under 35. But on a good note, a recent ABC poll showed that ¼ of millenials think criminal justice reform is one of the biggest issues the next president is facing. We can use our voice voting, our social media channels, and our friend groups. I’m not one to go and hold a sign somewhere since I don’t think yelling at someone is gonna change their mind. There’s value in protest but that’s not the method I’d use. I think the thing that’s gonna change society is gonna be one on one conversation with people that disagree with you. Showing mutual respect and slowly acquainting people with issues is the way to go. People say forgive everyone, but what about murderers? Being able to share the story and face of someone that has taken someone's life, and show how they’ve changed can help change people’s minds. One on one conversations all over the country can have a really powerful effect.
How can we learn to, “forgive everyone”?
Skyler: I think it’s a long long process. It’s nothing that a brand is gonna change right away. Forgiveness itself is a really long process. I would say educate yourself. The concept of "forgive everyone" goes way farther than incarceration, it applies to everyday life. So educate yourself on the benefits of forgiveness and research restorative justice which is really helpful. Also, take the time to really consider it since unforgiveness really comes down to people not wanting to dedicate mental capacity to think about the issue that’s making it difficult to forgive. Consider the route moving forward that’s really gonna give you peace. But it’s different for everyone. It’s always an easy concept until you have something really big to forgive.
I saw you mentioned your efforts to ‘reclaim’ clothing on your blog. What is reclaimed clothing and how have you utilized it?
Skyler: Without any fancy terms, reclaimed clothing is clothing from a thrift shop. I buy reclaimed clothing from Goodwill that’s providing job training and services to underserved populations. I basically print these 1 of 1 designs on these reclaimed pieces and resell them which uses no new water and creates no new waste. Shirts are not environmentally friendly and you can't get around that. It’s gonna hurt the environment no matter what. I want to provide an avenue for people conscious of that to buy something that’s promoting the circular economy. Hopefully when you’re done with that shirt you give it to a thrift shop too. The longer we can keep clothing in circulation the better. When I misprint a shirt I cut it into a bunch of pieces and use it as rags that’ll last another 4-5 months. Everyone I know loves thrift shopping, so I can provide that experience and put a really unique print on it that makes it even more unique. I’m trying to make it as accessible as possible.
Do you plan to experiment with other articles of clothing besides T-shirts and hoodies in the future?
Skyler: Yeah I want to do so much more, I really do. I did a reclaim pair of pants that were really cool. Those sold really fast. I want to do more experimentation with products. I want to be more "out there" creatively. Peter Jeremy who’s worked with Wub is one of those guys that’s a creative free spirit. How he described it to me is that his mind is always going and has these crazy creative ideas, but he doesn’t know how to implement them into something practical. We’re doing an art show at his house at the end of August. He’s one of the most genuinely generous people I’ve ever met. But I think I definitely want to expand into more, it’s gonna take expanding the team and production equipment. I’ve just gotta get creative with what I’ve got.
What are some new releases and projects we can expect to see from Forgive Everyone in the near future?
Skyler: In July or early August we’re coming out with an entire collection designed by the guy formerly incarcerated in New York named Jaiquan Fayson. He has a crazy wire frame style. It’s gonna be four shirts containing four portraits of four activists that were incarcerated for it. They’re gonna include Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Rosa Parks. We’re also gonna be doing a fall release and then something later in the year that’s gonna be a William Livingston piece designed in prison. That will either be end of this year or early next year. We can only correspond over letters so the correspondence is slow on that stuff, but the results are great.
What do you want to accomplish with Forgive Everyone in the long term?
Skyler: In the long term I want to grow it to a size where I'm able to provide tangible employment opportunities for people who were formerly incarcerated. That would turn it around full circle, since we’d be producing work in house with people formerly incarcerated, from people that are currently incarcerated, and the people buying it are getting the stories. It’s kind of limitless in how big it can get. I have a desire to make a big impact but not from a financial standpoint, and I have no desire to run a big business. But I’d like to see it have as widespread an impact as TOMS or Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns where everyone knows about it and everyone cares about it. If we can create that type of awareness with Forgive Everyone that’ll be great. But I think it’ll be a mass effort of brands and people working together on this issue. We’re the only brand really focused on these issues. I think it’s the start of a really big public perception change. I’m just trying to make as big of an impact as I can while maintaining the integrity of it.
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