“We are winning today. Today is going to be a great day. There is breakfast casserole!” Randi Gloss, 24, loaded up a square paper plate with food and swung herself into one of the lilac velour lounge car booths on the train she was riding: the Millennial Train Project, a 10-day journey which carried millennial social entrepreneurs and innovators across the country this week. As the train stopped in cities across the southern United States, the riders conducted individual project research and received mentorship from thought leaders spanning a number of industries.
Torrential rains had pounded Austin, Texas, where the train was currently stationed, overnight–and there were more storms on the way. So, after they scarfed down their breakfast casseroles, Gloss and other Millennial Train participants quickly dispersed to their field assignments.
In Gloss’ case, it was time to catch an Uber to Friends & Neighbors in East Austin, a Victorian cottage-cum-boutique which sells bright vintage dresses, turquoise and silver hand-made jewelry, frothy espresso drinks, and cold beer. Gloss set up for her two-fold project in the light-festooned, restored wooden garage that serves as Friends & Neighbors’ storefront. On a silver garment rack, numerous styles of Glossrags t-shirts hung, each memorializing, via a simple list of first names, unarmed black men and women killed by vigilantes or police. Glossrags is Gloss’ company which aims to both sell t-shirts and raise awareness about police brutality. “Glossrags is my life now,” she told me. “No more substitute teaching, no more restaurants. This is my hustle and it is a blessing.”
Gloss, a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, joined the Millennial Trains Project to begin building a physical community around Glossrags. As she set up temporary shop across the country, she also invited people along the route to tell her their own stories about police brutality. She is recording those interviews as part of a documentary project, tentatively named The Conscious Chronicles. Gloss’ pop-up interviews target local, minority-owned business owners and influencers she has been connected to via friends and social media. She announces her events in each city on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, collaborates with a videographer, and documents stories. She hopes the documentary will air in weekly 15-minute segments. “The heart of my business is the stories,” Gloss told me.
It all began for Gloss in August 2013 when she spontaneously hand-drew a poster for the March on Washington’s 50th Anniversary in Washington, DC. Her sign read: “emmitt (sic) & amadou & sean & trayvon. more than just black faces in tragic places.” A German couple approached Gloss and wanted to know: who were these people?
At home that night, she grabbed a neon post-it note and sketched out a t-shirt with the names listed on it. Her creation is based on a 2001 design by Amsterdam-based graphic studio, Experimental Jetset, a simple t-shirt which lists “John & Paul & Ringo & George”. The design has become something of meme, its style reproduced all over the world for other bands, groups, and places.
Chicago poet Nate Marshall suggested to Gloss that she add an ellipsis to her design, which eerily foretold the continually growing crisis of black deaths at the hands of police. “It turned out to be sadly beyond fitting,” Gloss said. “Because I started with six and now we are up to 17 names.”
The shirt designs exist as versions, with Vol. I listing Emmett Till (1955); Amadou Diallo (1999); Sean Bell (2006); Oscar Grant (2009); Trayvon Martin (2012); and Jordan Davis (2012).
The t-shirt company marked one year of business on April 19, selling 2,700 shirts to date. “I’ll never forget November 25, 2014. I biked home and Mom’s sitting in the driveway, and she says, ‘he’s not guilty’ (referring to Officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting). Then my phone started lighting up: New order. New order. New order.” For the next month, Glossrags was “drowning in orders.”
The business has not been without its critics. People have scolded Gloss for profiting from “other people’s tragedies.” Gloss is empathetic but disagrees; as shirt sales grow, she feels she can do more to raise awareness and gather more stories for her documentary, which she hopes will bring black people physically together because, “amongst black people, we don’t always talk about what we go through.”
In Austin, Anthony Watkins, II, 29, a musician and a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, came out to tell Gloss his story. Watkins took a seat in the Friends & Neighbors garage beneath a prayer flag-inspired garland and recounted a night of great joy in Chapel Hill, when the Tar Heels had won a big basketball game. Thousands of students poured out of the arena into the streets. As Watkins ran joyously along with his friends, someone cracked him in the back, knocking him to the ground. He got up to defend himself and saw that he had been struck by a police officer. Watkins paused, then walked away.
He had come out on this humid Sunday afternoon to recount his story to Gloss because, “most saliently, this is raising awareness of the need to unapologetically tell the stories of black victims of state violence.”
Gloss hopes her documentary will both spur conversations among her millennial peers and lead to effective change. “Just because you didn’t die doesn’t mean your story (of racial injustice) should be devalued,” she says.
Gloss says that the Millennial Trains Project has helped validate her year-long efforts to build her business and make her documentary. The train journey has also given her the opportunity to record interviews that would otherwise been much harder for her to obtain. “It was either this or do it on my own, which would have meant flights, hotels, and all the logistics in six cities. That would easily exceed the $5,000 cost of the MTP trip.” The do-it-yourself method would also have meant less access to mentors, such as Scott Paterson of IDEO, who worked with Gloss on the train ride.
Paterson has pushed her on the train to “take it up a level” and create events around The Conscious Chronicles screenings to foster engagement and trust.
Another mentor on the train, Jeff Martin of GMMB, in Washington, DC, pushed Gloss to work on an “anthem,” to distill her idea into the shortest possible statement without using “and.”
The result: “Speak Your Truth”.