For generations, Americans have used business to create financial freedom and to take a stance on issues that are dear to them. In the home of liberty and brotherly love, Philadelphia Printworks is living that American ideal of freedom and liberty for all. Philadelphia Printworks is a screen printing company based in North Philadelphia. The mission is to promote community awareness on local, national and international issues concerning art, justice, culture and society. The goal is to encourage a culture of activism with a focus on community building.
Maryam Pugh, co-founder of this business was gracious enough to take out time to talk about balancing business with activism, creating partnerships with other businesses as well as the importance of product presentation
I. What is the inspiration for starting this initiative?
When we began, 3 years ago, we were mainly interested in bringing awareness to issues that affected our community on a local, national and global level. Since then, we realized the importance of creating our own narrative and documenting our own history. We realized that the space on shirts usually reserved for branding could be much better used for this purpose.
II. It seems that “activism” and the rise of “revolutionaries” have become trendy. How do you protect your brand and ensure that it maintains integrity and authenticity?
It’s very important to me that we represent the issues that the people in our community care about and that the platform doesn’t become a place for one person, me, to push my own agenda. One way that we do this is through customer engagement campaigns including giveaways and surveys. We ask our customers questions like, “What issues are important to you? What do you support? What would you like to see on a shirt?” And then we factor those suggestions into the development of our new designs. The process of engagement promotes our mission, which is to create a culture of activism. Another way that we stay close to the our mission is through community building events including movie screenings, fundraisers and cultural events. We partner with a number of local organizations to foster that movement. A third way is through donations to charities or organizations tied to the themes of our shirts. We donate a portion of the sale of each shirt.
On the other hand, as a “socially aware” brand, we do have to find ways to tap into popular culture. It’s the only way for us to stay relevant. If people aren’t buying our shirts no one will see and share the messages on them. It’s reminiscent of the whole “tree in the forest” metaphor. So, there really is a fine line that I’m constantly auditing to make sure that we don’t overstep. We actually like that “activism” and “revolutionaries” are becoming more trendy. It’s a very organic development out of the phenomenon of social networks. Part of our job is to take that “clicktivism” out of the virtual world and into the streets. We can only hope that this is a tipping point in our nation.
III. You’ve opened up your site and print machinery for brands with the same mission to use. Talk about those partnerships and the shop collabs.
Part of our goal is to promote community building. So, we look for organizations and people who are interested in doing the same. When we first began, one group, especially, took us under their wing and encouraged our growth. That was the ROCKERS! organization who dedicates their time toward providing POC (People of Color) musicians places to perform. An offshoot of that organization was Rockers Closet, a local thrift store and workshop. The ideologies of both groups, DIY lifestyle, sustainability and activism, were in direct alignment with our own. So, the collaborations there were very organic. Philadelphia is really one of those cities where it’s easy to be an artist. The community here can be extremely kind and supportive of people “doing things”. Another organization who we’ve worked closely with is Reclaim Print. They’re another screen printing company dedicated to helping grass root organizations and non profits. They do a lot of work toward bringing awareness to political prisoners such as Russell Maroon Shoatz.
We’ve also printed shirts for a bunch of bands, Lion’s Den Publishing, The AfroFuturist Affair, The BlackStar Film Festival, AfroPunk and Liberator Magazine. All organizations dedicated to cultural enrichment in some form.
IV. Many of the designs have messages that promote self-sufficiency and self-awareness in the African-American community. What are your thoughts on the state of business and economics in the African-American community?
I think that we’ve come a long way. But, we still have a long way to go. Every day people in the African-American community are becoming more proficient at manufacturing their own goods. As we become better at the core basics, the business investment from the customers will follow. I also think that African Americans are becoming more mindful of the power of their dollar and where they choose to spend it. If you live in a predominantly African-American community and you wonder why the businesses around you are suffering you have to begin the path of discovery by looking at your own spending habits. Who are you giving your money to? And what are they doing for your community with it? There are a lot of other political reasons that some areas have a harder way to go. But, watching your spending is an immediate and effective change that you can make right now.
V. The Shirley Chisholm sweatshirt is my favorite item on your site. What’s been the most popular item on the site?
That’s a good question. I would have to say that it’s a close tie between the Octavia Butler T-shirt and the Panther Legacy Hoodie. I sell out of the both of those most frequently. The African American Science Fiction community is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts. So, a lot of people are drawn to Octavia, a prominent voice in the genre. Then, the Panther Hoodie seems to speak to so many. We chose to specifically highlight the Free Food Program because of it’s lasting effect on the nation.
VI. Talk about the biggest business lesson that you’ve learned so far in this venture?
There are so many to choose from. I am constantly learning new things every day. The old adage “Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.” definitely applies here I think that over time I have come to learn how important product placement and presentation can be. In the beginning we didn’t take the time to show our shirts in their best light through lookbooks and photoshoots. It was always something we meant to do but didn’t give it a high enough priority. After a few successful collections, I have seen first hand the difference it makes in sales.People want to see your vision.How do you see your product being worn? Who do you see wearing it? Who are you targeting?It gives them additional context about your brand and allows them to see how or if they fit into it. Promotion is vital. Get a logo.If you aren’t a graphic designer find one. How you present your product is very important. Find an audience that could be interested in your work and make sure they see it. It takes time, especially if you’re work doesn’t fit into the usual “formula”, but, stick with it. Eventually you’ll find that you’ve developed your own community who is actively invested in your company and your mission.
VII. Through this business venture, what societal issues are you focusing your time on making people aware of at the moment?
Right now we’re working on our Spring/Summer 2014 Collection. We’ve done the giveaways and we’ve received a lot of good suggestions from our customers. I can’t say for certain what the final designs for the new collection will be. But, I can say that a few current topics which are on my mind include censorship, digital privacy, rape culture and feminism. But, we’ll see.
Lately we’ve been doing a lot of film screenings of various documentaries about different POC Punk Bands. We’ve been working with ROCKERS! on that initiative. We also have a tribute to Amiri Baraka coming up (also with ROCKERS and The AfroFuturist Affair). And a few collaborations coming up in the Spring. So, mainly, we’ve been focusing on the cultural side of things lately.
VIII. What’s your vision for PPW in the next five years?
I would like to increase sales and get our shirts into more stores nationwide. If we could become a household name, along with our mission and what we stand for, I would consider my work successful.
Some shots of the apparel