If anything is for certain these days, it’s that we’re living through “unprecedented times.” The coronavirus pandemic prompted a nationwide lockdown that left many Penn students stuck at home. Since the beginning of quarantine in mid-March, many people turned to creative outlets to blow off steam or quell looming boredom. Fresh sourdough bakeries, tie-dye pop up shops, and beaded bracelet factories cropped up in childhood bedrooms across the country.
Simultaneously, after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black individuals, at the hands of police officers, the Penn community rallied around the Black Lives Matter movement, with many students wondering how they could make an impact, largely from home. In recent weeks, millions of dollars flooded toward organizations striving for racial justice and police reform.
As these two historical moments converged, Ella Kemp (C ‘21) and Rithu Rajagopala (W ‘23), took the opportunity to turn their quarantine hobbies into something more meaningful. For both students, what began as a way to make some extra cash and use their artistic skills became an important front for supporting Black Lives Matter. Here's how they got their start and how you can purchase their work.
Streetwear for a Cause: The Banter Company
Ella Kemp was bored in the house when she first started experimenting with tie-dye and bleach patterns on old clothes. She was spending so much time on the hobby that she ultimately decided to set up shop from her Ridgefield, Connecticut home. Ella figured she could make some money and donate part of the proceeds to COVID-19 relief efforts, hence, The Banter Company was born.
Right before she was about to launch her website, however, the country broke out into protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. She put a pause on the operation, not wanting to take attention away from the moment.
“I was kind of torn as to whether or not I should even launch in the first place” she says. “My dad is Black and he was really affected by everything that's been going on and I could see the toll it was taking on him, so I didn't [launch the website]. For me it [didn’t] really feel right to be profiting off of anything... when there's so much going on.”
As protests continued and donations poured into Black Lives Matter causes, however, Ella realized she could refocus her business while making a change. She decided to donate all of the profits from her tie-dye merch to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Black Visions Collective, raising $285 for the ACLU and $474 for Black Visions Collective. She was also able to match many donations through various Penn organizations.
Ella says The Banter Co. will drop its next batch of clothes soon, with part of the profits continuing to go to organizations like the ACLU. Her trendy tie-dye creations can be found on her website or Instagram.
Protest Art for the Age of the Laptop Sticker
For rising sophomore Rithu, art has always been a centerpiece of her life and her activism. In high school, she started a business in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, selling prints of her art on stickers to raise money for No Kid Hungry.
On her sticker business, which she named “Allo” after the Latin word for “to feed,” she says, “I was always an artist... and I'm very much into talking about the political atmosphere and what's going on in the world... Because of that, when I was in high school, I really wanted to make a difference with my art.”
She saw her stickers as an "affordable way for people to really get a little piece of art for themselves.”
Rithu’s sticker business came to a halt when she started her first year amidst all of the typical Penn commotion. But sitting at home in quarantine watching Black Lives Matter protests unfold, Rithu knew she could make a difference using her talent.
“I realized that as much as I also had a lot to learn, there was a lot that I could do. I just wanted to make a bigger difference.”
Rithu began printing her art on stickers again and was able to raise over $350 for the Black Visions Collective. She is selling stickers via her Instagram and Facebook, so everyone can carry a piece of protest art in their pocket while helping Black Visions Collective reach their goals.
As activists aim to maintain momentum, shops like Ella’s and Rithu’s offer a lasting way to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. As students continue their efforts to benefit the cause this summer, including the likes of Ella and Rithu, we can see that the quarantine craft frenzy gave way to an opportunity for change, and hopefully one that will last.