Nearly 10 years ago, when they had the distinction of being members of the nation’s only known LGBT youth gang called Check It, most members never imagined the group could evolve into a budding fashion clothing business.
But members and supporters say that’s exactly what happened after several of them began organizing an effort about five years ago to produce and sell T-shirts and other clothing items and put together several runway shows.
Last year, they launched a business called Check It Enterprises, LLC.
“One year later we obtained our own building in downtown Anacostia Washington D.C.,” the group states on its recently launched website, which includes a mail order section that enables customers to purchase the group’s latest line of T-shirts.
“We now need your support to help us fulfill our dreams of turning our space into a social enterprise designed to make and sell our own clothes and merchandise and to help provide services to our peers as well as providing space for other young entrepreneurs who need the same opportunity but have limited resources,” the website statement says.
Longtime community activist Ron Moten, who serves as an adviser to the group, and D.C. gay activist and Ward 8 community leader Phil Pannell said Check It Enterprises now needs additional financial support to make needed renovations to their rented building. The “build out” renovations will enable the group to expand their clothing line and eventually generate a profit to pay for community-oriented programs they would like to undertake, according to Moten.
“This is a story of true transformation,” Pannell said. “It is really inspiring. And I think that for us and all people, particularly those of us in the LGBT community, it is imperative that we support these youth and their quest to turn their lives around and become a positive force in this city,” Pannell said.
He noted that LGBT people have not been among those who have responded to Check It Enterprises’ Go Fund Me site.
“What is so heartbreaking to me is that so few adults in the LGBT community, particularly our leaders, have done anything to really help them,” said Pannell. “I hope it’s because maybe they simply have not interfaced with these young people personally. Therefore, we need to do more so we can actually have older LGBT residents in this city help them out,” he said, adding, “they’re not looking for a hand out, they’re looking for a hand up.”
Moten, who for years has worked to stop youth gang violence in the city, has been credited with helping to connect Check It members with others, including Assistant D.C. Police Chief Diane Groomes, who encouraged them to pursue what began as a dream.
At that time, Check It members had been hanging out in Chinatown and the rapidly gentrifying Gallery Place section of the city, often getting into fights with other young people who hung out there. Members, including Check It co-founder David “Dae-Dae” Frye, have said the group formed as a means of bringing together African-American gay, lesbian, and transgender youth who had long been victimized by bullying from other youth at their schools and in their respective neighborhoods.
Last June, a documentary film about the group called ‘Check It’ made by film producers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, had its premiere in D.C. The film chronicles Check It’s evolution from a gang to a fashion enterprise through interviews with its members, including founding member Star Bennett, who calls the group “fierce and fabulous.”
Moten said he first became involved with the group when one of its members, who just got out of jail, chastised him for not offering services to LGBT youth caught up in the criminal justice system.
“He said, ‘well Moten, I don’t think it’s fair that you work with the straight guys and straight girls but you never work with the gay people from my neighborhood,’” Moten said.
“So that’s how the relationship started with Check It,” said Moten. “I pulled them all together and asked them what they like and they said fashion. So I started helping them with a fashion show.”
About five years ago, at Moten’s suggestion, Groomes arranged for the group to use a police substation in the city’s Petworth neighborhood as the site for its first fashion show. Groomes’ gesture immediately changed Check It members’ relationship with police from one of suspicion to one of friendship, Moten said.
With the help of a small grant from a local community group and contributions by Moten and others, Check It Enterprises last year obtained a lease for a 3,000-square-foot store front building at 1920 Martin Luther King Ave., S.E. in downtown Anacostia.
In giving a Blade reporter a tour of the building earlier this month, Frye and other members of Check It Enterprises said the building represents another step in their dream to become a community supportive business with the objective of helping other youth in situations similar to Check It members in past years.
In addition to its main floor, where Check It members will have office space and room to work on plans for additional clothing lines, a large open space in the building’s basement is planned for both sewing machines and T-shirt stenciling as well as a place for youth like them to gather.
“Our vision for this basement is to use it as a community open room,” Frye said. “A community open room to us is a place where our LGBT and straight youth can come together – a union of one,” he said. “One of the visions that we have is HIV awareness and PrEP, he said, referring to advice on whether young people should consider obtaining from their doctor an HIV prevention drug known as PrEP.
One of the few known LGBT community members who has given financial support for the group is gay Republican activist Jose Cunningham, who serves as chair of the D.C. Republican Party. Cunningham told the Blade he learned about the group through Moten, with whom he’s friends, and immediately liked the idea that young people were turning to entrepreneurial endeavors as a means to pursue social change.
But the decision by Check It members to go the route of a business rather than form a non-profit organization makes them ineligible for some funding sources.
The D.C. LGBT charitable group Brother Help Thyself, which this year gave away more than $75,000 in grants to over a dozen LGBT groups in D.C. and Baltimore, cannot award grants to businesses like Check It that do not have a non-profit status approved by the IRS under its rules of operation, according to BHT President Jim Slattery.
Moten said a local accounting firm recently decided to sublease space for an office in the Check It building and its community minded owners have offered to provide pro bono accounting services to help the group operate as a business.
Another possible source of support in terms of business-related advice is the Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which Check It is eligible to join. CAGLCC, among other things, services as a networking group that enables LGBT business owners to meet one another and learn about ways to improve their respective businesses.
CAGLCC member David Goldstein, owner of D.C.-based Kalorama Wealth Strategies, said he had not heard about Check It Enterprises but would like to learn more about the group to determine how CAGLCC might be of service to Check It.
“We have big ideas,” Frye told the Blade. “We have a lot of ideas about our whole new 2017 clothing line. We have a fashion show coming up in March, which is called Spring Bling 2017,” he said. “And all of the new ideas and all of the new creations we’ve got, we’re going to just push them out there in our fashion show.”
More information about the group can be obtained at checkitenterprises.com.