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Reparations Thrift asks white Madisonians to pay it back in style

The mutual-aid organization makes a case for fashion-based reparations.

Illustration by Maggie Denman.

On recent sunny, breezy Sunday, the southwest corner of James Madison Park hummed with college students. In one corner of a small grove of trees, an enthusiastic auctioneer drove up bids. Black Umbrella’s live art auction funded housing for Black community members. Food sizzled on a grill near a table of produce for sale. Towards the lake, a handful of metal garment racks were packed with dresses, T-shirts, tops and jeans. A sign taped to a tree read “@REPARATION$THRIFT” with a corresponding Venmo handle. A half dozen new shoppers gathered around as a volunteer delivered the spiel. 

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“We’re Reparations Thrift, so our central goal is to redistribute stolen wealth that’s been taken from communities of color back into those communities,” says Margo Keevil, the organization’s volunteer coordinator and head of Data Analytics. “So everything is on a sliding scale. The scale starts at $0 for people of color. The sliding scale has a bottom for white people, because we’re asking that you pay monetary reparations. I would start this item for white people at [anywhere from $15-$30].”

Reparations Thrift wants white liberal Madisonians to put their money where their privilege is—in, quite literally, style.  

“We ask that you pay as much as you feel able, rather than what feels easiest, because we recognize that reparations should be something that you consider,” says Keevil, a white Madison native who’s finishing a master’s thesis. 

Reparations Thrift was founded in July to convert donated clothing into money and necessities for local BIPOC and the organizations that support them. In particular, local street- and direct aid-based organizations like LINK and Black Umbrella. These grassroots groups, initiated amid the upsurge of activism following the murder of George Floyd, support the Black community in Madison with fundraising and community-building events. Since the groups lack access to the same funding sources as non-profits, Reparations Thrift took the initiative to help. They set up shop at parks and LINK Kickback events throughout the summer. Reparations Thrift has expanded to include Mutual Aid and Food/Land Justice departments. They also intend to buy land and redistribute it to people of color. 

Reparations Thrift purposefully connects fashion with reparations. Cultural appropriation is rampant, particularly on Instagram, says Thrift co-head Venus Han. Personalities like the Kardashians get likes—and accumulate social capital—by cherry-picking aspects of style from Black and brown cultures. 

“Nowadays, a lot of white people want to be different and not like the other white people,” says Han, a Minnesota native and UW-Madison Senior from a Vietnamese refugee family. Han, along with co-head Mollie Martin of Good Style Shop, manages the Instagram account, photo shoots and events. Han says younger white women in Madison have recently appropriated double braids and big hoop earrings from communities of color. Nameplate jewelry, sneaker culture and tight, tiny tops paired with baggy jeans are other commonly appropriated styles, she says. 

“White people get all the benefits from taking from Black and brown people. And they don’t get any of the [negative] implications that Black and brown femmes get from wearing the outfits that have influenced white culture,” says Han. 

White people, Reparations Thrift asserts, should pay reparations to support the people whose cultures have been robbed.

“When white people steal from Black culture… it hurts the Black people who have spent long and hard and tumultuous years to hold their ground, to wear their natural hair, or who have held their ground to present how they feel like they are in the world. And then everybody gets brutalized for something that white women have largely made a fashion statement,” says Reparations Thrift founder and Food/Land Justice co-head Jordan Blanco, who immigrated from Honduras with their family and attended high school in Madison.

“We are a direct aid, mutual aid organization that is centered around the idea of repairing and repaying what has been stolen—and under white supremacy, everything has been stolen,” Blanco says. 

Reparation Thrift’s Instagram profile image reads PAY BLACK PEOPLE FOR THE STYLE THEY GAVE YOU. The organization sells its choicest pieces via posts on the social media platform. Chic vintage and 90s-inspired dresses, tops and pants are styled on models whose heads are often cropped out. Each listing includes a description and the size of the item, the $0 bottom of the price scale for BIPOC, and another bottom for white people. Potential buyers DM for availability, Venmo a payment (which is not required for BIPOC), and then arrange a pick up or drop off. Sold items are added to the organization’s Instagram Stories, along with the amount paid and the recipient of the reparations. Past beneficiaries include the Free the 350 Bail Fund, Freedom Inc. and various GoFundMe campaigns. The account also posts images of clothes and other wares redistributed to people of color.

Reparations Thrift volunteers give the same spiel to all shoppers in order to avoid policing their clientele. At events, they don’t require buyers to show the amount they paid with Venmo, trusting customers to respect the price scale.

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The group also uses its Instagram account to call for clothing donations from followers, as well as toiletries, back-to-school supplies and survival items for their mutual aid program. 

Emma Hicks is a German, Middle Eastern, and Black UW-Madison master’s student and Chicago-area native. Hicks, who co-heads Reparations Thrift’s Mutual Aid department with Maria Tran, recalls her first walk down State Street as one of the few Black people in sight. “There’s clearly an issue in Madison with homelessness and it’s obviously a racial thing,” Hicks says. “Because I didn’t see any Black people around that come on State Street and all of the people that are unhoused are Black—they’re all Black. And so mutual aid is very important in that aspect—giving survival items back to those people.”

Reparations Thrift distributes mutual aid resources, including tarps, tents, and coats, at community events to people who need them and to other organizations that will distribute them through their networks. Reparations Thrift says they’ve broadened their distribution options as individuals and organizations reach out to them.

Food justice was an early mission for Reparations Thrift. Blanco worked at the north side’s Troy Farm. Blanco and Tran, who is also a founding member of LINK, helped direct imperfect produce to local organizations and COVID-related initiatives. Reparations Thrift set up farmers markets with the produce at thrift events with a similar race-based scale, starting at $0 and up for BIPOC. 

In its short existence, Reparations Thrift says it’s moved “tens of thousands of dollars” of material and money, including an estimated $10,000. Keevil keeps a running inventory and analyzes data on donations, redistributed items, and funds from the Thrift. 

Much of the reparations are funneled to partner organizations through direct donations. Reparations Thrift also buys requested items its partner organizations don’t have on-hand, like a tent or a coat in a certain size. Organizers store mutual aid items and clothing in their cars, basements, and apartments. Recently, they also began storing backstock in an 8-foot-long by five-foot-high trailer they’ve named Luisa. 

Reparations Thrift’s leaders are mindful of how much they depend upon other people and organizations in the community. “We don’t wanna come into a space and be like, ‘We’re students, we know everything about this, and we’re gonna do it by ourselves,’” Han says. “Because in reality, we have a lot to learn, and we have people who are willing to work with us.”

Haley Gibbs, who started as a volunteer with Reparations Thrift and is now a co-head of the Mutual Aid and Food/Land Justice departments, says most white patrons have been receptive to the idea of paying reparations through clothing purchases. 

“People are like, ‘That’s awesome, I’m gonna donate this much!’ or ‘I’m gonna donate more than that!’” says Gibbs, a UW-Madison student and Chicago-area native with white and Chinese parents. “If it’s someone who’s receiving the thrift [reparations], they’re like, “Wait, what? You’re just going to give this to me?’” 

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