For 19-year-old Ayah Harper of Revere, the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd in 2020 served as motivation to foster uncomfortable conversations at her elite private high school and start a small business to effect change.
Harper, the 2021 valedictorian at Brookline’s Dexter Southfield School, founded a handmade clothing company, named “I Got Ur Black Tees”, to produce clothing displaying slogans like “Uplift Black Voices” and “Black Children Matter”.
Harper began by informally making shirts for friends and family. Demand skyrocketed after her mother posted images on her Facebook page. Ayah found the work provided an outlet for her frustration with world events and a way, she says, to “show support for the cause without coming across as performative”.
She described feeling powerless at the time within her neighborhood, her school and as a young black woman: “I was 16, 17… What could I really do? And that was the only way I felt I could really help,” she said.
Since graduating from high school and going to Tufts University, where she plays point guard on the school’s Division 1 basketball team, Harper has continued to grow his business and use it to amplify the voices of black pride. Additionally, she donated more than half of her $49,000 revenue from nearly 1,500 orders to local Black-owned businesses.
Her hands-on and meticulous garment production process shows Harper’s high level of dedication. Working solo, she individually dyes each shirt and screen prints the printed messages.
The work helped ease the anxieties of living in a world where she so often found herself ignored. Harper praises his time in high school but acknowledges the deafening silence that resonated in Dexter Southfield both historically and during the politically charged period of Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“It’s very painful when people who look like you die in the real world, and then your community has created a bubble so separate from the outside world and just said, ‘We’re not going to talk about it,'” she says. “It made me feel like I was living two different realities.”
Although discouraged by the overwhelming sense of enforced political neutrality, Harper has used this uncertain time to encourage her school, staff and students to support something bigger than themselves.
His basketball coach and administrator at Dexter Southfield, Tyreik Mosley, expressed pride in the young entrepreneur and described Harper’s influence on the school as “forever impactful for this community, in terms of how we let’s address things like diversity and social justice.”
Mosley was one of many members of the high school community to wear Harper’s clothes in the hallways and classrooms. Despite what Harper described as the suppression of political conversation in the school at this time, students found they could use her clothes as an outlet to show their support, both actively and passively, as profits from the company were helping to support local black people. owned businesses.
“It was a turning point for me when young black girls, like freshmen and sophomores, asked where they could buy a sweatshirt. And then I kind of realized how many people this cause touches, and I really felt like, you know, it’s really bigger than me,” Harper said during an interview in her Tufts dormitory in Medford, Massachusetts.
Although the company was founded in response to the George Floyd protests and a global lack of social justice, it’s just as much a byproduct of Harper’s experiences growing up. The middle child in a family with two brothers, she has very supportive parents who encouraged her to channel her frustration and helplessness into something meaningful.
Even with her family in her corner, Harper describes times when she felt ignored by members of her community, whether in class or on the basketball court.
“You can feel invisible,” she said. “You feel unsupported and like people aren’t actively engaged in pursuing your interests…I spent a lot of time in middle school, annoyed with how I looked compared to my peers, and I don’t I really didn’t feel like I had an identity among them.”
Due to the success of her business and the public speaking and writing opportunities that come with it, Harper was asked to co-write a book with an established writer on the contemporary experience of black women.
In the meantime, I Got Ur Black Tees serve as both an outlet for the fast-paced basketball player and a base of support. The business, says Harper, allows him “to elevate the voices of others, but in a way, to also elevate mine.”