Forgive Everyone: Selling a message of redemption and empathy
Seeing a broken criminal justice system in the US and wanting to do his part, Sky started a business that lets people wear their heart on their sleeve while supporting organizations that help.
With Forgive Everyone, he’s found a way to spread his ethos and connect to those in need. Going forward, he hopes to expand on this mission of forgiveness and redemption.
The small biz quiz
Name and location
Sky Rich | Grand Rapids, Michigan
How did Forgive Everyone come about?
Forgive Everyone came about after I had begun to become acquainted with the brokenness of the criminal justice system.
The state of mass incarceration in the nation seemed like such an astronomical problem that I simply didn't know where to start to fix it; but I knew I had to do something.
So, when did you get started?
My initial start was out of my dorm room in May of 2018. I put up a site to sell shirts with the intention of donating the proceeds to some non-profits that were doing housing, employment, and rehab work with people coming out of prison.
I began meeting with people who were recently released here in Grand Rapids and that’s when I got the idea to share their stories.
I began writing their life story and taking their pictures and sharing them on the blog in an attempt to humanize a population of people that most individuals had never been acquainted with.
So much of the fear surrounding the criminal justice system is due to ignorance. People don't know anyone who's been incarcerated and therefore they believe only what they see on the media (crime shows, evening news, etc.).
Very quickly, they get a picture painted that everyone in prison is a "criminal" rather than a human being with complex life experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
I believe that if we can effectively change public perception of people in prison through storytelling, then we can do our part in creating a community that is rooting for their success upon their release, rather than isolating them due to personal fears.
Why screen printing?
Screen printing came about naturally. I figured I could produce the clothing myself rather than outsourcing to third party printers.
I bought some cheap equipment and taught myself (quite a messy ordeal) to screen print. I began printing the clothing brand shirts and, since I had the equipment, I began offering to screen print for student organizations and local businesses.
One of the formerly incarcerated individuals I met with—to share his story—showed interest in the clothing design and printing process, so I had the opportunity to bring him onto the team. He’s now the lead designer and assistant screen printer (he's an awesome guy).
Were there any other types of things you thought of selling?
I'm not locked into the whole idea of selling clothing. I just see clothing as the most public and accessible form of self expression we all have.
Our clothing shows people who we are and what we believe.
If Forgive Everyone's clothing can display that the wearer believes in forgiveness and second chances for people coming out of prison, I think it can spark conversations with other curious people. It would maybe open up a dialogue that has the potential to create a shift in heart for someone who was previously ignorant to these issues.
That's the change I'm trying to create, and it doesn't have to be clothing to create that change.
It just needs to be any single item, or event, or art display, or anything that starts a conversation between people who are educated (and care) about issues surrounding incarceration and those who aren't.
Where do you do your screen printing? I don't imagine some expansive warehouse situation.
Currently I screen print out of my single car garage in the house I'm renting with four other people here in Michigan.
It's certainly less than ideal, to say the least.
It's unheated and uninsulated so currently, when it's 26 degrees out, it's pretty miserable printing in there. This year, after I graduate, I plan on renting a small space to have inventory storage and manufacturing space that is more conducive to the work I'm trying to do.
You say that one of the formerly incarcerated people you met with became your lead designer?
Hiring Mac, who is formerly incarcerated, definitely drives home the mission.
The ultimate goal of all of this is to be able to create fulfilling, mentally stimulating, and ideally creative jobs for people who are formerly incarcerated.
Most jobs they are able to get when they get out (if any) are mundane manufacturing jobs. I think humans thrive when they have work environments they enjoy and desire to work at.
That's what I want to create for this population.
You are close to getting your degree. What have you been studying?
For my degree, I've been studying business marketing. Although I have learned a lot more about 'marketing' in every sense while growing this business.
The most valuable part of university for me has not been the classes, rather it has been the professors and other students who have spent their time to develop me as a person and help refine this venture.
What does the growth of Forgive Everyone look like to you? What do you hope to accomplish, both in the business sense and with your mission in mind?
Growth is a question I've been reflecting on quite a bit recently.
At this point, it is not at a scale where I could support myself with the venture alone. So, I won't be pursuing it FULL time directly after graduation, but I plan to continue to pursue it on the side and will be able to dedicate a much larger portion of time once I graduate.
My goal is to grow this into a full-time job. Not only for me, but for, to start, one formerly incarcerated individual, and then ideally into a place of employment for many individuals coming out of prison.
I want to be a creative hub for this population which has been so disenfranchised. I want to be able to help them create value through their art and skill and to be able to witness the world responding positively to the things they have made.
I think there is so much value in creating (both physically and artistically). I've seen even in my own life, the fulfillment of being able to pour effort into creating and producing something with excellence.
So many people coming out want to do just that, to turn their lives around, to prove to the world that they are more than their past records of wrongs. I want to help them in that and provide a platform and community of people who all support them and think their creativity is valuable.
What are the stickier things causing the United States' super high recidivism rates and extremely high prison population?
One of the stickier things that has made the system what it is is 'tough on crime' prosecution. Our society and justice system is sometimes based on emotions instead of rational thought.
This has contributed to giving life sentences to juvenile offenders. We have kids who committed a murder serving life in prison without parole when they committed that crime before the decision-making side of their brain was fully developed.
We throw these children into one of the most hostile places on earth and are then shocked when there are problems. We must have more restorative forms of practicing justice that are based firmly in facts rather than emotions.
Because people are capable of behavioral change?
In psychological studies, they have determined that just about every single person in the world can change their patterns of behavior with the right treatment plan (the only exception being individuals suffering from psychopathy).
Human beings have a natural bent towards revenge, but we can see where that has gotten us.
We have an aging geriatric prison population. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world. We continue to allow solitary confinement even with the multiple examples of it pushing people to insanity.
We traumatize, isolate, and demonize everyone in prison and when they get out we further isolate them and exclude them from the participation in society.
After all of this, for some reason we are still SHOCKED when recidivism rates climb, prison suicides rise, and crime rates stay steady. Our system is not working. At all.
What’s a better way to deal with incarceration?
We must begin approaching sentencing in ways that transform and rehabilitate people who have committed crimes, rather than demonizing, isolating, and shaming them. That only leads to more criminal behavior due to isolation and deep-set trauma.
I encourage looking into Restorative Justice as a practice. It has had incredible impacts in cases here in the United States (the book "Forgiving My Daughters Killer" gives a great example), as well as a plethora of examples internationally (Rwanda used restorative justice post-genocide, South Africa used restorative justice post-apartheid, which the book "No Future Without Forgiveness" talks about).
Who do we bug/elect to make these things less terrible?
In terms of bugging and electing people, take a look at some restorative prosecutors. But, watch out for false information. Restorative justice is not a widely received topic in general society... yet.
Chesa Boudin is a great example of a prosecutor trying to institute restorative practices. There has also been talk about bringing restorative justice to Washington state.
All I can encourage anyone to do is to stay up to date and educated on the state of the system but to maintain a radical sense of hope in the possibility for its reform. When we lose hope, the movement dies.
Aside from buying your awesome stuff, what can people do to help with this issue?
The absolute biggest things people can do to help is to educate and empower themselves to a point where they care so much about the issue that they will pursue creating solutions relentlessly.
That's why, when people show interest in getting involved, I specifically ask that they consume a few specific pieces of media and reading material so that everyone can be on the same page when it comes to finding solutions to the issues.
- '13th' by Ava Duvernay (documentary)
- 'The Feminist on Cellblock Y' by Contessa Gayles (documentary)
- 'Just Mercy' by Destin Daniel Cretton
- ‘Strength to Love' by MLK Jr.
- 'Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community' by MLK Jr.
- 'No Future Without Forgiveness' by Desmond Tutu
- ‘Forgiving My Daughter's Killer’ by Kate Grosmaire with Nancy French
Aside from just reading and watching, there are re-entry nonprofits in almost every local community, dedicated to helping people getting out of prison get back on their feet. Seek them out and reach out to them to see how you can help.
Volunteering at a non-profit doesn't always mean simply dishing up soup at a soup kitchen. You can use your other skills too.
For instance, if you know how to do marketing, reach out to your local non-profits and offer to help them with their marketing and website. Some of that stuff only takes one's time, not money, and can make a world of a difference in the nonprofits’ work.
Lastly, be civically engaged.
Changing laws is a big part of this, and criminal justice and prison reform laws are starting to come onto the ballot all around the nation.
Get out and vote to make the change you want to see (and don't be tricked by the scare tactics often used by the prison industry, prosecutors, and police unions lobbying against reform).
Our civic voice is so powerful, but only if we actually use it.
Photos courtesy: Forgive Everyone