Righteous Garments

By Matthew Townsend

A new retail enterprise of Magdalene St. Louis offers a way out of poverty for women starting new lives, and an opportunity to share their messages of hope with the world.

Launched in November, Bravely offers apparel bearing messages developed by the women of Magdalene. Love Is Brave, says one of the shirts available on bravely.org. Compassion Is Badass, proclaims another. In its first three weeks of taking orders, Bravely sold more than $20,000 in merchandise.

Compassion is a driving force at Magdalene, an 18-month-old residential community that will provide two years of community-based living, health care, and training to women who have survived violence, addiction, and sexual exploitation. Up to 11 women share a house and work to create a culture of respect, love, and accountability.

Bravely’s launch represents a critical new component of Magdalene’s program: an enterprise developed by the women that can be run by them, pay a living wage, and provide meaningful job training, said the Rev. Hope Jernagan, Magdalene’s executive director. Bravely also creates a trauma-informed work environment in which women hone their skills while being supported.

Magdalene has added this enterprise component because women who come to the community have found good jobs out of reach because of their limited job experience or criminal records.

This limits them to low wages. “Being able to get employment at a wage that can sustain themselves or perhaps family members is not accessible to them,” Jernagan told TLC.

Like Thistle Farms in Nashville, Bravely aims to give women a chance to turn that trend around. The average tenure at Bravely is expected to be about 18 months, which means there is a limited time to develop skills that most of the women have not acquired.

“It’s a short window of time,” Jernagan said. “What we’re hoping is that they’re able to get to the hands-on learning of business skills right away.”

For Hayley Perrin, who handles Bravely’s inventory and accounting, that training is already intersecting with her larger plans. “She’d like to be an accounting professional and she’s studying that in college right now,” Jernagan said. “She’s able to apply much of what she’s studying in school at Bravely.”

Carmen Dinwiddie, Bravely’s other employee, is focusing on order fulfillment and special events. A third employee will join soon.

Unlike Thistle Farms, Bravely’s employees do not manufacture the wares, but “they do basically all of the other aspects of running a business,” Jernagan said. That includes product design for Bravely’s tee-shirts, tote bags, and water bottles, including style, color, and messaging. “They’re really involved with all of the decision-making with the products.”

These skills could translate into new opportunities once they leave Magdalene. It is work experience that “other employers will see as valuable, so they have a real shot at being able to earn a living wage for life.”

One of Jernagan’s hopes for women like Perrin and Dinwiddie is that the living wage they earn will translate into savings and will acclimate them to a life built on good jobs.

Zekita Asuquo, director of social enterprise at Magdalene St. Louis, also emphasized the importance of offering a living wage to Bravely’s workers.

She told TLC that most women who enter Magdalene lack a bank account and are unaccustomed to managing money. As part of their life at Magdalene, they establish a bank account. Wages from Bravely give them an opportunity to put money into the bank. Thus, the complete program lets residents prepare for saving, paying rent, and taking care of themselves, which turns them toward a new life.

“It’s a good way to prevent those past behaviors from coming back, feeling like there’s no other way to survive,” Asuquo said.

Dinwiddie and Perrin both point to the hope that this kind of alternative gives them.

Dinwiddie said by email that Magdalene and Bravely are “two awesome things” that have come into her life.

“People should know that the work is being done by women who are learning how to empower each other and help build each other up with compassion and love,” Perrin said by email.

Both women said that Bravely’s launch, complete with a fashion show, was the highlight of their work so far.

As part of Bravely’s development, Magdalene’s residents were asked how they would like to involve the outside community in their story of hope and healing. “It’s interesting to note that the women were the ones who came up with this whole concept of apparel with inspirational messages,” Jernagan said. “We’re really serious about empowering them and lifting up their voices.”

This idea and the merchandise help someone “make the story of Bravely a part of their story,” she said.

While Magdalene is not faith-based, Jernagan said the not-for-profit organization is supported by a “huge network of congregations.” Jernagan, who is an Episcopal priest, became interested in this model of residential community and enterprise while visiting Thistle Farms during a campus ministry trip. When she heard about startup efforts in St. Louis, she joined the board of what would become Magdalene St. Louis. She eventually became executive director.

“This, to me, just feels truly like gospel work,” Jernagan said. “There’s something really unique about this community of women that strives to live so authentically and to heal together.”

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