Hipsters to a T

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

YOU’RE A NONPROFIT IN BOSTON, Lord help you. You’ve got talented people and an important mission — let’s say it’s educating girls in developing nations or delivering technology to African villages. Congratulations! You’re now one of the, oh, 4,237 deserving local charities out there chasing the same fundraising nickel. How are you going to stand out?

If you’re Sean Hewens and Ross Lohr, you’re going to dream up a process that’s so convoluted — and so beset with the strangest combination of do-gooder idealism and irony — that it just might be genius.

Hewens and Lohr run the local nonprofit groups Smallbean and Newton-Tanzania Collaborative, which have jointly created something called Project Repat. They recruit Western volunteers serving in Africa to visit marketplaces and buy vintage T-shirts — those killer PBR baseball tees or “Nuns with Attitude” ringers — that wound up in Africa after having been donated in the States. The volunteers spend about a dollar per shirt and then give them to Project Repat — which brings them back to the U.S., where they are emblazoned with the project’s logo and sold for $25 with a tag detailing their origins.

Odd as it all may seem, the T-shirts become what Project Repat calls “double heroes,” making money for both the African merchants and the nonprofits Hewens and Lohr oversee here ($20 from each sale goes to aid efforts).  

The organizers say their target audience is the one group that has both a bleeding heart and a bloody appreciation of irony: hipsters. And yes, they recognize the absurdity of depending on a group best known for being broke, disaffected, and lazy. Still, Project Repat has raised about $7,000 since January to help fund solar-powered computer labs as well as scholarships for girls in Tanzania — and there are plans to begin filming a documentary about the power of T-shirts this spring.

Hewens says the project can be hard to fathom from the outside, but hey, it’s working. “It’s definitely cheeky,” he admits, “but it’s a way to get support from a demographic that otherwise didn’t give a crap about what our organizations were doing.” Hipsters giving a crap. Now that’s ironic.

Would you buy the T-shirt? We asked and hipsters answered:

“If it looks cool and I’d wear it out, then hell yeah, I’d buy it.” — Eric Grava, 22

 

 

 

“I would buy the shirt, just if it’s an awesome shirt and it’s been through so much.” — Ivy Ross, 19

 

 

 

“I guess it makes the shirt 5 percent or 10 percent more cool. I want to find out what the African people think about the shirts.” — Ross English, 19

 

 

Hipster photographs by Fawn DeViney