T-shirt project only the beginning of local teen’s fight for social justice

  • Seventeen-year-old Carlie Kempf with the diverse books she is donating to local schools. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Seventeen-year-old artist Carlie Kempf, who spearheaded a T-shirt project earlier this summer, plans to continue her fight for social justice. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2020 3:51:57 PM

GREENFIELD — While this hasn’t been a typical summer for anyone because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 17-year-old Carlie Kempf didn’t expect she’d spend the break between her junior and senior years in high school fighting for social justice.

About a month after the nation watched George Floyd die beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, the senior at Four Rivers Charter Public School decided she needed to do something. So, Kempf, an artist, drew a brown-skinned fist surrounded by the names of Black victims who have died because of violence against them and posted it on Instagram.

Her best friend’s mother saw it and asked if she could put the design on T-shirts for the Kempf family, but before too long, Kempf and her stepmother, Dawn Kempf, were dreaming even bigger and setting up an online shop to sell them. They started with classic T-shirts and more than two months later, Kempf is selling tank tops, pullover hoodies, racerbacks and more in adult and children’s sizes.

“I’m donating some of the proceeds to The Okra Project and to buy diverse books for local schools,” Kempf said.

The Okra Project, part of the Black Lives Matter movement, is a collective that addresses the global crisis faced by Black transgender people by bringing home-cooked, healthy and culturally specific meals and resources. Based on donations, The Okra Project pays Black trans chefs to go into their homes to cook the meals at no cost.

Kempf sold 670 T-shirts in one month after she started in June. She stopped selling them for a while, but found they were in such demand that she’s selling them again for two weeks. She and her stepmother are thinking about opening a shop where they would sell T-shirts for all sorts of causes.

“I really want to help change the world so Black people no longer have to live in fear,” she said. “I’m ready for the change to really start.”

Kempf said as a young Black woman, she has experienced inequality and prejudice throughout her life, even though it hasn’t always been overt. She said the Black Lives Matter movement means something to her — she feels like she must raise awareness in any way she can. She was adopted by two white parents and has two white younger siblings, and it hasn’t always been easy for them to notice some of what she has experienced and how being Black has affected her.

“A lot that I noticed was going unnoticed by them,” she said. “Then, we really started talking this summer and that has changed. You just have to make people aware.

“My friends and I are also painting a (Black Lives Matter) mural on a large piece of cardboard, trying to figure out where we’re going to put it, and I did the art for the cover of a song about Black Lives Matter for a friend’s stepmom,” she added.

Kempf said she sent some of her art to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s “Breathing While Black” exhibit and two of them were chosen for the project’s online gallery at bit.ly/336J15K. She has also been working with a racial justice group in Greenfield that organized a march of about 2,000 people from the Greenfield Common to the Police Station earlier this summer after Floyd’s death.

“I’m learning how to lead racial justice meetings and more,” she said. The group is also starting a project of murals around Franklin County.

On Monday, Kempf will start her last year at Four Rivers Charter Public School. She said it will be mostly remote, with two hours each week spent outside at the school. Though it will be a busy year, she said she’s not going to give up all of the other things she’s working on.

“I’ve got dance and work, too, but I can’t give any of this up,” she said. “It’s just too important.”

Kempf had planned to go to college to become a veterinarian, but she has changed her mind and plans to major in graphic design with a minor in African-American studies.

“Through all of this, I’ve learned that art is important, it says a lot,” she said. “I’ve learned that even if you think you’re going to say the wrong thing or you’re nervous about speaking up about something, you have to learn to deal with people with different opinions, because if you don’t speak up, nothing will change.”

To order T-shirts, visit bit.ly/3g7QW7w for black shirts and bit.ly/31lqgw8 for colored shirts.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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