Gang members turned entrepreneurs have made a home in the Southeast neighborhood of Anacostia.
Check It, a once-notorious gang of the LGBT community in D.C.’s Southeast quadrant, held a grand opening for its new clothing store donning its old street name Check It Enterprises, Tuesday.
Formed in 2005 to empower the city’s LGBT community, who were often subject harassment and discrimination, members of the former gang say they are now using their influence to do good in the community.
One of the gang’s and fashion company’s original founders, Star Bennett, said the gang holds influence among the city’s LGBT youth due to its members’ personal experiences.
“Young [LGBT] people only felt comfortable telling us about their problems,” said Bennett, 27, who was recently released from prison.
Check It grew to the size of about 300 members with several sects around the city. The group’s name, a play on the slang term meaning to retaliate or “put someone in their place,” sent the message that its LGBT members would no longer stand for being targets of abuse.
Now the members hope to use their influence to do positive things in their community. The clothing line will help them engage the community and connect underserved youth, primarily those within the LGBT community, with needed resources and developmental workshops.
“I never thought in a million years we’d be here today,” said Michael Boatwright, 27, who joined the gang in 2006 during its street dealings. Attacked on a Metro bus because of his LGBT identity, Boatwright survived the hate crime in which he was stabbed five times.
“I thank God we changed our lives. I look at life differently,” Boatwright said of the gang’s turnaround.
Looking for a better way to empower their community, Check It leaders sought the help of longtime community activist and youth advocate Ronald “Moe” Moten, who has worked in the city for nearly two decades with a specialty in violence prevention. He helped the group obtain funding from a community grant and develop the concept for a positive for-profit entity set to improve social and economic outcomes for their community.
Many officials and politicians joined the group for its grand opening at 1920 Martin Luther King Jr. St. SE, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ward 8 Council member Trayon White and Illinois Congressman Danny Davis, sponsor of the Second Chance Act of 2007, which established a grant program to support government and nonprofit organizations efforts to provide transitional services to citizens returning to society from prison.
“I will keep my remarks brief because I’ve got to get upstairs and do some shopping,” Norton said. “These young people, who were bullied and essentially abandoned, took control of their own lives.”
Seventeen percent of the District’s homeless youth identify as LGBT, making them more likely to being victims or perpetrators of crimes. Overall, the community makes up more than 40 percent of the city’s homeless population.
White said the opening of more economic opportunities for disadvantaged residents will be a driving force for reduction in crime in the city.
Bowser welcomed the new business to downtown Anacostia and cut the ribbon at the grand opening ceremony.
A documentary about the group will soon be released.