Lorenzo Bynum has the “baller” build you might see on the cover of GQ, without the swagger. He’s clean-cut, 5’10”, wears two small earrings and has a muscular frame. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Marin City, and the 23-year-old is digging frantically through a 10’ by 10’ closet. He’s hunting for a parachute large enough for a game with 15 third graders.
Wednesdays are busy days for Bynum. He clocks in at three part-time jobs: two hours directing elementary school children, two hours coaching track and field, and two hours coaching middle school boys basketball.
One reason Bynum likes basketball is that he grew up shooting hoops around town—with the friends and family members who are now his business partners. In late 2011, Bynum, his cousin Louis, and his friends Marcus Mason, Maurice Jenkins, and Melvin Judson, launched a business designing and selling t-shirts.
With $365 pooled from their savings, they ordered 100 cardigans and 50 sweatshirts, and began screen printing original designs. So far they’ve sold over 200 shirts.
“If you don’t know us, and you just see us on the street, you think ‘oh these are just some bad guys from Marin City.’ And most people don’t see us. So we’re here to get that out in the streets,” says Bynum.
Like many living in Marin City, the young men have had a hard time finding work.
Two of them are working towards degrees. For both, it’s their second try. Mason lost his housing, and Bynum says he just wasn’t able to pay.
“They hiked the tuition to where it was $35k to go a year and I couldn’t afford that even with financial aid, grants and scholarships,” says Bynum.
Meanwhile, Judson and Jenkins work part-time. They see each other daily at Babies “R” Us. Judson has worked as a cashier and stocker there for four years. This year, he got a raise. Now he earns $10.51 per hour, just over the county minimum wage. At 17 years old, Louis Bynum is the youngest. He also used to work at Babies “R” Us.
“Right now working for me is a bigger priority, trying to start this business and also provide for myself,” said Jenkins.
Over the last 30 years, Marin City residents battled poverty and drug abuse. Today, some things are better.
According to the 2010 census, Marin City is now a median-income community. But the stigma and the challenges remain. Marin City still has higher crime and poverty rates than the prosperous county surrounding it and more than a quarter of Marin City residents continue to live under the poverty line.
“Over the last few years, the city changed for the better,” says Andrew Abou Jaoude, Client Services Coordinator for the Marin City Community Development Corporation.
Bynum and his crew see themselves as part of Marin City’s renewal.
“Our clothing line is called RedEy3. It means ‘Real expressions determined through one’s eyes.’ And the image is a plane. It means being successful in anything and everything you do. Flight to success, it’s catchy. It rolls off the tongue,” he said.
The crew works out of two homes, both of which are in public housing. At the four-bedroom apartment that Maurice Jenkins shares with his parents and siblings, they receive equipment and clothing. They hold meetings at the two-bedroom apartment Lorenzo shares with his family. But soon, they will be working out of their own office, thanks to a local non-profit.
Along with joblessness, youth crime continues to plague Marin City. Kevin Lynch is the Director of Marin County Youth Probation Services. “Approximately 75 percent of youth in our system are youths of color, which is way out of proportion to what youths of color represent in Marin County,” says Lynch. “And when I see numbers going down for other youth, that frustrates me even more. I feel like we can do better.”
Walking around Marin City, it’s easy to see the things that make life harder. Outside Jenkin’s apartment, an older, frail woman is walking around in circles. She’s stoned. Within 45 seconds, a police car approaches, and officers step out to talk with her. Behind her, young men are joking and listening to music. They don’t seem to notice.
Outside of the Phoenix Project of Marin, John Allen, 26, and Derek Morgan, 17, both say living in Marin City is challenging.
“Marin City is what you make of it. It can be your heaven or it can be your hell,” says Allen.
“It’s kinda hard growing up here because we don’t have a lot of things. But, it takes you to rise up above the influence. Growing up here you can get caught up, or, you can rise,” says Morgan.
RedEy3 still faces some challenges. This year they contacted the Marin City Community Development Corporation for small business resources, but they have yet to sign up for any assistance programs. The bigger issue now is duration. Can they keep it fun long enough to push them through months of small business hardship?
The RedEy3 team is in the process of coming out with a new collection. This one will have 120 shirts and tank tops for sale. Until the collection comes out, they will be submitting grant applications as they prepare to buy a digital t-shirt printer machine, and they’ll keep the business going.
You can see RedEy3 designs at http://www.redey3flight.com.