A young child sits in a governmentally-nondescript office, feet swinging from a too-tall chair. Unfamiliar with both beige and bad coffee, they struggle to track the words of the eager adults drifting over the laminated countertop. The space features a worn check-in binder and a rack of cubbyhole office mailboxes. Every available surface bears reams of brightly-colored flyers. The flood of unintelligible words pauses abruptly. All eyes turn to them, and facial expressions show they’re anticipating a response.
All across this country, millions of children attend school, navigate society, and try to make sense of the world. Children of immigrants do all this and more – in a foreign place they often barely understand. If they’re lucky, the office they end up in may have a poster with a sentence or two in their native tongue, pointing them to translation resources. Provided they can already read and are tall enough to see it, of course.
More disorienting still, their limited understanding likely still makes them the family expert on American culture, and often even thrusts them into the role of de facto translator. Forms and systems related to housing, immigration, health care, education, and others are decidedly not designed with a 7 year-old non-native English speaker as the intended user.
Lawrence & Argyle opened for business during 2018, but its origin story begins much earlier. Jenn founded the budding apparel brand to honor her parents’ immigrant experience, and also to affirm similar experiences of her peers, their families, and anyone else attempting to find a home in America.
I hated it – that part of my identity – growing up. But now I’m just really proud of it.”
Inspiration for Starting the Business
Jenn is no stranger to these types of experiences – nor to the turmoil of identity that many immigrants and their descendants wrestle with as a result. Her parents immigrated to the US as refugees from Vietnam before she was born, and she initially felt reluctant to embrace her identity as a First Generation American. Growing up in San Diego, she remembers simply: “I hated it – that part of my identity – growing up. But now I’m just really proud of it.”
That transformation – and the deep pride and sense of self at its root – marks a key inspiration for Lawrence & Argyle. Jenn saw the power inherent in embracing her identity as a child of immigrants, and she’s endeavored to multiply that power by sharing it with others. This post is a product of recent conversations with Jenn, L&A’s founder. Jenn’s story resonated with me, and I hope you’ll appreciate the impact of her work and vision as well.
Immigrant | Child of Immigrants | Descended from Immigrants
Immigrant is a term plastered across cable news and wielded aggressively by politicians and pundits. This word has been intimately woven into America’s fabric, from even before the United States of America’s establishment as a sovereign nation. Now, leaders from local elections all the way to the Resolute Desk attempt to construe or associate immigrants and refugees with violence, terrorism, and symbolic scapegoats for perceived ills in American society. The ‘America’ plastered across headlines and looped endlessly on news networks often scarcely resembles the idyllic melting pot of old (itself a metaphor with troublesome implications of involuntary assimilation and hegemony). It more and more seems a seething cauldron. Bubbling off this roiling mess: hatred, marginalization, and further disempowerment of our nation’s newest arriving (and often most vulnerable) residents.
This is not a perfect place, but I believe that we can make room for any person seeking the best opportunities for themselves and their loved ones.
One interesting feature of this vitriolic debate: the most hopeful perspectives on the nation’s prospects often come from immigrants themselves, or their children and other descendants. In Lawrence & Argyle’s founding story, Jenn notes that: “[America] is not a perfect place, but I believe that we can make room for any person seeking the best opportunities for themselves and their loved ones.” Truly, these are the individuals who best understand the promise of American and its Dreams. Adding and including such persons in a society offers great potential to bolster its strength – for everyone. If the rising tides of capitalism truly do carry all boats, then why do so many fear the ‘flood’ of immigration
If you instead believe some far-reaching Liberal conspiracy could motivate impoverished migrants from South and Central America to travel thousands of miles, braving dangerous conditions and violent opposition only to reach an unwelcoming land, well, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
Mission-Aligned Business Model and Impact
In tandem with honoring immigrant experiences and perspectives, Jenn created L&A to tangibly empower immigrants and refugees. Lawrence & Argyle’s business model reflects this equal emphasis: they donate 50% of proceeds to a non-profit serving immigrants and/or refugees, with the recipient organization changing each quarter. For the last quarter of 2018, that 50% donation benefitted RefugeeOne. Lawrence & Argyles’s first philanthropic parter for 2019 is The Young Center, an organization that promotes the best interests of immigrant children and provides legal assistance to minors at the border.
Jenn’s passion and intentionality for Lawrence & Argyle’s mission are driving decisions from the earliest stages of the business, and this commitment ensures that the company’s impact will remain twofold. Initial customer feedback demonstrates that the emphasis on expression, honor, and community resonate most directly. As L&A continues to grow, Jenn is investing in building a brand that fully reflects the two interconnected but different elements of the mission.
Reception, Feedback, and Plans for Growth
When customers and supporters wear Lawrence & Argyle’s attire, they often report pleasant surprises and unexpected encouragement from the interactions that ensue. Jenn herself cherishes many conversations she’s had in response to wearing her “Child of Immigrants” shirt, and specifically notes how meaningful it is when, despite what the news might indicate, some older white people do indeed treat immigrants with dignity and humanity.
The experience and impact of Lawrence and Argyle proves that resilience and an unswerving sense of self make an impression in even the most oppressive surroundings. Repurposing language and symbols wielded with exclusionary or derogatory intentions unlocks honor for marginalized people groups that resists attempts at scratching or sullying.
The Power of Self-Expression
Our conversation included Jenn asking me to share my own story of recently leaving my long-time place of employment to found my entrepreneurial venture. Much like Lawrence & Argyle aims to do, Jenn and I experienced the affirmation of someone else getting to know us, our work, our experiences, and what truly matters to us. Self-expression involves a certain measure of risk and vulnerability, but it offers the possibility of affirmation and meaningful connections. As Lawrence & Argyle expresses love and respect for immigrant families in Chicago and beyond, it’s promoting precisely that.
As for the child at the beginning of this article, the continued growth of intentional brands like Lawrence & Argyle offers hope that they’ll learn the word immigrant with the pride and resilience it should connote.