Philadelphia Printworks’ Maryam Pugh Is Creating a Uniform for the Movement
This interview is part of The Beautiful Ones, a series that talks to people who are creating space for social good in fashion, through activism, philanthropy, and innovation.
“One of my favorite T-shirts is the #TakeCareOf shirt,” Maryam Pugh, co-founder of the social justice screen-printing shop Philadelphia Printworks, tells me. I’ve just asked her about her most adored tees, and rather than take the opportunity to plug her own threads, Maryam names the work of Oakland-based printer Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo. “It lists all these marginalized groups: Muslims, trans people, basically everyone who’s under attack by the current administration,” she says, adding, “I love meeting other printmakers of color. It’s a solidarity thing.”
Those who know Maryam probably won’t find her response surprising. She is adamant about “supporting and sustaining” the culture. Philadelphia Printworks started as a creative outlet in 2010, but with best-selling collections like “School of Thought,” which imagines university logos named after legendary Black thinkers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, the shop has quietly grown into a fashionable beacon of activism.
From PPW’s tees and sweatshirts to the roster of local and national organizations listed clearly on its website, you know exactly what the brand stands for and for whom it activates.
“When a design rings off, it’s because it is authentic,” Maryam says. “You can tell if an Urban Outfitters does a ‘No Justice, No Peace’ design, versus a little old screen-printing workshop like PPW. People can sense the authenticity.”
Philadelphia Printworks is the epitome of conscious consumption. And one of my favorite recent exercises has been to learn which corporations support Trump or the NRA and other entities that are harmful to humanity—the optimist and activist in me hopes this will convince people to spend their dollars a bit more consciously, to stop supporting those who don’t support us and to push a few dollars toward people like Maryam who are creating positive, inclusive, and safe spaces for engagement. With the most obvious example of conscious consumption on my mind—Colin Kaepernick’s recently sold-out T-shirt for Nike—Maryam and I started our conversation there:
AMIRAH MERCER: Colin Kaepernick just released his apparel with Nike, after announcing their partnership this summer. What do you think about this type of commercialization of activist messaging?
MARYAM PUGH: I think that considering all that Kaepernick has sacrificed, he deserves to find ways to be compensated for his labor. Too many times oppressed communities are expected to take on the labor of organizing and mobilizing for free. Alternatively, we do get to be critical of where that compensation comes from. In this case, I think it’s important to critique Nike and the authenticity of this sponsorship as a genuine allyship versus a corporate strategy.
AMIRAH: In the same vein, Philadelphia Printworks is very transparent about where its money goes.
MARYAM: Right, but navigating what it means to be for profit and socially responsible—as a small, black-owned, woman-owned business—it’s something that I think about a lot. Especially in terms of capitalism and how capitalism is so closely tied to colonization. While participating in the system, we’re constantly checking ourselves to make sure that everything we do is for the community. It reminds me of that Master P interlude on Solange’s A Seat at the Table album—if you’re taking from the community and not investing back into the community, then it’s not for the community.
AMIRAH: You’ve said your goal is, in the words of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, to be a catalyst for change. How so?
MARYAM: I feel like we’re already doing that. Philadelphia Printworks is a manifestation of my own personal development in organizing work. I want to be someone supporting the movement, with whatever resources I have. If that means printing T-shirts to help create uniforms, so people recognize that they’re not alone in this fight, then I’m honored to do that.
AMIRAH: One of my favorite PPW shirts is the Panther’s Legacy tee. When did you drop that?
MARYAM: It was pretty early in PPW history—2012 or 2014. I was aware of how important the Black Panthers’ legacy was, and I wanted to draw attention to that. At that point, I was literally only making shirts for my friends. I’d put out a collection and show it to them and be like, ‘What do y’all think of this? Do you think it’s cool?’ So the group of people that I was around heavily influenced the type of stuff that I was deciding to release.
AMIRAH: Why the focus on the Black Panther Party’s People’s Free Food program, in which BPP members provided breakfast and more to the community? That was pleasantly surprising to me.
MARYAM: People might have a knee-jerk reaction to the Black Panthers, but when you take that symbol of the panther, and then you tie it into the Free Food Program, it’s almost undeniable—it’s kind of like, what can you really say? Have you even done any research before you attack me about it?
AMIRAH: That’s what I love about this shirt. It highlights that the Black Panthers were a social justice group, helping people out in the community, and the self-defense program was only a part of who they were.
MARYAM: Their self-defense program wasn’t a negative thing. The reaction to immediately criminalize black people and people of color with guns, who are defending themselves, is how oppressive structures continue to operate.
AMIRAH: Not everyone grows up learning about our Black history and heroes. Like, I didn’t read Audre Lorde until I was out of school, doing my own personal reading. When did you start to engage with this history?
MARYAM: That was the exact ethos behind our ‘School of Thought’ collection. So many people learn about these things outside of these regular institutions. Personally, I can’t remember one defining moment where I became more surrounded by these different thinkers, but I will say there were moments in my life that I can recall where it was kind of sprinkled around, and the foundation was laid, so later I could come back to it. My father is a bibliophile, so there were books everywhere in my childhood home. There was so much for me to randomly pick up and start reading. And I remember walking to the library as a kid. I got into Alice Walker and she still, to this day, is one of my favorite writers. And then from there, I went to an HBCU, I went to Cheyney University, so it was always around me. But I didn’t start seeping myself into it until after college, just like you.
AMIRAH: How do you make sure you’re staying true to the ethos of Philadelphia Printworks as you grow? Because, a lot of times, with scale comes compromise.
MARYAM: That’s a great question. The consumers will let you know if they don’t like something very quickly, so that will keep you grounded. People can tell when you’re doing something to make money versus actually caring about the topic. But we’ve also had collections where we put a lot of energy into it, like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to be amazing,’ and then it hits and it kind of falls on deaf ears.
AMIRAH: Which collection was that?
MARYAM: I feel bad naming it, but it was the Direct Action Division collection. It was basically a ‘thank you’ to all the frontliners, the people that were out there protesting and putting their bodies on the line. For some reason, it didn’t resonate. But we use social media to get insight on what our customers want to see. And people send us requests all the time—like, ‘Hey, can you make a shirt for this or that’—so we can tell what’s important to the PPW community.
AMIRAH: What are you working on now?
MARYAM: Our fall collection, which is focused on black athlete-activists. We hope to release it within the next couple of weeks. We’re also beginning to do fulfillment services for other small, black-owned businesses.
AMIRAH: For other apparel businesses or, like, if there’s a coffee shop that wants merchandise—
MARYAM: Exactly! And by fulfillment, it’s not just us printing the shirts for them; it includes us running their online shop and fulfilling merchandise, handling customer service, and everything.
AMIRAH: What are some of the local issues in Philadelphia that PPW is involved with?
MARYAM: A lot of work is being done around Philadelphia tenants’ rights, due to the influx of new developers coming in, grabbing the land, and unfairly evicting a lot of people. There’s a lot of action around mass incarceration. We work with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, to end cash bail. I’ve also organized with the March to End Rape Culture, which focuses on sexual harassment and rape culture in Philadelphia.
AMIRAH: By doing this work, I feel like you’re providing a really cool access point for people who might not see themselves as ‘political,’ but they can literally just start by wearing a T-shirt.
MARYAM: Yeah, I’m really interested in figuring out a way for this to be a fundraising means for the movement. How do we sustain that so the next generation has this toolbox of things they can tap into to continue to participate in the democratic process? It shouldn’t be so hard to figure out what to do to practice your rights. I just want active engagement in government to be the status quo. Everyone is participating, because it’s the only way we’re going to continue to create a world that changes and that we all want to be a part of and that’s inclusive.