Q&A: Jenny Arthur and Bob Riehl, co-founders of Borderland Tees
Borderland Tees is a low-cost screen printer in South Knoxville specializing in custom T-shirts. Funds raised by the for-profit sustain a community ministry based on individual relationships, which sometimes involve assisting with medical, legal, or housing issues for those in need.
“We believe the greatest poverty in our community is a poverty of relationships, so we offer a place of community to anyone who needs it,” says co-founder Jenny Arthur, who is a minister. “We also offer pastoral care and spiritual direction to those without a church home.”
She and Bob Riehl started Borderland in 2008 after Arthur was seeking a way to help a delusional homeless man, Stanley, who sought out the church where she was working. She enlisted Riehl’s help and he came up with the idea of offering the man work through the print shop he owned then. Over many months of delivery road trips, Riehl and Stanley learned to trust each other, paving the way for Arthur and Riehl to also help him establish disability claims and seek medical care.
All this happened in a way Arthur says she never would have been able to achieve in a traditional church office setting. Nine years later, Arthur and Riehl share what makes this model work.
What is at the core of the idea that this particular outreach works best as a “for profit?”
Riehl: We wanted to create an organic, sustainable model of ministry that can thrive without fundraising. We call it “Capitalism for the Common Good.”
Arthur: Relying on our own earnings gives us the flexibility to meet needs that fall outside the reach of a “program” that treats everyone the same; we treat each other as individuals. And everyone here contributes to the work of the shop.
Do you have any professional background that helps make this work?
Arthur: I am an ordained minister as well as a professionally trained chaplain with 20 years of experience in a church setting. I grew up in Gatlinburg and have an affection for T-shirt art.
Riehl: I trained as a spiritual director at Shalem Institute and have been in the screen-printing business for about 45 years.
How does the screen printing fund the other efforts?
Arthur: We try to make it much like monasteries, where people spend much of their day making something to sell to sustain themselves. Though we are not a jobs ministry, the money we make allows us to pay the people who work here and to pay those who come in to do some work for a couple of hours or maybe a couple of days. And it allows us to provide additional support as needed—legal, medical, housing.
Riehl: When people ask if they can donate to our social enterprise, we encourage them to buy some shirts instead.
What’s your price structure?
Riehl: We are traditional screen-printers and we print bulk orders of 36 or more, keeping pricing simple with a flat rate of $6 a shirt on a good quality Gildan tee, and charging a bit more for larger sizes or different types of shirts.
Arthur: The reason it’s so cheap? For one, you see our building, quite small and pretty old. We’re like a little factory, we don’t have a lot of overhead or managers or a receptionist to answer the phone, and Bob and I certainly don’t care about making a lot of money.
Are there limits on what the T-shirts can say?
Arthur: We print anything except the truly egregious, having to do with cruelty to animals, racism, that sort of thing. So far, it has not been a big issue. We are a wholesale printer, so we do not sell individual shirts. But recently we started an online “CommuniTees” program to sell benefit tees for organizations that are compatible with our mission. A few examples of that include Myles Walker, a local man who does Tourette’s advocacy; the Feral Feline Friends; Knoxville College; and Bridge Refugee Services. In these cases, we keep an inventory on hand and send organizations the proceeds when a shirt sells. We have some nice Tennessee Raccoon shirts at Ijams Nature Center and Time Warp Tea Room, too.
Is there a spiritual component to this work for you? A religious one?
Arthur: We are rooted in the practices of Christian contemplative prayer, the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, as well as Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions.” We both have years of Taoist study.
Riehl: We feel that our highest calling is to build relationships based on love, sacrifice, and joy. We find that most of the people who stick around embrace these same values, and we learn much from their sometimes greater faith.
How do you measure success?
Arthur: All we do is say “yes” to relationships. We don’t think in terms of success or failure. When we are true to our calling, we have seen good things happen for people.
Riehl: We knew this model would work because it did with Stanley. All kinds of people find a home at Borderland, and it is a fun place to be.
Do you have a favorite T-shirt slogan from over the years?
Jenny: “Non-Judgment Day is Coming” and “America: Mother of Exiles” both reflect our mission.
How long will this continue? Could it expand?
Arthur: This is our calling and life’s work, so we hope it will continue for a while.
Riehl: Right now, we expand by helping others develop their own small businesses and their capacity to give back. We also have a dream of getting a second screen-printing machine to employ women looking for a fresh start.
What is something simple that people in this area could do to help advance BT’s goals?
Riehl: People could assist our goal of sustainability by ordering T-shirts from us.
Arthur: Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty in America is a poverty of relationships. It is within the power of every person to relieve this poverty by offering friendship, not just a referral to an agency.
Borderland Tees raises money by printing custom T-shirts, then uses the profits to help individuals in need.
How You Can Help
Order some T-shirts in bulk (orders of 36 or more at $6 per shirt)! And with its CommuniTees program, Borderland works with nonprofit or charitable organizations to sell their shirts online.
To learn more about Stanley’s experience with Riehl and Arthur: borderlandtees.com/ourstory
Know someone doing amazing things for the future of Knoxville? Submit your story suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact us for sponsorship opportunities: email@example.com
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