August 30, 2007

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T-shirt based world aid
Band, clothing company work together to help Zimbabwe
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

Life in Zimbabwe is not great.

There’s a 80 percent unemployment rate, an annual inflation rate of 4,500 percent and life expectancy is about 35 years, compared to 60 in 1990.

The New England band Dispatch wanted to help. One of the band members lived with a family in the country when he was 18. They knew they couldn’t solve Zimbabwe’s problems, but maybe they could help out in a creative way and encourage their fans to become creative activists.

maax is a clothing designer and manufacturer based in Manchester. From their base in an old mill building, they create items such as athletic uniforms for colleges and high schools nationwide. The company also caters to musical acts by designing and creating clothing and posters. They’ve worked with Dispatch for years. When the band played its last concert in Boston in 2004, which drew 150,000 fans, maax set up mini-stores to sell the material.

Over time, a relationship developed between maax and Dispatch, and they talked about things other than business.

“What are we doing this for?” Jeb Gutelius, who co-owns maax with his brother Luke, recalls thinking. “Is there a bigger thing that we can work towards?”

Last January, Dispatch, which is unsigned but has a large following, announced the formation of their nonprofit Dispatch Foundation. Its goal is to “build and support community growth” and “to prove that a bunch of rabid fans can change the world.”

Dispatch selected Gutelius to be the executive director of the foundation because of the band’s relationship with maax.

Dispatch was scheduled to play one night at Madison Square Garden in New York City as a fundraiser, donating all the proceeds to the foundation. Selling out the first night quickly, the band added two more shows. All sold out.

“Selling out Madison Square Garden is unheard of,” Gutelius said. “Selling out Madison Square Garden [for] three nights is unheard of. Selling out Madison Square Garden by an independent band is unheard of.” Police didn’t do that on their recent reunion tour, he said.

Although the shows were a success, there firm plans what the next fundrasier will be. The money from the concert, which has yet to be fully calculated, hasn’t been spent either, and probably won’t be spent for some time, as the foundation itself isn’t sure how it will use the money. All Gutelius knows is that the money needs to be spend creatively.

“Is there a farming technique that would triple their yield?” Gutelius asked. That’s the way the want to spend the money, he said.

Currently, Gutelius said he is working with different government officials and non-government organizations to figure how to best spend the money. He also plans to travel there, as the band members did Zimbabwe six months ago in an effort to find out what the people really need.

They also want figure out ways to activate their fan base. Matt Wilhelm, 25, who worked on a documentary on Dispatch, has helped to start Concert Corps, a program that grew out of the City Year AmeriCorps program. They set up service projects with touring bands across the country. Last spring, they joined Guster on the Campus Consciousness Tour.

“They saved up three spots on their tour bus,” Wilhelm said. His crew set up service projects along the way, like a park and food drives.

maax has assisted with the operations of Concert Corps by donating work space to new group. Gutelius likens all the different projects to what maax is looking to achieve in its business model: “We’re trying to build community,” he said.

Gutelius hopes the foundation can spur music fans to do good work while enjoying life. He gives an example of beer pong, a popular college game involving ping pong balls and cups filled with beer.

“Why don’t they charge $5 and give $1 to the homeless and $1 to Africa?” he said. “How do we change the conversation to make it more creative activism?”

Luke, Jeb’s brother, started maax in his parents’ garage in Duxbury, Mass., in 1998. In 1999, they bought a hat company in Manchester and moved into one of the mills. Maax employs 10 people at the mill and five people at their only store on Nantucket Island, Gutelius said.

For more information on Dispatch Foundation, go to www.dispatchfoundation.org.