Emerson Mafia admin debuts new merchandise fundraiser

By Bryan Liu, Assistant Opinion Editor

While the Emerson Mafia is often known solely as a means of networking, it has now expanded its community and fundraising efforts in a unique way: merchandise. 

Michael Benko ‘09 recently created an Emerson Mafia merchandise line of customized t-shirts for fellow alums to purchase and show their Lion pride. All profits go towards community outreach such as events that connect Emerson graduates. 

Benko jokes that his eureka moment came when the higher-ups ordered him to print shirts in an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque fever dream adventure. 

“When I was a senior at Emerson, I found a secret passageway under the Little Building, so I went down there and I was inducted into the real Emerson Mafia and the dons of the Mafia instructed me to sell T-shirts to fund their fight against the Illuminati,” Benko said. “That was part of the joke, but I wish it wasn’t.” 

In reality, he just wanted a product that would uplift the community and bring people together.

“I’d say that having a flag is a very human concept,” said Benko, who has been an active member of the Mafia since 2007. “It’s something people immediately get, whether it’s a T-shirt, a pin, or a hat. It’s wonderful when a piece of cloth can transfer unity. You just feel special.”

Writing professor and fellow alum Peter Medeiros ‘15 agrees with this sentiment. 

“People like to have uniforms associated with the groups that they’re in,” said Medeiros. “It’s something that people who are usually part of an in-group would usually enjoy the same way people enjoy putting on a sports jersey.” 

In recent years, the Mafia has taken to Facebook and since soared to new heights. To Benko, the Mafia embodies a “cultural idea” spread person-to-person even before the internet. Digitalizing the idea legitimized the organization. 

“As the internet came about, [the Mafia] started to become a shareable internet concept like a meme,” said Benko. “After a while, all the time we spent to foster the community turned it from something that’s sort of a meme into something that’s a real club.” 

In addition to the online efforts, Benko launched the merch line because he believes funding will streamline the Mafia’s agenda. He said Emerson really does make sure they’re trying to help their students after graduation—and so is he.

“I’d love to have a real moderate budget coming in so I could justify spending three days or a month or a few weeks working with campus organizations to help current students,” said Benko.

Benko made it clear all the funds from sales would be invested in the community.

“I would love to help students who are graduating into what’s become a very strange world and help them get their footing,” Benko said. “Not even new graduates, but also someone who’s making a career transition when they’re 55.” 

In the process of creating the merch, Benko was inspired by the longevity of old clothes and excited by the idea of practicing sustainability in the line. He partnered with Bonfire as the Mafia’s printing partner because of its focus on high quality. 

“It’s more expensive, because it’s made a lot better,” Benko siad.“It’s usually sold as a premium T-shirt in a gift shop. If you see a shirt that’s like $37, or $50, it might be printed on this one. So this is going to wash a lot better and be a lot more comfortable.”

The Mafia shirts sell for $27. Benko makes it a point to maintain a low profit margin to keep shirts affordable. Although the first attempt “was not a successful project,” Benko called it a “huge learning experience.” After several rounds of trial and error, he is finally excited to be able to represent the organization. 

All in all, the project’s mission is to strengthen the Emerson Mafia, an organization known for the opportunities it provides for alumni across the world. A backdoor connection goes a long way in regards to a life in media or film, and a lot of students don’t have that. That’s where the Mafia comes in.

“A lot of arts are insider industries, where if you don’t have that [connection], it’s going to be really, really, really hard for you,” Benko said.

For many, the Mafia levels out the playing field by giving its members a home-court advantage in nearly every field. 

“No membership in any organization like this is going to guarantee you a job,” Medeiros admits, “but Emerson has a lot of fingers in various industries and I think that’s been…  useful in terms of making connections.”

The organization provides scaffolding for post-grads like Medeiros before they find their niches in an industry.

“[The Mafia] was helping me get into a lot of freelance work, particularly early on when I was still in grad school,” Medeiros said. 

Benko plans to partner with the Emerson bookstore so students and their families can buy the shirt on campus. People may invest in a piece of merchandise to support the project if they value the community, he says. 

“Having [merchandise] on a film set would be really fun,” Benko said. “I think in the dorms, having [merchandise] would be really fun. But I’m looking to the community to see if they feel the same way.”