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Constructive summer: Grassroots giving in a time of need

The People’s Protection Coalition

The People’s Protection Coalition Emily Utne

Throughout late May and early June, Target stores across the metro bustled with people piling carts full of toilet paper and canned goods and flour and oil—not to hoard, as in the pandemic panic that seized the nation in early March, but to share, in response to the community need that became suddenly stark after the murder of George Floyd.

In the unrest that followed Floyd’s death, Minneapolis and St. Paul sprung into action. There were food drives, clothing drives, diaper drives. GoFundMe pages went live in the morning and raised $10,000 or more by afternoon.

“The self-perception of Minnesotans being very giving in times of crisis is a real thing,” the team behind the Twin Cities Mutual Aid Map tells City Pages. They made the map to connect those well-intentioned shoppers with donation sites and volunteer locations, and during the early days of upheaval, organizers saw roughly 1,100 hits per hour.

The thing is, “Interest dwindles when the need is not perceived as sufficiently dire.” And nearly three months after the cities first burned, interest has undoubtedly dwindled. Donations, both material and financial, have seen a dramatic decrease. The TC Map site has gotten sleeker and more organized, but it gets a fraction of the visits it once did.

“Need has not diminished or vanished, but public perception is that the crisis has passed,” its creators say, a refrain echoed by nearly every organizer we spoke to for this story. “It hasn’t.”

At the same time, there have never been more ways to meet that need. Plenty of people have been doing this work since long before Minneapolis’s summer 2020 awakening, and plenty of the people who quickly organized when they saw a neighborhood in crisis are still out there—transforming a south Minneapolis bike shop into a free store or driving a school bus full of supplies into sanctuary parks or providing laundry service to those who might not have access to it.

We have a lot of rebuilding to do yet. Here are a few places you can start.

People’s Protection Coalition
@peoplesprotectioncoalition

There’s an Angela Davis quote scrawled in script across the back of the People’s Protection Coalition bus: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

The coalition’s core members—Riza, Connor, Ndolo, Kira, Makena, Rachel, and Rose—spent the summer acting on Davis’s vision. The original plan for their Facebook Marketplace score was to be a mobile medic unit, but when the protests died down they reassessed their role and realized the bus also makes it very easy to distribute donations. They can pull right up to encampments in Minneapolis parks (or anywhere), then pop open the back doors and get people what they need. So that’s what the BIPOC-led group has been doing, delivering food and medical kits and hygiene supplies and camping gear wherever they’re needed.

“Mutual aid—we view it as a political statement,” Ndolo says. “It’s using each other and the resources we have to spread those resources to other people. It’s not charity; it’s more sustainable, because it relies on the idea that we are all connected with each other and we all depend on each other for success.”

“A lot of us are low income. Most of us,” Makena adds. “We already understand what it’s like to need, and to have to build your own systems because you’re trying to get by. You have to rely on each other.”

People’s Protection Coalition was the force behind two big food drives this summer: a “Fuck the Fourth, Feed the People” drive at Matthews Park in July and another in August called “Community > Capitalism.” But as donations have slowed and interest decreased (yes, even interest in a school bus covered with hand-painted butterflies), they’re reassessing their role again.

“We want to be able to expand in tangible ways and meet the needs of the community as they shift,” Rachel says. They predict one of the city’s next great challenges will be distance learning, and are looking for ways to provide books and laptops and other school supplies for young people who might not have the right academic resources at home. They’re working on a Patreon page that would give them a better and more consistent idea about the money coming in and what they can do with it. And they plan to continue providing for the encampments: “Because obviously the government’s not doing it.”

“Nobody’s checking for people,” Kira says. “We’re a small group of people with a school bus, and we’re out here distributing supplies because the government’s not doing that.”

“We’re trying to build new systems. When you talk about tearing down systems of oppression, we can reject those by not participating in them,” Makena says. “We are trying to make People’s Protection Coalition a system.”

The People’s Laundry

The People’s Laundry Emily Cassel

The People’s Laundry + The People’s Closet
thepeopleslaundrympls.com
@thepeopleslaundrympls

You know those subscription-box fashion services Instagram ads are always trying to get you to sign up for? Where you pay a monthly fee, supply your sizes and style, and someone shops for you? And then it’s all delivered to your door?

“It’s like that, but free!” says Deanna, throwing open their garage door to reveal what might be Minneapolis’s largest detached walk-in closet.

People’s Laundry started in early June as a service for neighbors in need. The free laundry took off as Minneapolis’s sanctuary parks swelled with tents; volunteers shuttled bags to and from Powderhorn’s sanctuary and eventually to several other encampments.

They can’t even begin to estimate the number of people they’ve provided laundry services for: They were washing 40 bags twice a week at Powderhorn alone. That’s bags, not loads—one might have two or more in it. These days, between a core of about eight consistent organizers and 300 or so volunteers who help in capacities from doing laundry to sorting the space, the People’s Laundry serves about 16 parks (and the Greenway), laundering anywhere from 3 to 15 bags a week depending on the size.

Clearly, this was an unmet need. But in the course of doing the People’s Laundry, the group encountered a lot of people who didn’t have any clothes to launder. A few weeks in, they wondered if maybe they should start collecting clothes, too, and the People’s Closet was born.

Getting clothing is as simple as filling out a form. There are printed flyers and an online version anyone can access, asking what kind of wear you’re looking for. Need masc tank tops, size medium? Femme leggings in a large? Shoes? Socks? Just check the corresponding boxes and hand the slip back to a volunteer; they’ll note your location and return after collecting clothing for you.

“This doesn’t even have to be for the houseless population,” Deanna says. “It can be for anybody who can’t afford clothes.” And though they’ve thought about trying to start a nonprofit, this grassroots, on-the-ground organizing has worked well so far.

“All these places that I’ve never heard of, they’re like, ‘Hey, this week our organization we’re donating to is the People’s Laundry!’” Deanna says. “It’s really cool.”

Tomme Beevas of Pimento

Tomme Beevas of Pimento Emily Cassel

Pimento Relief Services
pimentokitchen.com
facebook.com/pimentorelief

Twin Cities restaurants have done some interesting pop-ups lately, but none was so unexpected as Pimento Jamaican Kitchen’s Eat Street pivot. “No jerk chicken or rum punch today,” a June 1 Facebook post announced, “but come get your milk and diapers!”

“The Pimento space has a different meaning to me today than it did a summer ago,” co-owner Tomme Beevas says, sitting in the patio-turned-donation-hub in August. “Where we’re sitting right now we wouldn’t be able to walk a few months ago. We had so much product on the ground, built up to the roof.”

It was a sudden shift for Pimento, but Beevas says the restaurant felt more to him like Kingston than ever before, reminiscent of the city’s tarpaulin-covered markets overflowing with produce and colorful clothing. “That’s what Pimento looked like. It had a nostalgic moment, and yet it was in the middle of an uprising that was so powerful.”

Beevas remembers watching the video of George Floyd—he’d tried hard not to, but it felt necessary. He locked himself in his garage and bawled. Then he tapped into his decades of corporate responsibility and community development (Pimento was already providing free meals to school kids, healthcare workers, and homeless populations as part of its COVID-19 aid) and got to work.

During the uprising, volunteers stationed at Pimento ended up air-traffic-controlling a citywide disaster relief effort. They blocked off a lane of Nicollet, where a flood of SUVs and pickups packed with donations stretched down the block. A human chain passed food and diapers back from the curb, where they piled the patio so high Beevas had to stand on the stage to find people he was looking for. Drivers shuttled the overflowing supplies to other aid centers in the Twin Cities.

The groundswell of support reaffirmed what Beevas already knew: “We all had the ability to take care of each other. We all had the ability to protect our own blocks. We all have what we need already—we just have to not allow our human limitations to stand in the way of and limit others.” Which is why the restaurant now has an established mutual aid arm.

On Marcus Garvey’s birthday, August 17, they formally registered Pimento Relief Services as a B-Corporation, one that exists “to reimagine the instruments of our liberation. That means economic, social, and political liberation; Beevas talks about everything from feeding the community, to protecting the integrity of the ballot, to promoting healing and growth as the city rebuilds from this upheaval and faces new ones. What would it mean to reimagine the nonprofit industrial complex, and to instead connect with actual people in need?

“We don’t have to be the best speech givers,” Beevas says. “We don’t have to be the best food shelf. But we’ve gotta find those who are doing the work—how do we support them with the resources they need, and that their counterparts don’t have, to set them up for the best success?”

Those are the questions Pimento Relief Services SBC will continue to ask—though these days, they can ask them and make you a mean jerk chicken and rum punch.

Auto Outreach Mpls

Auto Outreach Mpls Emily Cassel

Auto Outreach MPLS
@autooutreachmpls

“Reliable transportation is safety and agency, and everyone should be entitled to it,” Jon Cass says.

In a parking lot not far from the Stone Arch Bridge, the Auto Outreach MPLS founder soon crawls beneath a blue SUV, attracting glances from curious passersby as he walks a new crew of volunteers through the basic steps of an oil change.

For those who have always had the privilege of reliable transportation, it’s something easily taken for granted: turn key, start car, leave when you want and go wherever you want. But not knowing whether the old engine will turn over each morning so you can get to work or buy groceries is immensely stressful, and any serious repair can be debilitatingly expensive. The bus isn’t a great option for many trips, or any during a pandemic.

That’s why Auto Outreach does free repairs and maintenance services for BIPOC individuals. Cass has offered free oil repairs to BIPOC car owners for a while now—“Reparations shit, right?”—but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder those requests shot up. He’s since assembled a collection of pro bono mechanics and started working under the Auto Outreach MPLS name.

Routine maintenance (oil changes, battery changes) are the most common fixes, but the group has tackled everything from leaky fuel lines to bad starters. And Auto Outreach mechanics make house calls, showing up to do a quick repair while someone’s car is in the lot so they can get on the road with no disruption to their day.

They’ve prioritized emergency repairs since some of those reaching out now got their vehicles beat up when they were helping out protestors, though often it’s as simple as showing up to recharge the AC. “It’s easy, it takes five minutes, and when it’s 98 degrees out they’re not dreading having to drive somewhere,” Cass says. But there are bigger jobs in the pipeline, and these days, they’re doing work for white folks, charging dirt-cheap prices, then using that money to bankroll future repairs.

“We need that guilty white-lady money,” Amy, one of the volunteer mechanics, laughs. “Edina, Minnetonka...”

Amy has a background in this stuff; they studied Honda/Acura at Dunwoody College of Technology. But some of the volunteers are new to car repair, which is why Auto Outreach also has an educational component (and why five people are sprawled out underneath a Chevy on this August evening). Cass remembers being intimidated by auto shops as a kid, something that can be especially rough for women and people of color.

“The auto industry loves to make this shit seem so much more complicated than it is,” he says. “That way, they can get away with charging you $100-plus an hour for labor, when you can do it yourself in 30 minutes for the cost of parts.”

So a small army of two-dozen-odd auto-literate volunteers and administrators (and bike mechanics—a new outreach service that’ll kick off this coming weekend) is trying to demystify it just a bit.

“Need always outpaces organization,” Cass says. “This is just something where we’ve figured out our skill set and a need that wasn’t being satisfied, so it was a way for us to be able to help out.”

South Minneapolis Free Clothing

South Minneapolis Free Clothing Emily Cassel

South Minneapolis Free Clothing
@southmplsfreeclothing

 As a moderator for the Facebook group South Minneapolis Mutual Aid Autonomous Zone Coordination, Oliver Stremple noticed a disconnect. Lots of people wanted to donate clothes. Lots of people needed clothes. But there was no one between bringing them together.

Stremple says there’s a good reason for that: Clothes are a pain in the ass. They’re bulky, they’re heavy, and they take up a lot of space. They’re specific to the person; sizes and styles have to fit in a way canned goods and shelf staples simply don’t.

But as a grant writer with a degree in social work and a former thrift store employee, Stremple figured someone could connect those dots—why not them? They asked if anyone had a space, and Lyn-Lake’s HUGE Improv Theater did. The nonprofit theater had been closed due to COVID and wanted someone to use the lobby. It was only a few days until South Minneapolis Free Clothing came to be anchored out of the space, where it’s been for the past three months.

Today, a wall of framed performance posters provides the backdrop for racks upon racks of donated hoodies, jackets, shorts, and pants. There are shelves of shoes and boxes of baby clothes (though both women’s footwear and kids’ clothing are impossible to keep in stock). Bras hang from one rack, and there are even a few formal gowns. Ready for when cold weather hits, 20 to 30 garages around the Twin Cities are brimming with warm, winter-appropriate wear.

And most importantly? “I don’t have to do any sort of intake for people who come into the space.”

As a social worker, Stremple often feels they’re between people and their human rights. “Everyone deserves clothing. Everyone deserves housing. You literally should not have to believe anything, behave in a certain way, look a certain way.” Intake processes are necessary for nonprofits to get funding, but they also create barriers toward helping people get what they need.

At HUGE, there are no hoops. No ID or proof of residency is required. Open hours are specific (and are posted on Instagram each week), but shoppers don’t have to speak a certain language, and they don’t have to be sober. You’re welcome to come back weekly and fill up to two trash bags with clothing. There are no raised eyebrows or sideways glances. If there’s a line outside, your time is limited to 20 minutes. Barriers removed, South Minneapolis Free Clothing has been able to serve more than 100 people in a single weekend.

And still, donations come in. The racks are replenished. The needs can be met—if there’s a continued willingness to give.

“No amount of mutual aid is going to undo the structures that are in place that created this,” Stremple says of Minnesota’s great wealth and resource disparity. “But it could create systems where people can rely on less oppressive structures.”

Alex Gomez at the Grease Pit Free Store

Alex Gomez at the Grease Pit Free Store Bryan May

Grease Pit Free Store
@freestore_at_thegreasepit

About a mile from where Minnehaha Center’s Target and Cub burned—contributing to the creation of a food desert in neighborhoods where insecurity is already high—a DIY bike shop has become an unlikely source of stability for a community in need.

Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the Grease Pit Free Store provides for families from their neighborhood. Volunteers set up folding tables full of food, household necessities, medical supplies, and baby items in front of the shop’s eggplant-purple facade. Traffic slows and a crowd gathers on the corner of 28th Street and Bloomington Avenue, where a spunky 11-year-old calls numbers to the assembled crowd, and shoppers move from table to table to choose the groceries they need: flour, salt, sugar, eggs.

“We don’t want to do the pre-bag thing,” explains Alex Gomez, the organizer behind this bike shop-slash-free store arrangement. “That feels more like charity than mutual aid.”

The Free Store started with community meals. Wanting to provide some sort of consistency for neighbors during the intensely uncertain times following George Floyd’s murder, Gomez helped make hundreds of burritos, and the folks behind the Grease Pit gave the OK to use their space as a distro point.

Soon, people were dropping carloads of supplies at the shop, where Gomez and other volunteers spent every day through mid-July. By the first week of August, Gomez estimates they’ve raised $35,000. “And we’re just random people. We’re not part of a group or an organization or anything like that... it’s everyone who’s pretty low-income doing the donating.”

Just as she’d hoped, the free store has provided a point of consistency. There’s a rhythm to it now: Three days of prep work, three days of Free Store shopping hours (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 3-6 p.m.). The crew members are familiar to shoppers: Abdull, who translates for Somali visitors, and 11-year-old Fatima, who lives a few blocks away and is also the free store’s Spanish translator.

Families return again and again. Most walk. Fatima will call anywhere from 100 to 150 numbers a day.

Emily Cassel

Emily Cassel

The needs are consistent, too. Anything baby-related is in demand, and household necessities like laundry detergent and dish soap—anything you can’t purchase with WIC or food stamps—are among the biggest needs.

They’ve been able to partner with other organizations for perishable goods. Produce comes by way of The Good Acre’s Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund (LEAFF), through which the nonprofit buys fruits and veggies from BIPOC farmers and distributes them to donation sites around the city. There’s The Food Group, which supplies regular drops of culturally specific foods. Gray Hobby Farm and Sunshine Harvest Farm bring eggs.

But donations go quickly. Gomez spent about $2,000 on food and household items earlier on this August morning, all of which will be gone before the day is out.

As for what comes next, Gomez isn’t sure. Already winter looms. The group would like to have a brick-and-mortar space, but that would mean paying rent, which would mean they couldn’t keep the store free. She’s batted about the idea of a sliding-scale club, where you could pay based on your need or volunteer to get perks, not unlike an old-school co-op. She’s been applying for grants that might help them get there.

There is one thing she knows for sure: “We want to stay in this neighborhood.”