Collective Care: Local Mutual Aid Fills The Gaps
Local mutual aid efforts help to fill the gaps created before and during the 2020 pandemic
by Julianna Peres (she/her)
Welcome to the 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine! This article is part of the annual Charlotte Pride Magazine, published this year as a special year-end retrospective for 2020. You can see all 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine content here, as well as finding distribution locations for our limited print run.
2020 is the impossible year. The year that would seemingly never end and never stops taking. If social distance and quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that we have to help our neighbors. Whether you’re stuck at home or in an office, you can give something that will change someone’s life. And that’s exactly what community members across the country, and right here in Charlotte, have done since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting the economic downturn.
As the pandemic’s shutdowns led to layoffs and other job losses, community members and families found themselves grappling with heavy questions and impending disaster. Many saw their incomes plummet and, as a result, started facing hunger and evictions. For those who were already living at or beyond the margins, the effects of the economic downturn were even more dire. When you’re already poor, and you lose whatever little income you had, just how do you make ends meet?
Jermaine Nakia Lee, a longtime LGBTQ community leader, artist, and entrepreneur, started Poor No More, a local “free store,” to assist with basic needs and essentials.
“A girl’s life was changed because of a single pair of work boots,” he recounts. All this young woman needed was professional shoes to start at a new job and, upon receiving that, was able to build a career for herself.
That young girl’s story is a prime example of the kinds of seemingly simple, but potentially life-altering, assistance that mutual aid can provide. Small gifts — like a pair of boots — to assist folks in situations they may have never envisioned for themselves. And, when the time comes, that same kind of assistance can be available to those who are giving now. We all need help now and then; today, you may help someone else, but tomorrow, it may be you needing assistance.
We spoke to a handful of mutual aid organizers here in Charlotte — and profile each of them below — to get a sense of their work and to highlight the good they’ve done for the community during a year of great challenges. Like many mutual aid projects around the country, these efforts are mostly or all Black and queer led. In fact, one of the greatest examples of mutual aid in modern history was also Black-led. In the late 1960s, the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program began in Oakland, Calif., spreading to 19 cities and feeding 20,000 children by the end of 1969. Additional Black Panther programs included clothing distribution, free medical clinics and transportation assistance — the exact same kinds of mutual aid services that became essential for survival in 2020.
Poor No More
Jermaine Nakia Lee didn’t set out to operate a mutual aid service when he opened his new business. NODA@28th Creative Arts Studios was originally envisioned as a rehearsal and studio space for artists, photographers, models, and others. As his business grew, it morphed into hosting small retail operators and hosting community and social events.
Lee soon began encountering houseless neighbors who approached him and asked for leftover food remaining at the end of events hosted at the venue. Lee, his tenants, and his family and friends all realized they could band together to address the needs facing the folks living and working all around them in the NoDa neighborhood. And, thus, Poor No More was born.
Lee had never really thought of organizing and managing a mutual aid service. What started with small charitable gifts from Lee’s friends and tenants later blossomed into small fundraisers, food drives, and clothing drives. And as the need continued to increase, Lee increased his giving. Today, Poor No More Free Store is partnering with other community organizations like Black fraternities and sororities and corporate sponsors, like Belk. The iconic local department store supplies Poor No More with donated clothes and housing items once each month, with 100 percent of every monetary and physical donation going directly to a low-income person in the community.
For shoppers at the Free Store, the experience is much like any other retail center or department center — with the added benefit of a hot meal. Lee wants shoppers to retain a sense of dignity and respect, especially since most of Poor No More’s clients come from already marginalized communities. Their largest client base are single mothers with two or more children, as well as Black trans women, seniors, and individuals living with a disability.
Poor No More’s food offerings come through partnerships with Feed The Movement, as well as The Bulb, a local mobile farmer’s market that aims to ensure low-income homes have access to locally grown fresh food. That’s in addition to a new partnership with Powerful, a company that makes high-protein snacks, yogurt, and other foods, to provide healthy food options, including sandwiches, during Free Store events.
Lee has aims to grow the effort, especially since storage space is waning in the current studio space. Lee is on the lookout for a warehouse space with a kitchen and showroom. He’s hoping a local powerbroker can help identify a space, especially as donations continue to come in.
Lee says he’s been appreciative of the tremendous support for Poor No More.
“Guardian” is the word Lee uses to describe the donors who give to the Free Store. Guardians provide everything from clothing to furniture, baby bottles, cribs, and car seats. Lee says they’re always in need of educational toys for children.
“We all benefit from not having a poor society,” says Lee. “People think that to be a giver or a philanthropist, they have to be rich, but most givers are working people. Everyone can be a guardian.”
You can learn more about Poor No More and get in touch with them to make donations or offer other support by visiting them on Facebook at facebook.com/PoorNoMoreCharlotte/.
Greater Charlotte Rise
It was in the aftermath of the 2016 election that Jasmine Sherman and others dreamt up what would become Greater Charlotte Rise — a local community organization that offers a winter gap shelter for unhoused community members, as well as immediate financial relief assistance, rental assistance, job placement services, and clothing assistance.
“One of the best things to do in the midst of change is to serve the community at a grassroots level,” she says. “At the time of the 2016 election, the government was not focusing on the support of unsheltered individuals. Our goal, for the past three years that I have been with Greater Charlotte Rise, has been to come up with a plan for long-lasting systemic change.”
For Sherman, creating systemic change starts from the bottom up.
“If you don’t have a home, it’s nearly impossible to do anything beyond that,” Sherman says. “Basic needs must be met in some way which is why we offer clothing specific to job interviews, as well as rent assistance specific to the individual. Our goal is to make unsheltered people look on the outside how they feel on the inside.”
Like many other community support and mutual aid efforts, Greater Charlotte Rise has met its fair share of challenges during 2020. Getting the word out about their services and available assistance has been particularly challenging. She often meets folks in need on the street. Though the internet is a great tool, it’s not always a resource houseless people can access. COVID-19 made houselessness a growing issue, with increasing numbers of people being forced out of their homes and onto the streets without any knowledge of how to navigate organizational aid.
The group has been able to partner with A Roof Above and Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership. A Roof Above provides housing for unsheltered people and just recently purchased a complex in order to expand on their available spaces. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, is a government agency that provides aid.
But Greater Charlotte Rise has big dreams and a long-term goal to establish their own micro-housing unit for unsheltered members of community. Here they will have housing, opportunity for employment, mental and physical health services, recycling projects, and internet access. In order to achieve this, Sherman and other organizers are always looking for grants, though she wishes more support could come from the corporate community.
The organization is always in need of donations — from monetary support in whatever amount to items like gently-used clothing. The key, Sherman says, is for donors to ask themselves, “Would I give this to my own family?”
You can learn more about Greater Charlotte Rise and find ways to support the organization and is work online at greatercharlotterise.org, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling or texting 980-552-1897.
Feed The Movement
In June, at the height of the local and national Black Lives Matter movement protests, Nada Merghani and Tatiana Marquez found themselves staring down an overlooked and critical need. For weeks, protesters had been marching in the streets of Charlotte demanding justice in the aftermath of police killings of unarmed Black people. And they were doing it with few resources, including food.
Merghani, who also works professionally as Charlotte Pride’s programs manager, and Marquez, a Charlotte Pride volunteer coordinator, decided to do something about it. The pair of friends began Feed the Movement in order to provide fresh, home-cooked meals to protesters and community organizers.
The two started raising funds, soliciting donations, and galvanizing other volunteers to cook and deliver meals. Feed The Movement has striven to offer not just food, but healthy food.
“We don’t provide lower quality food just because it’s cheaper,” Merghani says. “When I cook meals for myself, I cook the same thing for the people we serve. We’ve also started coming up with vegan and gluten free meals.” Merghani says the founder of Nourish, a Charlotte vegan and organic meal delivery service, is also in their network.
It would have been easy for Feed The Movement to remain focused on meal preparation for protesters, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. In the face of increased community need, the group has expanded their mutual aid support and assistance.
“Most of the jobs lost during COVID-19 aren’t coming back,” says Merghani. “By the time COVID-19 begins to go away, there will be a financial and housing crisis.”
Feed The Movement has since blossomed into an effort to provide a variety of support. They’ve expanded their meal services to houseless community members living in Uptown’s Tent City. In addition to meal preparation and delivery, they’ve also collected coolers and other necessities to help houseless folks store and retain fresh food. The group is also purchasing grills for Tent City residents and offered cooking lessons so that houseless folks can prepare their own meals when food cannot be delivered.
Feed The Movement has also expanded to offering housing and support for those recently released from jail, including assistance in paying for short-term housing in hotels and connections to employment opportunities.
Yet, food and meal services are still part and parcel of Feed The Movement’s jail support. Merghani wants to ensure that individuals recently released from jail don’t end up back behind bars just because they have no food.
With the pandemic still raging and winter fast approaching, Merghani anticipates a growing need to house individuals without warm and safe shelter. In any normal winter, housing is always in tight supply, but COVID-19 has made that need even more urgent. Feed The Movement has already begun collecting funds to help pay for temporary or permanent housing, an effort made all the more challenging because of the group’s current pool of supporters.
“The same people we’re supporting are also donors,” they say. “We all have good and bad weeks, especially people without stable paychecks, and we have to support each other as a community.”
It’s frustrating, Merghani shares, because of just how wealthy Charlotte is.
“Charlotte is a banking city and the big wigs are monetizing on poverty rather than helping,” they say, echoing a common criticism levied toward government agencies, corporations and traditional nonprofits who struggle to fill gaps in fighting poverty and providing housing. There are few options or resources, for example, for often overlooked community members experiencing substance abuse or addiction issues, mental health challenges, or for young people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.
Getting through the winter is Feed The Movement’s immediate goal, but long-range plans are already being made. First up are efforts to raise more funds in creative ways. Currently, the group operates on just about $2,000 each month. It’s not enough to meet the need, so Merghani, Marquez, and other organizers are turning to a variety of fundraisers, including plant and bake sales hosted at the Neighborhood Theatre and a recent virtual auction which netted $1,000 for the group’s efforts.
Once winter passes and immediate housing needs are met, the group’s dream is to buy and outfit a food truck. Taking their services on the road will mean being able to respond to needs in a variety of communities and neighborhoods.
In the meantime, Merghani also wants to focus on increasing engagement and support from the broader community. People with resources often direct their giving to large nonprofits serving the houseless community, but those resources aren’t always readily or quickly available to those in need. Merghani says people should feel comfortable giving directly to those in need, be that through directly assisting by pitching a tent, cooking or buying a meal, or offering to fix a car. Anyone, Merghani says, can reach out and offer support to a person in need, without going through the red tape and bureaucracy of institutional support — the very definition of mutual aid. The more people who do this work, the better and stronger the number of people who are helped.
You can learn more about Feed The Movement, follow their support efforts, and learn how to donate and contribute by following them on Facebook at facebook.com/feedthemovementclt/ or on Instagram at instagram.com/feedthemovementclt/.