"People are scared of that word"

This week, I talked to leaders at a half dozen organizations — community fridges, Mutual Aid groups, senior food programs — that are filling in the ever-widening gaps in the social safety net amidst the federal government’s abject failure to act on COVID relief. I’m really proud of the resultant piece, and encourage you to do the quick Google to figure out which organizations are doing this work in your community and how you can help. (No matter where you are, chances are high there are people doing this work — either through established networks like food banks and community centers, or more ad hoc, like the thousands of Mutual Aid groups that have sprung up over the course of the pandemic).

But every time you interview a bunch of people for a short piece, there’s a lot of interview content that gets left behind. I wanted to dedicate this Sunday’s newsletter to a much fuller look at the insight of AJ McCreary, the executive director of Equitable Giving Circle, which has been doing radical, paradigm-shifting work in Portland, Oregon for the last year.

Equitable Giving Circle currently selling Black Friday Boxes, sourced entirely from Black-owned businesses, and collecting donations for Holiday Joy boxes for the families served by their CSA program. You can make a one-time or recurring donation to their CSA or housing assistance program here. The interview has been very lightly edited for continuity and clarity.

We are a Black women, Black femme, and Indigenous-led organization. About this time last year, we started having conversations. We were moving things slowly, going to roll something out in the Fall of 2020 — working with Black women and Black femmes, doing business showers. [Where community members come together to bring resources to a new business]. But then COVID hit. I had just been at the Black Growers’ Gathering, and it inspired me. And when we started looking at the effects of COVID, we all — as business members, as parents — we knew that a lot of harm and struggle was about to happen. 

So I said, ‘Let’s buy a CSAs from a bunch of Black and brown farmers and give them away!” We launched a fundraiser to do that for 50 families in March — and in a week, we’d raised $30,000. And I said, okay, we’re gonna double down. And my whole team said, this is not how it works. Not with produce, not with money. And I was like, well, the need is there

We ended up getting a city contract, and we were able to expand to feeding 350 families. Now it’s between 368 and 452, depending on the specific organizations that we’re working with each week. That’s up to 2500 people we’ve been feeding a week. Sometimes I honestly forget how many people that is. And we provide them with high quality pantry and staple items as much as we can — we provide them eggs, we buy from black-owned butcher shops, and we can get them the items that they want. We can do Kosher, no pork products, only fish — we can fill those needs for people.

It’s become almost a game of finding the Black-owned businesses [that we buy from]. We just have to look a little harder. But that shines light on how hard it is for Black, Indigenous, and marginalized communities to get the word out, because marketing so often goes for white people. And POC businesses, we don’t get the same passes if we mess up. If Target fucks up or makes a mistake, they just keep going. That’s not always the case with us. 

It’s really exciting to be able to put such large economic deposits in the Black and brown economic community. But that’s not the only thing we do. We have a housing organization that we’re rolling out, based on equity. We’re asking, if someone needs rent or mortgage assistance, what does it look like? We just want to get people’s rent paid. Because there’s something that happened when you get people what they need. They’re able to figure out school, figure out their business, grieve for a minute, get healthy — it gives them space for this really beautiful growing process. 

We’re getting to do it on the small scale, on housing, around emergencies — but we’re hoping to attract more money and be able to really help with anybody and everybody. I’m hoping by Spring that we’re serving 1000 families a week. I know that we can do it. It’s a matter of getting longterm sustainable funding.

Have you heard about the plants? We’ve been collecting and passing out plants to BIPOC folks all over Portland. We’ve passed out well over 3000 plants. The community is learning how to give and receive, which is really part of reparations. People are scared of that word, they’ll be like, AJ, not here. But this is how we’ve got to talk about money. We’re getting people to talk about it. Because reparations means large checks from the government for generations of harm, but it also means regular people being able to share, and give, and stretch. And giving up privilege can look like a lot of things. 

I grew up in the parts of North Portland that were very diverse, and hubs for black business. But it’s changed, it’s changed. There are public art projects now that talk about what the gentrification looked like and how it happened. Teaching people has been a really interesting byproduct of this work. Portland is so white, and it’s such a passive progressive place — a place where there are a lot of really good people that have been tricked into the fuckery that’s here. But it’s exciting to be able to support the Black businesses that still are thriving in Portland — we’ve put over $700,000 into the Black and brown economy. It’s expensive what we’re doing, with eight people on payroll, but all of our employees are Black and Indigenous people. It’s wild to be creating jobs. 

We believe people need care before it’s a dire emergency. I’ve been on the needing end thing of things. You don’t run around telling people about a need if it isn’t real. If you’re saying you have this need, it’s because you have a need. Your need for assistance, care, support, live, dignity — you know, to exist, it’s all there. We believe that out the gate, there’s this really amazing thing about trusting people about when they need it, because when they don’t need it, they tell you: I’m okay. After being taken care of for awhile, they’re able to breath and take care of themselves and others. 

But we don’t know how to share, because capitalism has taught us scarcity mentality. It teaches us not to receive. We do not know how to receive; we don’t even know how to receive a compliment.

If you go back pre-colonialization pre-fuckery, everyone in these small communities lived in abundance and shared! The idea that we keep with us, that we have to hoard — it’s not our biological way of existence. We’re pack animals. It’s amazing, on all sides of giving and receiving, how our body make-up just feels different when we are participating differently than what we’ve learned from capitalism. 

We’ve got to learn on both sides. White people, in general, know much more know about how to receive and to be told yes all the time. But when we share that experience and expand that experience to the most marginalized, it’s transformative. And it’s inspiring to get back what feels good

You can follow Equitable Giving Circle on Instagram here — and donate here.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

I’m currently working on a series of articles on the “hollow” middle class — people whose income ostensibly places them in middle class bracket, but debt / rent / childcare / medical costs etc make it so they barely making ends meet month to month. If this is you, I'd like to hear more.

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