On Non-Hierarchical Community Aid

SG in Washington Heights, NYC

<em>SG is one of the organizers behind the Uptown Fridge, a 24/7 community fridge with free food items located between the uptown Manhattan neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights.</em> <em>NOTE: the photo included is not of SG - in an effort to keep the focus on the collective and not one person, we've chosen a more generic photo of the Fridge. Plus, I wanted to include that phrase: 'La comunidad se cuida y se ama.'</em>

To start off, I love to talk about neighborhood. Could you tell me a little bit about Washington Heights, through your experience? What do you love about it?

I was born and raised here in the Heights. I’ve stayed in the same building throughout my life, and I know that there are some people that are also born and raised in the Heights on our organization, but some people have chosen this neighborhood after the fact. My favorite thing about this neighborhood is that we are so close to different parks and we’re close to nature by the exposure we have to them. Especially the fact that the Riverside bike lane starts and ends here. I also enjoy that a lot of people are immigrants and come from different cultures. It just kind of melts perfectly here.

Awesome! So what is the Uptown Fridge? How did it come to be?

Community fridges are happening all across the city. For us specifically, the Uptown Fridge is trying to provide fresh produce, and minimize food waste from the community, either from people and neighbors or local businesses. We’re also going to talk about food injustice and environmental issues - that’s another aspect of our collective. The group was formed by us independently reaching out to the In Our Hearts NYC Instagram, @iohnyc. I was given the numbers of the people who were interested in starting a community fridge in the Heights, and we communicated in a group chat.

Wow. Could you talk a little more about those issues - what food injustices are specific to the Washington Heights community?

Well, for us, we wanted to start a community fridge because we know that there are people who are unemployed. Access to pantries usually happens around the morning, and there are specific days and times that some people just can’t make. So this is a 24/7 community fridge that we try to maintain throughout the day. I think it’s important for them to have that freedom to get what they need, but also be respectful of the next person’s needs. It’s awesome, because for us, this shows that we’re able to think about each other and provide for each other when we have the means. We are showing that this is not some charity or hierarchy, that this is an effort that is happening for every person that is involved with it. The reality is that people are not able to access fresh produce or healthy alternatives or options - there’s much more fast food. It’s important for us to give them that choice.

I’ve worked in various social services roles the past few years, and something that I love about this is that agencies so often fall into hierarchical structures, and in that way reflect the very problems that they’re meant to go against. There’s something about this that I love so much, in uprooting that hierarchical nature and letting it be very trusting and very free.

This is more of an abstract question, but why do you feel it’s important to show up for one’s community in these ways?

This is just a start to how we’re actually able to rely on community. People have actually contacted us through our social media to participate in this project, and they themselves choose how they want to show up for the community, and what they can provide. And especially right now because of COVID, we don’t want to limit people who can participate in this. I know I personally have people that are immuno-compromised in my family, and I wanted to participate in mutual aid but didn’t know how to show up for the community, and this way you choose a schedule that you want to do. There is no chance of working with too many people in the same space. People can provide whatever they want to provide and in their own time, with their own means, and nobody’s going to be suspicious of what they do. This is something so simple that anyone can participate in it.

Amazing! And just a final, quick question - how can people support y’all?

We can be accessed through Facebook and Instagram, the Uptown Fridge. But generally, people who come across the Fridge, we have signs around it that say if you want to donate food, you can do so by just stopping by and dropping it off. We also promote a lot of that through our social media and people do contact us if there is an issue, and that way we are still engaged with the community. We try to have a safe and sanitary place for everyone, and we can be contacted through social media. If people want to donate monetary contributions, that can happen through Venmo and CashApp (@aditivarshneya). We have a specific person that collects that and actually writes down how much we receive. We're very transparent with what's happening.

Questions for Reflection: How do your personal engagements with community aid either reflect or reject hierarchical structures? How can we move closer to mutual aid, together?

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