If you care about stuff like social issues, Occupy Sandy has probably made it to your social media by now. The already-established network of interoccupy.net was a readymade structure for swift community organizing, and, with pockets of the city still cut off from power and goverment agencies days late to the hardest-hit sites, it’s begun acting like a relief director in the wake of the storm. Need to call for cars? Send a box of diapers? Wanted to check when the Rockaways re-open after the Nor’Easter? @OccupySandy is pretty much the go-to.
Since AFC’s offices are just a few blocks from the Occupy Sandy hub in Clinton Hill’s Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, I figured I’d pay them a visit. The space was bustling; pews were replaced with Whole Foods bags, shipping boxes, and a table laid out for the new nonprofit Tea For Humanity. Downstairs, volunteers were digging through boxes of food piled on folding tables, each of which represented different stations: on the left, reception, on the right, a pile of boxes marked “OUT STATEN ISLAND.” For an operation that’s only been around for a week, it’s remarkably smooth.
As a new body, I was quickly shuttled over to Susie, a young woman seated on the floor in the middle of the room, coordinating volunteers. She was in the middle of a conversation with two little girls, each holding personal packets of diced fruit. She was surrounded by stacks of Chewy bars and fruit cups, which she was packing into personal lunches; she worried that if Wednesday’s Nor’Easter disrupted transport again, these might be the only meal of the day for some.
Like most, Susie didn’t exactly pick a job, but slipped into the one that immediately made sense. “I start my day at 9 AM, in the kitchen, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she told me. A volunteer will see her working, and she’ll have them take over— so that’s a PB&J station. Then she’ll start a meat station, or a vegetable station, handing it off to the next volunteer when they arrive. Within a day, she found herself coordinating the entire operation. The room was filled with people putting together lunch bags.
Others were wrapping up the trays of hot food that came pouring out of the kitchen in the back. It’s good food: beef chili with rice, carrots with cinnamon and honey, vegan braised greens. “Yesterday, we had bread puddings and lentils cooked in bacon grease with collard greens,” Susie told me.
But before I could ask more, she was interrupted— here’s a truck, who needs granola bars, where are the boxes. She explained how she systematically jots down the kitchen’s needs on masking tape and sticks it on a volunteer as a sign for others in the building. Volunteers take photos of the list and post it to Facebook and Twitter. Sure enough, those needs are met.
As I learned from conversations with organizers, the kitchen’s just one component of a broader web including communications, dispatch, the volunteer desk, sorting, and receiving. According to driver dispatch volunteer Alexis Goldstein, an early member of Occupy the SEC and a former longtime software designer for Deustche Bank on Wall Street, the system has come a long way from exchanging notecards three days ago. “The hotline number rings ten to fifteen people’s phones upstairs, where they’re at their computers working in a shared master spreadsheet,” she told me. “So everybody has a consolidated list.” After matching drivers, volunteers, sites, and donations, they collect volunteer reports, which they discuss in the 6:00 meeting.
Unlike the early Occupy meetings last year, volunteers are empowered to make decisions without total consensus. For instance, drivers often come sporadically and unannounced, so when a truck pulled up around 3:30 yesterday, volunteers needed to use their judgement about whether to give it the last of their supplies. Portions don’t seem to be entirely figured out yet— all we knew was that a “church full of families” needed hot food. How much? If all twenty or so hot dishes went on the truck, then others could go hungry; on the other hand, if this was the last truck, then the food would stay the night in Clinton Hill. Susie made the executive decision to shut down the kitchen there.
They’re able to circumvent the bureaucratic red tape of more established organizations like the Red Cross, where donations must be purchased and you might have to consult the Office of Emergency Management before making a decision. “It’s so much more efficient, in a way,” Alexis told me. “We can meet the means with supplies really quickly.” They’ve even added a Red Cross-style purchasing system, through an Amazon wedding registry.
Upstairs, the social media team seemed to be tapering off for the day, too. Justin Stone Diaz, who self-describes as the last standing member of the Info Working Group, told me how it all started from the #sandyvolunteer hashtag on Twitter— which not only began coordinating volunteers, but allowed the harder-hit areas to call for what they needed.
The Red Cross just got to Coney Island. FEMA has arrived with much-needed supplies, and is distributing some of them through Occupy Sandy’s existing network of volunteers. These areas need the support of agencies like FEMA, but Occupy’s filling a void in communities that have historically been left behind. And that service been reaching much farther than the protests could. Recently, Justin told me, “Police and fire workers were chanting with us: ‘The people united will never be defeated.’ We used to yell that at them.” In other words, you no longer have to pick a side; simply living and working in the area makes you a part of the network. “That’s the Occupy model expressing itself,” Justin said. “It’s clear that this is not charity.”
To get involved, check the InterOccupy hub for an updated list of donation needs and volunteer info.