From serving up hot meals to writing cookbooks and everything in between, Brooklyn resident AD knows the ins and outs of their local restaurant community. As a former barista, bartender, and server, and a current activist and hospitality consultant, their roots run deep in the industry. “I’m pretty entrenched in the restaurant community here in Brooklyn,” they say.
In early March 2020, AD could see the writing on the wall that COVID-19 would likely wreak havoc in their local restaurant community. They knew just how devastating it would be for the food service industry if the city went into lockdown. So AD and their friends Kelly Sulllivan and Seamus Branch, started a conversation about how to help their colleagues throughout the city.
“I was very concerned about what was going to happen to my community of service workers,” AD says. “Seamus asked me and Kelly to get together to talk about what to do. And we just were going to come together to raise some cash for people…so that we would have some money to help support them when they couldn’t work.” It was three days before New York City effectively shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Service Workers Coalition was born.
They envisioned the project as a mutual aid fund to meet the needs of the workers in multiple scenarios. “If [the workers] had to call out if they got sick, if they were exposed to COVID, if they needed some money to fill in the gaps–then we would have that.” AD says. They knew that people quarantining at home meant that restaurant workers’ tip money would be disappearing. “So we started to kind of structure it as this idea that like, if you get to go home and work, then will you donate what you would spend just in tips at a restaurant during the week?”
They landed on a $50-a-week grocery stipend, dispensed to workers in the form of direct cash assistance, as the focus of their initiative. If a worker was unable to leave their home to go to the grocery store, they decided, they would set up a system so that a volunteer would go shopping for them. In that way, they were able to move money directly into the hands of folks who needed it most. “That, I think, really made sense to people,” AD says. “I don’t think [people feel] good about leaving others out in the cold.”
They started spreading the word about their project through social media and word-of-mouth, and it really resonated with people. “One of the things that’s been really moving about it,” AD says, “is that we raised somewhere around $150,000 in the first four months or so. And most of those donations were between $5, $20, and $50 interval increments. So it’s not like we got like a big donor.”
In fact, one of the most heartening things about the fund is that donations often come from other restaurant industry workers who are looking out for their neighbors. “A lot of those people were people who worked in restaurants either had some savings or got another gig or just sent part of their unemployment back into the system because they knew that their counterparts in the back of the house were quite possibly not getting any assistance from anyone. And many people will eventually return the stipend and put it back into the pool,” says AD.
In order to make sure the project is sustainable, they’ve worked to secure multiple sources of funding. In addition to receiving grants, they turned to ioby to run a crowdfunding campaign. “ioby offering us the community match fund was huge,” AD says. They used it to set up a photo raffle to generate donations. Several photographers contributed prints, and people donated money for chances to win them. “It was pretty great because [with the match, the funds we raised] were doubled. And we met the goal that we wanted to meet–and then raised a little bit more. Anything you can do to tell a story and get people involved in that story is redeeming and seems to be successful. ioby has a great platform for that.”
And even though they’ve raised a lot of money, AD acknowledges that there’s still work to be done. Over time, as the circumstances in their community have changed, they’ve adjusted their operations to be able to meet the needs of their neighbors. Whether that means modifying the amount of the stipend for undocumented workers or those who are working part-time, “we’re always trying to figure it out,” they say.
In reflecting on their experience lending a hand to their neighbors this year, AD has some advice to offer their fellow changemakers: give yourself some grace. The thing is, they say, “people always think they’re not doing enough. Part of the reason it’s possible for me to continue to do this and not get totally depressed is that there is no ‘meeting the need.’ This is just the thing that I do, because I can and because it engages me with people that I love and the community that’s suffering–and I’m one of them. Just the practice of doing it keeps us tethered to each other in a certain way.”
That simple act of staying connected, AD says, has helped keep Service Workers Coalition alive. “The thing that makes us sustainable is that we are connected to each other. I don’t know how so many people have sent us donations, but what I do know is that somebody told them something about it and that somebody told somebody. And so the only way I think these things are sustainable is if you allow and foster connection with other people, even if that’s really difficult right now.”
And that’s what makes the group’s work so powerful. Taken at face value, Service Workers Coalition is responding to an immediate need. Dig a little deeper underneath the surface, and it’s clear that SWC is also building a safety net for their community–and that means they’re creating a better future for everyone. “We are building, now, a future which acknowledges that we can not go it alone. We need the groceries and food, and we need to feel both supported and helpful. Raising funds with our community to feed our community empowers and enriches us all.”