A man and woman walk up stairs alongside a brick building to distribute water to community members.
Mutual aid community support initiatives often are organized during times of crisis. Here, volunteers distribute bottled water in Memphis during a February boil water advisory. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words on March 31, 1968, as part of a sermon titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” that he delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington. He had spoken of that “garment of destiny” many times, notably five years earlier in the now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But this was the last time he would preach about it because four days later he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Today, 53 years after his assassination, we’re in the midst of another great revolution, one of social and economic upheaval as people fight for the right to a living wage, health care and to simply exist. 

As MLK50: Justice Through Journalism remembers King, we illuminate the stories of those who honor that inescapable network of mutuality, those who know the time is always ripe to do right, even during a pandemic. They’ve stepped up with mutual aid efforts where the government has failed, providing food, water, diapers, masks and other necessities to their communities. 

Several people stand alongside folding tables as they arrange clothes for a "Love Your Neighbor" pop-up event.
Bluu Davis (fourth from left) hosts regular pop-up events where volunteers distribute food, clothing and toiletries to Memphis residents in need. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Love Your Neighbor 901
Pop-Ups for the Unhoused

For Bluu Davis, it started last Christmas while making brownies in her mom’s kitchen. She was struck by the desire to deliver the treats to unhoused people across Memphis. 

Here’s how you can get involved

Love Your Neighbors 901 Unhoused Pop-Ups:
Bluu Davis’ CashApp: $quesharay

Mariposas Collective:
You can donate to First Congregational, and specify the donation should go to Mariposas: https://www.firstcongo.com/give

BLM Memphis:
CashApp: $OfficialBLMMemphis

901 Community Fridges:
CashApp: $901communityfridges

As she distributed the brownies and engaged in conversations, she learned that many were struggling even more than usual because of the limitations on services during the coronavirus pandemic. Another idea began to form. What if she coordinated regular pop-up events around the city, specifically to distribute necessities to unhoused people?

She posted her idea on Facebook, and the response was overwhelmingly positive, she said.

On Jan. 16, Davis, 27, held the first official pop-up downtown across from City Hall. Since then, she’s been organizing the pop-ups on a near-weekly basis, which she advertises on Facebook. Last month, she officially named the effort Love Your Neighbor 901. Volunteers make homemade meals like spaghetti or turkey sandwiches, or bake desserts. People donate new or gently used clothing or send Davis money on her CashApp.

Davis and a handful of volunteers serve 50 to 60 people on busy days. Even on slow days they regularly see a couple of dozen people.

“I think I’ve cried at every (event) because it’s so beautiful,” she said. “It’s been cold. We’ve been in the rain. We’ve been in the snow…. And we’re still out there. It’s such a beautiful thing – I love it. It makes me continue every weekend because it’s so worth it.”

Davis, who works full-time and is in school for physical therapy, estimates she spends four to five hours a day sorting through donations and preparing for the next pop-up event.

Bluu Davis, holding a megaphone, talks with Earl Marrow during a "Love Your Neighbor" event.
Davis speaks with Earl Morrow during a March pop-up. The events focus on the needs of Memphis’ unhoused residents. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

On a cloudless Sunday in March, Davis parked in a lot behind Ebbo Spiritual Supply House on Madison Avenue in Midtown. She and a friend began unloading the car: boxes of food from Taco Bell, containers stuffed with donated clothing, a pot of soup, bottles of water, bags of toiletries.

The items were carefully laid out on two folding tables shaped like an L, and volunteers taped hand-written signs to the tables advertising the pop-up. Davis found her bright green bullhorn, walked down the block and began shouting into the microphone. 

Free food for my community today! Good meal! Good conversation!

Cars honked and drivers waved, and sure enough, people approached the table. They served about 45 people that day.

Donations are accepted at the pop-ups, which fosters interaction between those giving and those receiving, Davis said.

“We see people just hanging out just a little bit just to get a feel of everything. And then I see people talking to the unhoused people, having great conversations, learning each other and learning their needs,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘This is my community.’”

Edith Ornelas, standing next to the back of an open SUV holding boxes of food for mutual aid event.
Edith Ornelas, an organizer with Mariposas Collective, at a February food and water distribution event at First Congregational Church in Memphis. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Mariposas Collective
Food Distribution

Edith Ornelas began receiving the calls in March 2020. They were from mothers she had met through her organization, Mariposas Collective, which had provided relief in the aftermath of a tornado that ripped through the families’ apartment complex in October 2019. Now, they were struggling as Memphis shut down for the pandemic, and they needed help. Many had lost their jobs and those who are undocumented didn’t qualify for food stamps.

Ornelas and Mariposas sprang into action, organizing a network of mothers who began collecting and distributing food, diapers, water and other necessities to Memphis-area Latino families needing help.

Mariposas began 2 1/2 years ago as an organization for volunteers to meet asylum-seekers at the Memphis Greyhound station, providing food, supplies and support to people who are mostly passing through. But that was suspended when the pandemic hit. In recent weeks, volunteers have returned to the bus station, meeting between 80 and 90 people a day, Ornelas said, down from pre-pandemic numbers but steadily rising.

For the families who needed food and other pandemic-related aid, Mariposas initially began distributing dry goods. Then with the help of partner organizations, they added produce and dairy.

Edith Ornelas hugs another woman during a community event.
Ornelas estimates the collective serves between 100 and 150 families. She hugs Dunia Santos during a recent distribution. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Ornelas is intentional with the food they include, distributing ingredients the community will want and use, she said. Candied yams are out, for example, but rice, whole grain beans and masa – corn flour used to make tortillas – are in.

“Those are just basic staples,” she said. “You can’t go hungry if you have rice and beans.”

They started with five families, but news spread through word-of-mouth and Ornelas estimates they now serve between 100 and 150 families. Community leaders help identify families in need. The organization has received about $12,500 in grants since the beginning of the pandemic but has been spending $2,000 to $3,000 a month. That leaves a lot to be covered by community donations.

“I have no idea how we’ve been surviving, to be honest,” Ornelas said. “There are times where … we’re about to not have anything and not be able to provide support. It’s funny, every time I freak out like that, a miracle happens.” A big grant comes through, or people donate their stimulus checks, she said, helping keep them afloat.

The effort is run and organized exclusively by women, Ornelas said. She thinks that’s because mothers are the primary caregivers in many families, with fathers often working six days a week.

Children are excited to come to distribution events too, she said. She’s heard mothers say that their children beg to come to First Congregational Church where Mariposas distributes food biweekly.

Mariposas offers mental health and emotional support as well since many people have suffered trauma while crossing the border or from losing a family member to deportation. 

The organization has partnered with the New Ballet Ensemble and School, which provided full grants for around 15 children to take ballet classes. There’s a women’s knitting group for community-building, and soon, a mural arts project, among their many outreach programs.

“We did go through a pandemic but all these beautiful things are flourishing out of it,” Ornelas said.

A photo collage showing free food items for distribution.
Food and other items distributed by The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter. Photos courtesy of the organization

“Network of Care”

As repercussions from the pandemic began pushing already vulnerable people over the edge through job loss and all that comes with it, Shahidah Jones and The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter anticipated the needs. In April 2020, they began regular giveaways in a “network of care” that distributed food, diapers, and masks, as well as bottled water when Memphians were under a boil water advisory in February, Jones said.

The organization has served about 6,000 people with “whatever we could get our hands on that we knew that folks needed,” said Jones, an organizer with the BLM chapter. 

Masks were a priority since it was known early on they could help stop the spread of COVID-19. The Shelby County’s Health Department began suggesting mask use in April 2020, though it didn’t issue a formal mask order until July.

The Washington Post reported last year that former President Donald Trump’s administration killed a U.S. Postal Service initiative to provide masks to families in April. Where the federal government failed, however, BLM stepped in. They provided both cloth and surgical masks to recipients, who “were actually excited” about receiving them, Jones said.

Food pantries shut down during the early days of the pandemic, so BLM partnered with other organizations such as Memphis Artists for Change to help fill the gap through grocery deliveries. The organization also offered utility and rental assistance, stipends to people who were out of work, and money for people seeking mental health care.

When the winter storm hit in February and the city’s utility company issued a boil water advisory, they performed wellness checks and identified areas in high need of bottled water. Volunteers called 5,700 people that BLM had identified might be vulnerable and asked if they needed anything. They also worked with the Check In, a mobile coffee shop, to set up local water distribution centers around the city, and chapter members showed up to help.

The community’s needs and support are intertwined, Jones said. Volunteers who helped with distribution also often had previously received aid.

“It was an opportunity for folks to both get what they need but also to give back because nobody likes to just be recipients… It’s not just about whether you have access to money. Everybody can give and support,” Jones said.

An image LJ Abram, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, standing next to one of her group's first community refrigerators.
LJ Abraham, founder of 901 Community Fridges, at First Congregational Church in Cooper Young where the group’s first fridge is located. She wants to expand the initiative to other neighborhoods. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

901 Community Fridges

LJ Abraham filled up the community refrigerator at First Congregational Church one recent morning with food that had been donated by a friend – mostly leftover pre-packaged meals that had been prepared for FedEx employees. 

The food was being offered free to anyone who needed it. A little over three hours later, the refrigerator, located outside behind the church, had been totally cleaned out, Abraham said. This was evidence to her of deep community need.

Abraham first considered the idea of community fridges after reading an article about Portland, Oregon’s effort in January. She posed the question to her Facebook friends: Would people support a similar idea in Memphis? The massive response was immediate. Right away, people donated refrigerators, offered food and sent money. First Congregational reached out to Abraham, a community activist, about putting a fridge on their property, and by early March, the effort was up and running.

About 10 volunteers stop by regularly to clean the fridge, make sure products are clearly labeled and throw away expired food. Abraham said more volunteers are needed as they look to expand into Binghampton and other neighborhoods. They also need more organizations to offer space for additional fridges, or people who are willing to have fridges on their property.

“It’s a community-based effort,” Abraham said. People regularly email the organization’s account asking how they can donate or drop off food. “The community has been so good about making sure food is in there.” 

The inside of a stocked community refrigerator.
Volunteers maintain the fridge at First Congregational Church, cleaning it and making sure products are clearly labeled. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

On a recent weekend, Abraham stopped by the fridge at First Congregational only to discover someone had left an 18-pound, $187 ribeye steak. Raw meat isn’t allowed, so she brought it to Rizzo’s downtown, where chefs cut it up into 24 steaks and cooked them. Abraham dropped them off at the fridge and they were all taken a day later.

To Abraham, it’s not important who takes the food. If someone stops by, she assumes that they’re in need. People have told Abraham they don’t know what they’d do without the fridge.

Each refrigerator is enclosed in a wood structure to protect it from the elements, and each structure costs about $250, Abraham said. The organization also will pay a monthly stipend to groups or people who volunteer to host a fridge. The stipend will cover the cost of the energy used by the refrigerator. Some of that money comes from donations, which people send to Abraham’s Venmo, and some of it is out of volunteers’ pockets. 

Abraham is considering forming a non-profit, and plans to install fridges wherever there’s need, she said. But ideally, people would have enough food and there would be no need for the fridges, Abraham said. 

“It shouldn’t take the community to step up and do something that our government and our elected officials won’t do and can’t do.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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