By: Rhonda Crowder
Photos: Shanelle Smith Whigham, Donté Gibbs and Larry Nance Jr. courtesy of Meredith Turner
A grassroots collaborative in Cleveland is assembling and distributing 60,000 washable cloth masks along with voter and Census information to communities of color and LGBTQ+ people. Shanelle Smith Whigham, Ohio director of the Trust for Public Land, who helps lead the coalition, says she created the group because too many vulnerable people lack access to PPE.
“One of the things we recognize with this pandemic is that it is really exacerbating the issues communities of color are facing, whether it is asthma or other health-related issues,” she says. “At the same time, we know our community – black and brown people – are the ones on the frontline. They are the people who are bagging our groceries. They are the people who are driving our buses or even using public transit.”
“We knew there wasn’t an effort to provide washable cloth masks to those people who are on those frontlines, so we came together to address that need,” she adds. “I came up with this idea and my friends were gracious enough to join me.”
Justin Bibb, founder of the nonprofit organization Cleveland Can’t Wait, says, “Our organization joined Shanelle’s effort and her leadership to find a way to ensure we were getting the right PPE and resources to our most underserved neighborhoods throughout the city. With the Mayor making masks mandatory, the need is becoming even more important.”
Since its inception in May, Masks4Community has assembled and distributed almost thirty thousand washable masks along with Covid-19 health safety, voter and 2020 Census information. The goal is to distribute sixty thousand kits. So far, more than 120 volunteers have helped out.
Community organizations can request masks through the Masks4Community website, pick them up, and distribute them. The Masks4Community Coalition includes Cleveland VOTES, ThirdSpace Action Lab, Cleveland Can’t Wait, Donte’s Gift Express, the Young Latino Network, Cleveland NAACP, the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland, Greater Cleveland Neighborhood Centers Association, South Euclid United Church of Christ and the MetroHealth system.
The Masks4community headquarters is located inside Third Space Action Lab at 1464 East 105th Street in Glenville. The initiative has received funding from the St. Luke’s Foundation, the Covid-19 Relief Fund of the Cleveland Foundation, South Euclid United Church of Christ and in-kind donations from Habitat for Humanity.
Cleveland Votes, a year-round nonpartisan voter mobilization initiative focused on equitable civic engagement, serves as the coalition’s fiscal sponsor. Erika Anthony, co-founder of Cleveland Votes, hopes that being a part of this initiative will help create the synergy needed to reach parts of the city where voter turnout and Census participation tends to be low.
“If we don’t get to a higher response rate [for the Census], it will impact the resources coming to our city,” she says. “The existing challenges will be exacerbated.”
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