What does the Black Lives Matter movement look like in action? Investing in Southeast Fort Wayne

It doesn’t take global pandemics and protests for Rosemary Boxley to serve her community.

Boxley founded the Sistarz & Sistarz Nonprofit Organization as a Chicago resident in 2016 to show how simple acts of kindness can transform a city. When she moved to Fort Wayne in 2017 to care for a family member, her friend Ebony Mayhoe helped her restart Sistarz & Sistarz here, which has grown to a group of 10 local women.

From its founding, the nonprofit’s mission has been providing food and other basic needs to residents in short supply. So in Fort Wayne, the sisters have been focusing their efforts in the city’s 46803 and 46806 zip codes of the Southeast quadrant—two of the lowest income areas in all of Indiana.

Members of the Sistarz & Sistarz Nonprofit Organization don masks to serve food in Southeast Fort Wayne.

Since September, they’ve been raising funds for and distributing free monthly meals in Southeast Fort Wayne. When COVID-19 hit the city in mid-March, several other nonprofits, including Black Women of Excellence and the Human Agricultural Cooperative, joined forces with Sistarz & Sistarz and began the Curbside Community BBQs with Big Momma's Kitchen at 1313 Oxford St. After all, studies show that the pandemic is hitting Black and low-income populations hardest.

Southeast Fort Wayne is disproportionately home to both.

“This is the part of town where it’s really rough for some people,” Boxley says. “By providing food at this location, where people can just walk or drive up, makes it easy to access.”

Food for the monthly curbside pickups is donated by Big Momma's Kitchen.

Mayhoe says that having the support of like-minded nonprofits to grow the curbside pickups helps, too. Last Saturday, volunteers celebrated two holidays at once during the event: Juneteenth and Father’s Day. As part of their celebrations, they had a radio station on-site, and distributed candy, swag, and COVID-19 supplies in addition to meals.

“These events have gotten bigger since we started,” Mayhoe says. “It’s good to get the Black people together in this city around a common goal; it’s a beautiful thing.”

Volunteers pack hot meals for guests to pick up at 1313 Oxford St.

For many residents in Fort Wayne, global protests against racial injustice have a direct implication for the city: The Southeast side needs more attention.

“It needs less talk and more action,” says Ty Simmons, Executive Director of the Human Agricultural Cooperative.

In addition to supporting the monthly Curbside BBQs, Simmons has been hosting a separate weekly Free Food Giveaway with another coalition of organizations, distributing 20-pound boxes of fresh produce at the emerging Utopian Community Grocery in Southeast a few blocks away on Oxford Street.

Working with a coalition of local partners as well as a group of Black farmers from Evansville, Gary, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville, Simmons received the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program, which redirects excess food at farms to people in need during the pandemic.

In about one month's time, the Human Agricultural Cooperative and its partners have distributed more than 180,000 pounds of fresh food in Fort Wayne alone, utilizing community volunteers on Saturday mornings.

Area resident Rezz Golden has come out multiple weeks now to volunteer with the Human Agricultural Cooperative at curbside pickups and Free Food Giveaways.

“It’s good to give back to your community,” Golden says.

The Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program is scheduled to end in July, but Simmons says his coalition of nonprofits is currently fundraising and applying for grants to continue the program on their own.

While purchasing food from farmers is one way to help a food desert, Simmons has his sights set on a bigger goal: Building a community greenhouse in Southeast Fort Wayne so he can grow healthy food there year-round. After all, who knows what the pandemic will mean for food deserts and national farmers this fall.

“Food could be scarce,” Simmons says.

Having a greenhouse allows the community to take care of itself.

Adrian Curry, left, runs the Art Leadership Center (ALC) for children and young adults.

Simmons’s GoFundMe campaign, The Cure to Food Deserts, received a boost this month from Kristin Giant, the owner of a new impact investing firm, Hyper Local Impact. Giant has been a leader in Simmons’s Free Food Giveaways, coming out week after week to drive trucks and distribute boxes. She recently announced a separate giving campaign she’s hoping to fulfill by July 4: Raising an ambitious $1 million Friends & Family fund for Southeast visionaries.

In a video announcement on social media, Giant explains that the goal of the fund is to raise money for under-invested communities in Fort Wayne and distribute that money entirely to Southeast-based leaders who have a vision for their neighborhood.

“We want decisions about the Southeast community to be made by people within the Southeast community,” Giant says.  

The Art Leadership Center (ALC) for children and young adults performed at the curbside pickup.

She’s currently seeking and training community fundraising volunteers to help her reach this goal.

Along with Sistarz & Sistarz and the Human Agricultural Cooperative, another group supporting the Curbside BBQ this month is Allen County Community Radio Station WELT-LP 95.7 FM.

For the past few years, Michael Banks, aka DJ Strapz, and Shabaka Ramaat have been managing the station, co-hosting shows out of Access Fort Wayne’s studios at the downtown Allen County Public Library. The two played at Friday’s Juneteenth Celebration at Foster Park and set up a tent again on Saturday to draw visitors to the free meals on Oxford Street.

Michael Banks, aka DJ Strapz, and Shabaka Ramaat of WELT-LP 95.7 FM.

Ramaat says the station features multiple genres of music with a special focus on local artists. The pair also hosts the “Apple Orchard Radio Knews” talk show.

The biggest “knews” this week is Allen County Councilman Larry Brown being criticized for his comments, calling protesters “uneducated” and complaining that “they breed.” Following public outcry, Brown resigned from the council on Monday.

Speaking of elected officials, as Banks and Ramaat chat under the WELT-LP tent Saturday, another man joins the conversation who is introduced as the “future Mayor of Fort Wayne,” Jerrell “Rell” Holman. Holman runs the nonprofit Bigger Than Us, with six of his friends, which earned its 501c3 in 2019.

WELT-FM plays music at the curbside pickups.

Bigger Than Us was part of the team that pulled together this year’s Juneteenth Celebration at Foster Park in a mere 13 days. The annual celebration has long taken place at Weisser Park in Fort Wayne, but when the organizers canceled for the pandemic this year, Holman’s crew rose up to keep the party going at Foster Park instead. They ended up getting hundreds of people to come out, including two food trucks and 13 vendors.

“It was a bigger celebration than usual,” Holman says. “I think that’s due to circumstances in the world right now.”

In the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests, elected officials in Washington, D.C., are calling for Juneteenth to be recognized as an official U.S. holiday. The date commemorates June 19, 1865, when the last American slaves were freed in Texas—a whole two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Banks throws his hands in the air at the suggestion of making Juneteenth a national holiday now.

“It’s been a national holiday,” he says.

While recent events have made residents more aware of racial injustice and disparities in Fort Wayne’s community, Ramaat says taking action to weed out racism in the city and county should have been done a long time ago. Like food disparity, racism is an injustice that has comfortably existed under the radar of privilege for generations now, and the protests are bringing it to light.

“For everybody in Fort Wayne or Allen County who feels offended by Larry Brown’s comments, why weren’t you offended when he ran for office in the first place?” Ramaat asks.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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