Being the change: Grassroots leaders in Southeast say 2020 has inspired collaboration and action

“Maybe it was fate, how we all came together,” says Sheena Greene, the Founder of Fort Wayne’s Black Women of Excellence (BWOE) nonprofit.

Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was circumstance. Whatever it was, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Fort Wayne in March 2020, BWOE and several other nonprofits in Fort Wayne with a heart to serve the city’s Southeast side came together to make a difference.

Every month, for one day of the month, a group of about 15 men and women—all 100 percent volunteers—gather at 1313 Oxford Street, infusing a rentable storefront with life for a few hours of the morning or afternoon, offering free curbside giveaways to distribute meals and other items often purchased with money from their own pockets.

Every month, the items vary, from COVID-19 masks and hand sanitizer to backpacks and Halloween candy, to the most recent giveaway on a blustery, sleeting Sunday afternoon in November: A coat drive.

Volunteers deliver coats to cars at the November curbside giveaway.

Greene says that by the time she arrived to volunteer from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Nov. 22, there was already a line of cars down Oxford Street waiting for their turn to drive up and receive a coat and a hot meal. There were already people from the neighborhood walking to the coat drive, wearing blankets over their shoulders because they didn’t have anything warmer to wear.

That’s the importance of these monthly, grassroots giveaways, Greene says.

“It may be one day out of the month, but that is one day people have access to resources they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she says. “That's one day they can eat. Everybody thinks 2020 is bad, but some people have nothing.”

Sheena Greene, Founder of Black Women of Excellence in Fort Wayne, helps distribute coats the November curbside giveaway.

Studies show that as the COVID-19 pandemic devastates communities across the U.S. it is hitting Black and low-income communities the hardest. Southeast Fort Wayne is disproportionately home to both. Southeast is also a formerly redlined district in the city, and it remains among the lowest income areas in the state.

But the desire to serve this part of town runs deeper than statistics and charity. For volunteers like Greene, who grew up in the neighborhood, the desire to serve Southeast stems from a deeper desire to create better conditions here for the next generation. It stems from seeing yourself in this community.

As much as Greene sees the needs in Southeast, she also sees the potential.

“There's a lot of talent here,” she says. “There's a lot of smart, educated people here, and I want to have a positive influence on the kids in this area.”

Cars lineup on Oxford Street for the November curbside giveaway.

While offering free items to the community might be dismissed by some as a handout, Greene and others who work the giveaways attribute the importance of their service to the needs they see firsthand. They see the children and young adults and old adults walking the sidewalks without coats. They know the families struggling to make ends meet, risking their lives and their sanity during the pandemic to put food on the table. So they give.

“We take what we got, and we give what we can give, and we make do with what we have,” says Rosemary Boxley, the Founder of another group behind the monthly giveaways, Sistarz & Sistarz Nonprofit Organization.

Anjelica Soto and Rosemary Boxley of Sistarz & Sistarz.

Boxley says that while the coat drive in November was supposed to last until 4 p.m., they had already distributed 350 meals and all of their coats by 3 p.m., so they had to close early. All of the coats given to the community were purchased with money that leaders like Boxley and Greene collected among their members and friends. The group also received a $500 donation from the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. in November to purchase coats, Boxley says.

Christine Meek, Vice President of Nonprofit Excellence at the Community Foundation, says she hadn't heard about the giveaways or Boxley's Sistarz & Sistarz organization until Boxley reached out to introduce herself last month.

But when she heard about the momentum this grassroots nonprofit team was creating in Southeast, she was impressed.

"With very little financial support, Rosemary and her group have been doing some really cool things like back to school skate nights, Father’s Day programming, and community dinners," Meek says. "The Community Foundation is honored to play even a small part in helping groups like Sistarz & Sistarz who are actively engaged in the community. Rosemary and her group are truly serving the community in which they live, peer-to-peer, helping their friends and neighbors."

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

Boxley is grateful for the Community Foundation's support, and she's thankful that her nonprofit's hard work is reaching the radar of city leaders. But she isn't surprised that leaders might lose track of who’s doing what, when, and how often in Fort Wayne's nonprofit scene.

As a transplant to Fort Wayne from Chicago, Boxley started Sistarz & Sistarz in 2016 in the Windy City with a desire to provide food and other basic needs to residents in short supply. But when she moved to Fort Wayne in 2017 to care for a family member, she was surprised how hard it was to get a local chapter going in the Summit City’s crowded nonprofit space.

She says Fort Wayne has a lot of organizations—a lot of people doing their own things for their own reasons—but one positive aspect of COVID-19 is that it's unifying the missions of many nonprofits serving the city's Southeast side. It's creating the type of unity that can bring about real change.

Throughout the year, her crew of about 10 women of all ages and races at Sistarz & Sistarz has been partnering with other like-minded organizations on a regular basis: BWOE, the Human Agriculture Cooperative, Big Momma’s Kitchen, the Hop Spot Crew, Da Mos Hated Social Club, Bombshell Creation, and more.

A group photo from a curbside giveaway in the summer of 2020.

Boxley says that along with the momentum generated by collaboration, another benefit of working with fellow grassroots organizations is the team's nimbleness to address a diversity of challenges and roll with the punches of the pandemic. As new needs arise, they can evolve to meet them each month.

On Sunday, December 20, from 1-4 p.m., some members of the group are hosting a free Christmas Dinner curbside giveaway at 1313 Oxford St. with COVID-19 care bags.

Boxley says many nonprofits like hers have learned how to go outside of their comfort zone in ways they're engaging the community, too. Whereas Sistarz & Sistarz used to share most of their events on social media, they’ve realized that not everyone who needs services is on social media, so they’ve been going door to door, hitting the streets with flyers about events and information.

“You have to get out there, do a little footwork, and meet people,” Boxley says. Volunteers package carry out meals for guests at the November curbside giveaway.

Now, her efforts and the efforts of other grassroots leaders are getting noticed—not only by city leaders, but also by members of the Southeast community.

“What Rosemary and her organization have done for the Southeast community is absolutely phenomenal,” says Trent Hogue, owner of the building at 1313 Oxford St. “They have supplied a love that isn't normally aimed at this side of town.”

Looking to 2021, nonprofit leaders like Boxley and Greene anticipate collaborations and giveaways to continue according to the community’s needs. It’s all about doing whatever it takes to care for your neighbors, Greene says.

“We have to take care of ourselves,” she says. “We’re always looking to politicians and governments to take care of situations, but we are the leaders. I want to step up in my community to see change. I want to be the change.”

A special thanks

Rosemary Boxley would like to give a special thanks to members of Sistarz & Sistarz Nonprofit Organization, including Tajuana Warren, Ebony Mayhoe, Angie Soto, Ayesha Shears Mires, Veronica Thompson, Maria Warneke, Tracy Dotson, and Kyndall Thompson. Boxley says a special shout out also goes to Orlando King and Paul at St. Henry's Catholic Church.

To learn more about Sistaz & Sistarz or Black Women of Excellence, visit their Facebook pages.


Sistarz & Sistarz: 

Attend the free Christmas Dinner curbside giveaway 

Dec. 20, 2020
1-4 p.m. while supplies last
1313 Oxford St.
One meal per person, and one COVID-19 care bag per car.
This event is presented by Sistarz & Sistarz, Black Women of Excellence, Da Mos Hated SC, and Bombshell Creation.
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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.