“Essential Brooklyn” is an 8-part series spotlighting the people and organizations working overtime to lift up their communities through the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the ones who give the most with the least resources. They’re our true essential workers, our community anchors; the ones who often go unnoticed, until you need them…. The ones who have been there for us all along.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Sevonna Brown, Denise Rodriguez and Shabieko Ivy ferried supplies from Brown’s home in Stuyvesant Heights into a bright blue Mercedes Benz van, ready for the day.
Under the beating sun, they filled the vehicle — christened the Sistas Van — with bags of fresh produce, nonperishables, coffee, diapers, condoms, tampons and many more supplies to give to folks in need in Brooklyn. That week, the van, run by Black Women’s Blueprint, was headed to Carroll Gardens and Red Hook.
As Rodriguez and Ivy were about to drive off, Brown’s partner ran out with gallons of milk to add to the bags.
In the spotlight
Black Women’s Blueprint has been providing services, advocacy, support and education for Black women and girls in New York and beyond for more than a decade, but with the recent racial justice protests, Associate Executive Director Sevonna Brown said the organization had gone viral, attracting an influx of donations of money and produce.
“Every now and then I’ll walk outside my house and someone’s like, ‘Hey, I’m here to drop off stuff.’ We literally fill this entire space with toiletries and food,” she said, pointing to the area around her stoop.
That week, the organization had collected so much fresh produce to give away, the organizers were unable to include the rice and beans that had become a staple of their food bags.
Meeting at the intersection
Black Women’s Blueprint was founded in Brooklyn in 2008 by 49 Black women who came together during that year’s presidential nomination. They found they were having to choose between their race and gender with their vote, and decided to create a group that forged a blueprint and agenda that spoke to their intersectionality, Brown said.
The organization started off with political education and healing circles, and quickly the women discovered they had the shared experience of suffering from violence– some in their younger years; others, as adults.
With that, the organization started committees addressing criminal justice and popular culture, inviting Black women to join them in conversation. Black Women’s Blueprint focuses on three key areas: Direct services that include free counseling and healing sessions; policy and advocacy, where it sits on the National Taskforce to End Domestic and Sexual Violence; and sexual assault education and prevention trainings for other organizations.
Brown said she joined the organization for two reasons: to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Black Women’s Blueprint held at the United Nations, and to be part be a part of the sister circle.
“I see myself as a community member,” she said. “I know even as a part of the leadership of the organization, it still impacts my life, my resources and my ability to be in community with everyone in the way that I really choose to be, to do it through radical ways.”
Getting out in COVID-19
In normal times, the team works out of a three-story brownstone on Empire Boulevard, but with COVID-19 closing the doors, they doubled down on their online and outreach services.
One year ago, Black Women’s Blueprint bought the Sistas Van as a mobile healing unit to do outreach for the survivors of sexual violence. Brown said the idea was to be able to expand the organization’s reach to other states, to serve Black women in places abortion clinics were being shut down and infant mortality rates were climbing.
Little did the team know, a year later they would be in the midst of a pandemic, where the communities they served at home in Brooklyn and New York City were facing exacerbated needs.
To address this, the team moved its counseling and healing work online, and have been doing massive community food drops each week, where they take the van to multiple locations in each borough and hand out free food and supplies. Brown said there were always lines of people for the community drops.
“We use an intake form so we know logistically what people in say Carroll Gardens are asking for. So when we’re taking stuff out, we’re not just assuming people need this, we actually know what they need because they’ve asked for it,” Brown said.
In addition to the community drops, the Sistas Van also holds member-specific days, where it will go to the homes of different individuals from its elder or post-partum membership, with whatever individuals need.
“It’s kind of like back in the day how our families and community thrived, I can take a milk carton or a box of sugar to my neighbor, which I didn’t think generationally I would ever see,” said Sevonna Brown. “Now we’re actually living in a space in time where we can be generous.”
With the recent protests of systemic racism and the calls to support Black businesses and organizations, Black Women’s Blueprint has found its work now shared thousands of times over on social media, leading to an influx in donations.
“Normally we get nonperishable food but we’ve started to get fresh food by the trash bag, full of tons of greens and radishes and turnips,” said Brown. “It’s beyond our wildest imaginations.”
On top of food, the Sistas Van also gives out sexual health supplies like Diva Cups, Emergency Plan B contraception and condoms. Brown said many of those items were expensive before the pandemic and they had only increased in price and scarcity. With the increasing levels of donations, Brown said Black Women’s Blueprint was really able to meet community need and be generous to those who came knocking.
“Now, it’s like the van is packed to the brim and my house still has strollers, car seats, a playpen, baby clothing and diapers, things like that,” she said, adding there was no criteria for folks in need, they could just approach the van or organization and ask.
“It’s kind of like back in the day how our families and community thrived, I can take a milk carton or a box of sugar to my neighbor, which I didn’t think generationally I would ever see,” she said. “Now we’re actually living in a space in time where we can be generous.”
Filling the gaps
Community Outreach and Crisis Counselling Manager Shabieko Ivy, who was going out with the Sistas Van that day, said through the pandemic the need in the community had grown, and it motivated the work she did.
She said conversations she had with those seeking counselling during the pandemic had highlighted the level of food scarcity and heightened rates of depression many women and families were facing.
“When you’re doing social work you can’t go out into the field unless you have an innate passion for helping people and being of service,” said Ivy.
“I’m really glad to know that Black Women’s Blueprint is really providing the resources that communities need and we’re filling the voids.”
Brown said the organization’s journey through pandemic and protest, gathering the level of support it had, had been amazing. The Sistas Van, she said was a fundamental to the reach Black Women’s Blueprint was able to achieve. Going forward, the team wanted to use the momentum and help other organizations become mobile like they had. “It really does help,” she said.
“It’s such a basic concept but it changes access a lot, people don’t have to come to you all the time you can go to them. I hope we can get 15 more vans.”