by the Systemic Change Team – Sisters Of The Road
It’s been a year of COVID restrictions, a year of having no community members in the cafe or opportunities for barter work, a year of six feet of separation, of watching people we care for living outside struggle even more to access basic hygiene services and face further discrimination at the hands of the government. As Sister’s Systemic Change team, we reflected on what this last year has looked like for both us and community members we’re in relationship with. We are grappling with being a barter work cafe and organizing hub that cannot offer indoor space for either of those programs safely. We’ve had to reduce hours and close from time to time over the past year as we try to answer these questions, finding ourselves back where Sisters began–problem solving with the community one meeting at a time. These latest community meetings began again in the midst of a closure. Some staff gathered to deep clean the building and sidewalk when a community member shared his frustrations with us. He said he felt deeply unheard, not just by Sisters but by everyone because he didn’t live in a “house.” He felt especially hurt that we closed on such short notice, and so often, with little explanation when violence broke out. He expressed that a step forward could be to have a venue, where he and other community members and staff alike could share their feelings and challenges in order to find common ground. Two conversations were held the following week. A whiteboard leaned up against the window, camping and cafe chairs were spaced out on the sidewalk on NW Davis, and a table was packed with coffee and snacks. And people showed up! And they showed up with some hard things to hear. Sisters was never a direct service organization, or solely a food service organization, Sisters is a place where people can eat and commune and work together to end houselessness and poverty and we were struggling to keep that space with the many COVID barriers. After that, we began holding space for ongoing community conversations. Right when the sun started poking out again, and summer was around the corner, barriers to gathering outside were a little lower.
Together, we dreamt up community agreements, we explored possibilities of making shared outdoor eating space feel safe and welcoming, and a COVID-safe form of the barter work program. They also became a space to share current events. Community members would share their experiences on the street, and we would share news articles and emergent legislation arising at the city and state level, like HB 2367, commonly called the, “Right to Rest Act,” taken from the Homeless Bill of Rights. These gatherings happened weekly at first, and then every other week, and tackled difficult yet necessary questions. We were excited to bring back barter work and felt challenged by the fact that we did not know what barter work compensation would be when meals were free. So community members came up with a list of things they would be interested in being able to exchange barter work cards for. These gatherings were a place to build and heal together after a hard and confusing year for Sisters of the Road. In tandem with community conversations, the Systemic Change team has relaunched Sisters’ Fresh Change program this past May. We’re excited to be able to provide the opportunity for folks to buy fresh foods from local vendors at Portland Farmers Markets. Fresh Change is an exciting option, but it came up during our community conversations that some people have a harder time eating or digesting vegetables. So now Sisters Systemic Change team is looking into replicating the Fresh Change model with other partnering organizations that would allow folks to access a diversity of services with barter cards, like SCRAP.
Speaking of farm veggies, Systemic Change and Cafe worked together this spring to shift our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership to farmers we were excited to support and be in relationship with. Another Spring Farm, and Happiness Family Farm are both Black-owned businesses, and small local farms who are working to increase access to fresh veggies to the broader community. As a member of the Stop the Sweeps Coalition, our team has been working throughout the pandemic supporting our unhoused neighbors through intense inequities and dangerous health conditions, one of them being sweeps. We have been particularly involved in the well-documented struggles in the Laurelhurst and Sunnyside Communities. This last Spring of 2021 the city warned that they would roll back the COVID protocols that kept the city from massively sweeping. Members of our team have been working in coalition to support folks at risk of or actively being swept, and to support the stand against sweeps. Although our footing has not been the steadiest as we navigated through the pandemic, we’ve done a lot of work this past year: from shifting our CSA partnerships to support BIPOC and local farmers, figuring out what Fresh Change and other programs look like within a pandemic, and fighting the city on its brutal policies– the Systemic Change Team has been busy. We’re looking forward to being more grounded, continuing the work, and hopeful that as the pandemic slows we’ll have less barriers to continue doing so together.
First Published Sisters Voice Summer 2021