Emily Ernsberger, June 4, 2020
Nicole Johnson has always wanted to keep people safe. A resident of the Crestmont neighborhood, she was immediately concerned about her public housing neighbors as resources, finances and personal health equipment dwindled. Out of her own home, where she and four children live, she founded two initiatives to support her neighbors as well as the larger Bloomington community.
Pigeon Hill Pantry, one of Johnson’s efforts during the pandemic, started in early March to help public housing residents in the Crestmont and Rev. E. D. Butler communities get the items they needed, despite local pantries having record numbers of customers in a period of mass unemployment. Seeing barriers not just to the general food supply but also for her fellow public housing residents, Johnson started collecting orders from residents in the northern public housing neighborhoods, visited pantries to pick up items, boxed supplies and made no-contact deliveries. Pantry 279 and Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard have been her largest sources of support. In preparing orders, Johnson has said she’s been in contact with 24 households between the two neighborhoods — some to place orders, some just to check in. At most, she’s delivered boxes to 12 households at a time. Last week, she was down to four, which she was glad to see.
“Not because I was worried, but that means people have what they need,” she said. Just in case, she still keeps a Little Free Pantry filled with items and leftovers.
In coming up with the pantry system, she also wanted to provide educational materials for residents, such as where to access free internet hotspots, and setting up a phone number for people in her neighborhood to call for help. Johnson and her toddler, pulling in a red wagon, spent two afternoons distributing flyers with information about her efforts to each household in Crestmont and Rev. Butler neighborhoods.
As much as she had tried to help her neighbors, they in turn have helped her by supporting one another. In a period where many residents were asking for pet food, Johnson was having difficulty finding available supplies. Bloomington Housing Authority executive director Amber Skoby saw a flyer and reached out to thank Johnson for her effort. Upon hearing pet and paper supplies were needed, BHA employees dropped off items. Within 48 hours of a Facebook post about the pet and paper supply delivery, Johnson’s entire storage unit was filled with items.
“I still cry about it,” Johnson said.
Beyond making sure her community has food security, Johnson is also dedicated to ensuring everyone who needs a mask has one.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson just wanted to make sure her family had masks, ones she knew her children of ranging ages would wear. Next thing she knew, many people were asking her to make masks, and an entire mission began.
Mutual Aid Masks is an initiative to not just provide individuals and groups with quality masks, but to educate people on the benefits of wearing one for harm reduction. Likening it to efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic and the opioid crisis or campaigns to encourage seat belt use, Johnson believes that masks are the best way to keep people safe while out in public, especially for those who are unable to isolate or physically distance as effectively as others. Partnering with Cardinal Spirits and Soapy Soap Company, her masks and education materials have been distributed to people experiencing homelessness. Black Lives Matter has also helped in distributing her masks.
Masks featuring special designs, both as a means of expression and to entice children and young adults to wear them, are also a factor in her work. All of her mask designs, which she’s tweaked based on feedback, have been reviewed by professional health care workers as well as Johnson’s children. The latter group is one of the reasons Johnson doesn’t sew a pleated face mask.
“My family said, ‘Those are too hospital-y, I’m not wearing it.’ I have a 20-year-old who is home from college, a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old, so I get a get a lot of input coming from a range of young adults, and they’ve been trying these masks on all day long,” she said. Sewing out of her own home, she has some assistance, and partners with organizations for larger mask drives.
Effectively helping a neighborhood is second nature to Johnson, who uses her social sciences degrees from Arizona State University, academic professional work and a lifelong experience of living in low-income housing to support her community.
Johnson, her then-husband and two children moved to Arizona after relocating from New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. While the move to Arizona was relatively seamless — she enrolled in classes, her children started school, her husband had a new job — trauma still remained from witnessing a natural disaster and having to move quickly.
“I’ve had physical natural disaster experience. And while we cannot see the flood, the trees down, the tsunami, the drought or whatever it is right now, the response the community and our government in what they’re suggesting and how they’re handling the COVID-19 pandemic assures me that this is absolutely a disaster. You don’t have the National Guard handing out food when it’s not a disaster,” she said.
Johnson’s mask initiative is currently working at a deficit as of Monday. Mutual Aid Masks runs strictly off donations, made mostly via Facebook, where Johnson posts the receipts and screenshots of orders of every purchase she makes for materials.
Mask orders can be placed at mutualaidmasks.com.
While aiding in her community’s health and safety is a personal mission for Johnson, it’s also a means of giving back to a town that has given her opportunities.
“The only reason I’m able to do all of this is because of security. All of my basic needs have been met by the community. I am a user of all of the services. Why would I not want to participate? This is about mutual aid. This is about redistribution of resources,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Johnson's mom lived with her, which she does not. It also misstated the amount of the deficit Mutual Aid Masks was at last week. Contact Emily Ernsberger at 812-331-4368, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @EmilyErns on Twitter.
This article appeared in the Herald-Times on June 4, 2020. Photo Credit: Rich Janzaruk / Herald-Times