“Nilda, Nilda, Nilda…”
That was the tune of the morning on June 9 outside what used to be St. Boniface Elementary School, also called St. Bonnies, in the Norris Square neighborhood.
The volunteers, who were gathered on the 2000 block of Mascher Street, sought Nilda Perez’s direction while they prepared a shipment of fresh food to be delivered to the community.
Eventually, her name became a part of the cadence of the block as everyone quickly fell into a rhythm unloading the U-Haul full of food along with the co-chair of the Norris Square Community Action Network (NSCan), Nilda Perez.
Outside of St. Bonnies — now a local community center owned by the Norris Square Community Alliance (NSCA) that allows other local groups, like NSCan, to use for their operations — the meals are being distributed by the Unity & Survival Program that began in the wake of Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order starting on March 23. Members of NSCan worried for their neighbors, especially the elderly.
Starting in late April, following Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19, the program began to distribute boxes of fresh groceries, produce, and dry goods, every Tuesday. The group has given out upwards of 100,000 pounds of food, according to Steve Powers, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who partnered with NSCan to form the program and help connect neighbors with resources.
“It’s very much about the community members taking care of each other, rather than just providing a service,” said Mackenzie Stocum, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who also volunteers at the group’s facility in Kensington, the Philadelphia Liberation Center.
Many of the volunteers present that day like Margarita Hernandez live within blocks of St Bonnies.
“I’ve been here all my life. I went to school at Bonnies, so it’s my community,” said Hernandez, who has been a Norris Square resident for over 54 years. A familiar face in the community, Hernandez has been volunteering with NSCan since it started and is also the 2000 Howard Street block captain.
Block captains like Hernandez coordinate deliveries with NSCan, and they are responsible for communicating any of their neighbors’ specific needs, whether they are families with children, the elderly, or people with chronic health conditions.
Soon after arriving, the truck stood empty. Many of the boxes were already in the back of volunteers’ cars on their way to neighbors while others sat on wooden pallets on the sidewalk and waited for the next wave of deliveries.
After Ingrid Leon carried a few boxes over to families on the next block, she came back to deliver the rest of her deliveries by car, a list of addresses in hand.
Leon is also a longtime resident of Norris Square, she said that she is thankful to be working from home because she can use her lunch breaks to deliver food to her neighbors.
“This actually brings me so much joy to do this,” Leon said. Residents met Leon at the door like an old friend due to weeks of Leon delivering boxes of food to their doors once a week.
Fostering community empowerment is a core goal of the Unity & Survival Program, according to Perez, who remained at St. Bonnies — drop-off list in-hand — to ensure that each box of food found its way to the right place.
Perez said that sharing resources is important, but the organizers also want community members to ask themselves why there is a need for community-led food distributions. Increasing people’s understanding of inequities in the social systems that directly affect them is a key goal of this initiative, she added.
She mentioned the recent surge of action and media coverage after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer as a catalyst for these conversations, and that issues like food scarcity and police brutality are not one dimensional — but are systemic.
“Everything has come to light as a result of that,” she said. “The opposition, — the powers that be — have been made to keep you distracted, with one issue, in one neighborhood.”
“We also have to teach people how to go after the ones that put them in that situation,” Perez said. “While you rescue people from the water, and they’re drowning you also have to go after the ones that threw them in the water. Right?”
Editors: Zari Tarazona, Henry Savage / Designer: Henry Savage / Translator: N/A