Just before Christmas, the Auntie Sewing Squad put out a request: “Standing Rock is in crisis. Help our friends get a much needed local ambulance. Nearly all 911 calls these days are COVID-19 related. Right now, only 3 ambulances cover an area the size of Connecticut. Totally inadequate!… Please consider giving before Dec. 31st.”
The call-to-action was made by an organization that first began as volunteers sewing masks for frontline workers and vulnerable communities. The Auntie Sewing Squad was founded on March 24, 2020 by performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong and was only meant to last a few weeks. Over nine months, it has exploded into a cross-country network of hundreds of active aunties who have shipped tens of thousands of masks across North America.
“We unabashedly acknowledge the political power of our sewing as a way to express our solidarity and support in the most impacted of communities when national leadership has failed us,” the group explains on its website. “We proudly trace the lineage of this sewing to our mothers and grandmothers, immigrant and refugee communities in America, and underpaid women of color garment workers.”
In addition to cloth masks, the Auntie Sewing Squad has delivered hygiene products, water, KN95 masks to farm workers in need of PPE during fire season and more. To learn more about the organization, member Jessica Arana answered a few of our questions.
Auntie Sewing Squad is not affiliated with the federal government or any medical organization, but is providing essential resources for people most in need.
It’s pretty remarkable right?…None of us are medical supply experts, none of us are experts on the weather and understanding even before this what masks would protect for fire versus what would protect for COVID and all of us have learned all of these very unique skills and understanding smoke and fire and hygiene and medical supplies. None of us were doing any of this work before. We’re filling a gap, but we’re filling a very specific gap that is someone else’s job. This is a professional job that should be being handled by a professional and not a group of 900 auntie volunteers…Our stance in the Auntie Sewing Squad is that it’s the job of the federal government, so that’s who we need to step up.
Can you tell us how you became involved with providing resources for farm workers in Northern California during the height of fire season?
[Activist groups] were saying workers aren’t being provided masks…It was really apparent, especially with the fires in Napa and Sonoma that we needed to do something.
It was a few days of coming together to get the water and the K-N95s to five or six different organizations throughout Napa and Sonoma.
Why do organizations like Auntie Sewing Squad have to step in and provide these resources?
Farm workers are exploited workers. They have very few workplace protections… Certainly in California, they have more protections than other states. Generally, they are exposed to unsafe working conditions. We have shorter life expectancy because of their work and because of lack of access to healthcare, time to access healthcare and the ability to access healthcare. They live in crowded group housing, they have shared van transportation to their places where they work. So all these factors impact their exposure to COVID.
Another issue with their work is if they say, you know, “I’m uncomfortable working, I will not work in these conditions or I’m not able to work in these conditions, I’m afraid to work in these conditions,” many times an employer will either let them go or hire them back or just, you know, we’ll find somebody else.
In addition to farm workers, you’ve noted First Nations communities are experiencing worse outbreaks, but are getting less federal support.
The virus has taken a disproportionate toll on indigenous communities. Once those facts came out, our group knew that had to be a focus. There are issues with access to water that those communities are facing. So you don’t have access to running water, it’s hard to wash your hands and follow the CDC guidelines. There was lack of access to fabric, and so that’s why we provided machines and fabric and different tools so they could create masks. So we’re trying to fulfill this gap in access to PPE, access to water.
What else have you had going on?
We [hosted] a gear drive for extreme cold in Standing Rock and Black Hills…Basically they are facing below zero temperatures. People die of cold exposure. There are kids without coats and boots. It’s one way that we can support the community. So we’re collecting winter coats, snow boots, hiking gear, snow boots, sweaters. You know, anything that would be useful in extreme cold.
There [are so many aunties] spread out it makes it really easy… I think that’s what’s also interesting about the Aunties Sewing Squad is that they’re these great networks that happen. So if someone’s out of elastic or someone is out of some type of fabric or someone has extra fabric, aunties are always creating these networks of sharing resources, sharing items for donation. So if someone can’t drive or someone can’t mail, [we] sort of figure it out through a trail of aunties.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think the pandemic has shed a light on the needs of these communities: of farmworkers, of Black and brown communities, of Native American communities. People are more aware now of what their critical needs are. I hope that light doesn’t dim once we move out of the pandemic. These communities needed aid before the pandemic and they’ll need it long after.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.