A collective of Winooski restaurants that’s been raising money for racial justice since August wants to carry the work through the winter.
The Winooski Strong coalition, which is largely comprised of restaurant workers, has raised $30,000 so far, by selling T-shirts and collecting donations from local businesses.
“It’s still happening, right?” said Craig Mitchell, an employee at Waterworks. “There’s still a need for this, and we’re trying to keep it in the forefront, you know, to not let it go by the wayside.”
But now that it’s been a few months since Black Lives Matter protesters camped out in Burlington’s Battery Park, the group is trying to come up with ways to keep the racial justice message alive during the winter. Late last month, it launched a website for donations and is now working on a new line of clothing in an effort to raise more money.
Mitchell said while their cause is the same, they’re not trying to do what the Battery Park protesters were trying to do, with their nitty-gritty on-the-ground activism.
“I’m too old to do that,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time in our lives in various ways. So we’ll help fund it and help find ways to keep this going.”
When racial justice issues came to the forefront this summer, Mitchell said he wanted to find a way that he personally could have the most impact. People in the restaurant industry, he said, know how to raise awareness through marketing tactics.
“And what are our strengths?” said Ali Nagle, a manager at The Monkey House. “Our strengths are fundraising, events, marketing, design. So that’s what we did.”
Since August, over 60 businesses have donated. Many have purchased Winooski Strong T-shirts for their entire staffs. The first round of shirts sold out almost immediately. Since then, the group has tried to keep up with demand. Well over 1,000 shirts have sold, and they’re now offering long-sleeved shirts and tote bags.
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The money goes to four different organizations: the Loveland Foundation, The Black Perspective, Loving Day Vermont, and Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington.
Mitchell said they want to support groups that are making a difference.
“We have organizations out there that are committed,” he said. “New organizations as well as organizations have been around forever. What can we do that’s supporting them?”
He said it’s important that the project have a positive impact.
“We don’t want to keep beating people over the head with it,” he said. “This is a kiss on the cheek, something a little softer, just getting the message out. It’s not in-your-face screaming, though that needs to happen as well.”
Sarah Johnson, a manager at Waterworks, said Winooski residents offer a unique perspective because it is the most diverse community in the state. To many of her staff members, the issues of racial justice are extremely personal.
“Our staff proudly wears these shirts, and 95% of the people that came in this summer were supportive, and proud of what we’re doing,” she said. “But then you also get that 5%. And then I have young staff that are greeted with uncomfortable conversations, and as a group, we then come together and continue to have conversations and to address it head on.”
All the businesses in this small city know each other and can work together easily, she said. When about half the businesses closed because of the pandemic, a sense of connection became even more important.
“I think the hardest thing for us right now is just, our businesses are closed,” Johnson said. “So I kind of feel like I’m in this surreal reality right now. It’s been really nice to focus on this personally, and still put my energy toward something that’s really beneficial.”
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