In one of the 15 white row houses on Holman Street in the Third Ward, five 20-year-olds with Houston Community Fridges stand amid a collection of furniture and packaging on a sultry Wednesday afternoon, trying to decipher vague instructions for building their own desks and bookcases.
An organizer, a 28 year old just passing Flores, moves through the brightly painted rooms helping the volunteers find the right parts for their project and making sure everything is in order.
“I am a virgin,” she says when asked about the ease with which she builds. “And I worked in a kitchen for eight years.”
The Houston Community Fridges team is busy preparing for the opening of the 52nd round of Project Row Houses on Saturday, themed on “Gulf Coast Anthropocene.” When they’re done, their townhouse will become a library of black literature from children’s books to radical texts, a community resource board, a workspace with WiFi, and of course a well-stocked refrigerator, as well as a pantry with durable goods and toiletries.
It will also be a place for educational workshops run by other activist groups across the city.
“Houston Community Fridges” is technically accurate as the name – the Project Row Houses location will be the tenth community refrigerator to open in less than a year – but as the organizers hope to show with their installation, the goal is , more than just free food.
“We want to meet people’s basic needs, of course, to make sure they get full, but we also want to make sure that you can sit in a beanbag chair and relax and read a book … or do your homework in passing,” said Nina Mayers. 21, founder of Houston Community Fridges. “I want this to be a common room, and a very interactive one.”
The group grew out of a larger mutual relief movement that created grassroots collectives across the country to help the communities hardest hit by COVID-19. Many of them, like Houston Community Fridges, are led by queer and transgender people who faced higher food and housing insecurity before the pandemic.
The idea is to help those most in need directly, without the bureaucracy and bureaucratic processes that can come with government programs or non-profit organizations; with a shared fridge when you are hungry just go and get what you need.
“Everyone needs to eat, everyone needs water, everyone needs health products, but if you only do it for people with papers, income or transportation, you really supply a very small part of town,” said Flores.
The organization, which is run from Mayers and Flores’ apartment in the third district, is entirely based on volunteer work and donations of food, equipment, time and money. They work with a number of groups across town to put their fridges in visible places – for example, the Exchange to Change clothing store in Third Ward or D’Hope Services in Alief.
Natalia Lopez, 22, has volunteered at Houston Community Fridges since it was founded in August 2020. She saw Mayers’ tweet last summer looking for a vehicle to move a refrigerator, so she offered her boyfriend’s truck and has always been involved in the organization.
“I joined because the brand message was that it was community run, for the community, and only a few of us come on our days off and when we have free time to stock up the fridge or make a difference. It’s for the people and that really intrigued me, ”said Lopez.
Mayers and Flores say they were surprised but thrilled to be invited to this round of installations along with artists exploring climate change, humanity’s relationship with the earth, and the manifestations of anti-blackness in both. For co-curator Dr. It was a breeze to Willie Wright, assistant professor of geography at the University of Florida-Gainesville, including Houston Community Fridges.
“I was inspired by what they did in the middle of the pandemic and in the middle of the ice storm, they envisioned a collective way of being in Houston. Houston is a city ruled by the capital and can tend to be a very individualistic city. said Wright.
“It made perfect sense to invite them because the refrigerators are art, but also because there is a policy behind that art and I thought it was really important to highlight this and hopefully expand it,” Wright said.
The refrigerator in the Project Row Houses is designed by artist Pupil and features paintings of food and a portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer, a leading activist for food justice during the civil rights era. During the installation, audio recordings of Hamer’s speeches are also played.
“Their whole thing was that you can give people free food, but give them the tools and materials they need to grow and produce them themselves,” Pupil said. “This is what makes someone a person with agency and is able to sustain their own life and that of the people around them and their communities.”
The refrigerator will remain on site even after the major installation is completed in December.
The rapid growth of Houston Community Fridges has been encouraging, if somewhat unexpected, to Mayers and Flores, who are students at the University of Texas-San Antonio and Houston Community College, respectively. They hope that at some point the community refrigerators will develop into a kind of self-sufficient cooperative for everyone who needs them.
“Everyone needs access to free food, and once people acknowledge it and feel they can really, really contribute, you’re in this constant cycle of putting things in and out, and it has its own natural cycle of stocks and replenished as needed, ”said Mayers.
Project Row Houses opens its new installation round on Saturday at 3 p.m. with artist talks and a community market. Starting August 4th, the communal refrigerator will be accessible during Project Row Houses’ regular opening hours, Wednesday through Sunday, 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM.