Cindy Weisbart didn’t know much at all about Chelsea prior to COVID-19, but like many with a camera, she was drawn to the city as it struggled mightily with COVID-19 and job loss and hunger.
Yet, Weisbart wasn’t just looking to document the human condition, she was looking to participate and find a slice of humanity. There were more than a few slices she found in the end.
“When Governor Baker’s COVID closure orders were extended this spring, I began to think about what the new economy was going to look like – how and which small businesses would be able to sprout up from the disruption of the old way of doing things,” she said. “My parents were small business owners who were not able to adapt their business model to the new world of ‘the malls’ in the 1980s. Now I began to investigate how communities were supporting each other in this time of unprecedented uncertainty and little government investment in 2020.”
Weisbart is a high school teacher in Cambridge who happened upon the profession late in life after working with youth in other capacities for many years. Last fall, she won a sabbatical from her job in Cambridge and studied photojournalism in New York City with the idea of bringing back a dynamic class to her students. When COVID-19 hit, she wanted to combine her love of photography with a journey about helping others in need and finding those that always step up to help – including during COVID-19.
“I talked with local groups in a burgeoning network of ‘mutual aid societies’ – the MAMAS of Medford and Somerville, Jamaica Plain/Roxbury Mutual Aid,” she said. “I interviewed founding members and participants, and soon was led to the 32-year-old Chelsea Collaborative. Here was an established association of community volunteers, grocery wholesalers, union members, local politicians and staff involved in effective strategies to ease the stresses of the COVID-19 crisis on Chelsea residents and families.”
Executive Director Gladys Vega knew on March 13 that the shut-down would have fast, profound and far-reaching effects on the community. In keeping with its mission, “to empower Chelsea residents to enhance the social and economic health of the community and its people; and to hold institutional decision-makers accountable to the community,” Vega organized a network of food donation and distribution, political support for a tenants involved in rental disputes due to COVID effects, training for census workers to ensure Chelsea gets the support it deserves for all its residents, a site for summer youth work and training, and collaboration with other Boston-area groups lobbying for increased government investment in communities.
Dozens of volunteers pass through the offices of the Chelsea Collaborative each week to pack boxes and distribute food to families in need and to represent Chelsea in political actions. “This is my family,” is a refrain from volunteers, almost all of whom have families at home. The work of the Collaborative is a model of comprehensive community organizing, and invites everyone to be a part of effective change, something greater than themselves.
“I have felt it, too, and return to document the solidarity and the sense of mission and pride evident in the dedicated volunteers,” said Weisbart. “It could be Gladys Vega who said it, but it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.’”
Weisbart’s photos from her time at the Collaborative and focusing on other actions regarding housing and Civil Rights can be found elsewhere in this edition.