By Natalie Shaffer
COVID-19 has presented student activists with a strange and often conflicting situation. In the past seven months, many systemic inequalities have seemingly been laid bare by the pandemic and the heightening social justice climate, yet the virus continues to mandate our physical distance. For many students this means that their campuses are closed, and for others, like Tulane, this means strict rules about gathering. This poses a mounting challenge to student activist organizations who want to support their communities in this time while also staying safe.
Stitch It To the Patriarchy, a student-run organization started at Tulane, has not shied away from that challenge. Founder and president, Nina Harris, was inspired to start Stitch-It last year after teaching herself to embroider and realizing the impact that progressive messages on clothing could have. She has since transformed the organization to include more hands-on activism and “change-making events”, and that is where the tribulations arise in the face of a global pandemic.
“I was in the process of expanding Stitch-It in February, and then COVID hit,” Harris says of Stitch-It’s ambitious expansion to 13 other campuses nationwide that ended up taking place when schools were closed and everyone was home. Her vision of 13 chapters of Stitch It To the Patriarchy actively organizing events and inspiring community outreach was seemingly dashed at this point. “None of them can even be on campus, how are they supposed to hold events?” she says, indicating a resignation she felt at the time, “It was extremely challenging.”
Other Stitch-It members echo this sentiment, including Morgan Elmslie, a junior at Tulane who joined the organization in March, just as everyone was getting sent home. “We had to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate how we do things, because living in a pandemic has changed everything,” she says. However, she tries to look at the situation optimistically, as an opportunity to transform and adapt. “I think so much of what people think activism is, is physical activism or being there on the ground, but social activism during COVID-19 looks like staying home and not seeing anyone, so we couldn’t necessarily go out and physically do things, but we could stay in place, people could embroider from home, share information on social media and raise money on Venmo and things like that,” Elmslie says of the dynamic nature of ‘activism’ in this time. All the Stitch-It ambassadors suddenly had the opportunity to network from home and for Elmslie that meant being in Miami and reaching out to family and friends there and in New Orleans to make donations to the causes taken up by Stitch-It. To put it summarily, she says, “So while I do think it has put a big damper on the way we do things, it has also opened an avenue where we are forced to do things a different way, and I think that all great things in life have always come out of an unfavorable situation putting pressure on you to come up with a new plan.”
That new plan still has to fit with the hard-achieved mission statement of Stitch It, written by Harris herself, which is, “to foster an inclusive community with the intention of creating lasting progressive change through thought provoking sustainable clothing and grassroots efforts.” For the duration of quarantine, those grassroot efforts were mostly relegated to research and sharing infographics explaining prescient topics. Harris, who is a graduate, recently worked on a senate campaign in Maine for Sarah Gideon, and is no longer in New Orleans to see the day to day operation of Stitch-It, which remains at a standstill in some ways because of the ongoing pandemic, despite online engagement and special projects. She shares a feeling of disappointment, “In creating Stitch-It I thought it would be cool to have a like-minded group of people that might not know each other without this organization. I feel like [right] now you don’t really get that opportunity because of COVID.” Of the challenges posed by the pandemic, this is the most visible also to Elmslie who put it in quantifiable terms, “We’ve still never all met in person, yet we’ve gone through a pandemic, one and a half college semesters, and four hurricanes together, so it’d be nice to finally see each other’s smiles.”
However, despite the difficulties of organizing and expanding activism efforts during an ongoing pandemic, Harris says the growth of Stitch-It in the past year has been tremendous. “This time last year I was just making shirts in my room,” she says. Some of this growth could be attributed to the efforts her group put forth to support the New Orleans community during the first wave of COVID. In late March, Harris and other Stitch-It members stayed to collect food for the Second Harvest Food Bank while people who had already left started a social media campaign to collect monetary donations. Harris says, “It was an opportunity to have our first impactful event, and that helped us grow in terms of name recognition around campus and on social media.”
Elmslie expands on this effort to fundraise from home, “At first being at home felt like a limitation, but people are resilient and open to new ideas, and so we really capitalized on using technology. It felt weird, not being able to go be active, and at the same time, it was super rewarding that while we were stuck at home we were still able to do something.” She describes feeling like an ‘internet stalker’ or a ‘CIA agent’, looking at her friends’ locations to see if they were still in New Orleans and reaching out for food donations if they were.
More recently, since Tulane students have returned to campus, other Stitch-It ambassadors have returned to less covert-operations to make sure the active community outreach continues. Lee Sandel, a current senior at Tulane and the head of Stitch-It’s public health committee, started her own project in late August to help vulnerable populations of New Orleans. The idea was care packages for the houseless population, and she started with a goal of $300 to make 50 packages. “I think we raised $2600,” says Sandel of their first round of donations. “It was really overwhelming how much money we were able to raise.” Considering they raised well over their goal for 50 packages, Sandel says, “This is definitely something that can have a bigger impact, so we just decided to turn this into a semester long initiative to hopefully make 400 to 500 packages.”
The packages differ based on what donations are necessary according to shelters and other houseless resources, but some of them have included granola bars, masks, hand sanitizer, and sometimes even canteens. They are delivered in Trader Joes paper bags that Sandel loads into the back of her Volkswagen Tiguan. She described a warm reception from the people who receive the care packages, she says, “It’s gotten to the point that I recognize the people I deliver to and they’ll see my car and know that we’re coming.” Sandel says her idea was inspired by the pandemic, “COVID has exposed so many problems in society, but this has definitely hurt the houseless population,” and she made it her goal to do something to help. “In terms of community outreach, I would have never had the time or the thought to do this if it weren’t for COVID, and I just didn’t realize this was something I was capable of,” she says. This impact, started by one person, speaks to the collaborative nature of Stitch-It, organized by committees and constant communication, Sandel says “Everyone who is involved in it, the embroiderers, the representatives, even the people that follow us on Instagram are able to make recommendations on how to make Stitch-It better.”
Sandel describes a feeling of capability and opportunity provided by COVID, but it is also important to consider how this has also been an incredibly difficult time and the challenges that presents for those who want to participate in community activism but feel that they cannot. With a parent who fell gravely sick in August and spent weeks in the hospital, Elmslie describes this semester as one of the most difficult times of her life, “I feel like you can give your most to others when you’re content and doing okay yourself, but I felt like I was really going through it, and it was kind of hard to pour from what felt like an empty tank,” she says. Despite feeling unable to control anything happening in her personal life, Stitch-It was a way for her to channel some energy and untethered emotions and do something to help. She describes this simply and dialectically, “It was emotionally taxing to have responsibilities, but at the same time it was emotionally rewarding to be able to make a positive impact during a time where I felt very hopeless.”
In Stitch-It, everyone can bring their interests and their needs to the table and use the organization’s platform and sense of community to help them. In Sandel’s case this meant fundraising for her project; for Harris it meant building Stitch-It’s platform to reach 5,000 followers on Instagram; and for Elmslie, it was knowing that she had a group of people she knew she could fall back on. Though it is hard for them all to imagine a time when operations will look normal, they are thoroughly impressed with the brand/organization’s ability to sustain community efforts amidst COVID-19 through technology and COVID safe projects. Referring to both pandemic and social justice efforts, Sandel says, “Right now, I feel that people are being really generous in terms of fundraising and time and recognizing just how important it is to step up and help your community if you can.” Stitch It to the Patriarchy now has over 100 members, and there is an overwhelming optimism about what the future of their brand looks like, a vision that Elmslie sums up: “Once we can hit the ground running together in person, I think we can come together and continue to grow as a really strong force for the greater good.”