When the pandemic shut things down in March 2020, Chamieka House-Osuya’s first thought was her students. She was administering Milwaukee Public Schools at the time, and spent years working with students with special emotional and behavioral needs.
“I immediately thought of the kids I used to serve at that school” when Governor Tony Evers announced school closures across Wisconsin, she told Madison 365. Many of our students depend on meals from school. They need their meals from school or aren’t eating… I was like what can I do from the safety of my home and keeping others safe to help bridge the gap? “
She and her boyfriend jumped into action, making snack bags — bags of food, which were delivered to families, purchased through donations.
“The money is just starting to come in, like hundreds and hundreds (of dollars),” she recalls. “I didn’t really have to do much. It was such an uncertain time. Everyone was trying to help and do something.”
House-Osuya already has a strong online presence and has known how to take advantage of social media to bring people together and bring them to attention. built website and social media pages where people in need can say what they need, and others can donate to help. Snack Sack quickly became more than just snacks, as people started asking for help with utility bills, school supplies, furniture, and more. And it became more than just money, too—sometimes someone just needed help getting to the grocery store.
Snack Sack was the hub between those in need and those willing to help.
Two and a half years later, House-Osuya moved to Texas (“It’s Texas, but we love it,” she said) and runs Snack Sack as a full-time job with full-time employees, a part-time assistant manager and a cadre of volunteers. It has a number of donors per month so the organization can access some amount of money, but the bulk of the work happens in response to urgent needs: a person in need can Go to the Snack Sack website and fill out a form, then House-Osuya and her crew made the call. Usually donors come with a Snack Sack.
“I can collect $200 for a light bill in five minutes,” House-Osuya said.
The Snack Sack model is known as “mutual aid,” and differs from the traditional nonprofit model in some important ways.
“If my lights go out today, I need to turn on the lights today. I can’t follow through with the application process,” House-Osuya said. Mutual assistance bridges that gap between what people need without trying to create excessive barriers to support and access. He does things in kind. It’s the opposite of a nonprofit system. It’s community giving. It doesn’t require people to fill out orders. It doesn’t require people to stand in long lines. Neighbors help neighbors and friends help friends. It’s communal.”
Mutual aid became an important part of helping people during the early pandemic, but it continued after those early days of the pandemic in some communities because it wasn’t really something new to those communities.
“This model has been working in marginalized communities forever,” House-Usuya said. “We give it a name now, but that’s how we’ve lived in black communities our whole lives.”
House-Osuya learned about the concept of what we now call mutual aid as a member of one of Madison’s oldest black families. Her grandmother, Louise Dunlap, was one of the city’s first black residents, living on the South Side before many of the roads were paved.
“It was stories for days about how dirt roads were everywhere, chickens roaming the streets,” House-Usuya said. “We didn’t really have the money and stuff like that, but what we had was the community. We didn’t miss anything and didn’t have the money to pay for anything. Madison is really good for all-around support, and I learned a lot from that.”
Since its launch in 2020, House-Osuya said Snack Sack has helped raise more than $1.1 million to help 3,000 families. About half of these families needed a little help at once, and about the other half regularly rely on Snack Sack’s support.
The organization has also started organizing community events at various venues across the country.
House-Osuya never intended to be a non-profit entrepreneur, but loves her new career.
“It has turned into something that has had such a positive impact on families that there is nothing else I would like to do. That is my calling,” she said.
She still credits her roots in Madison with instilling an understanding of the power of mutual aid.
She said, “I am the daughter of the city.” “There is no other place in the world that I would rather be than.”
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