When model Chrissy Teigan and singer John Legend decided they wanted to help New York protesters marching on behalf of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others, they had a plan.
Legend and Teigen organized and paid for food trucks to feed an estimated 3,000 people Sunday in Union Square. To do it, Teigen coordinated with Charles Wade, who with Nona Stewart and Tasha Burton, comprise the triumvirate that founded Operation Help or Hush. From the early days following Michael Brown’s death Aug. 9 at the hands of police office Darren Wilson, Wade, Stewart and Burton wanted to do something to help Ferguson, Mo. Eventually they settled on the pragmatic, unglamorous work of providing resources that enabled demonstrators to protest.
They’ve provided everything from diapers to towels to safety goggles, but are probably best known for coordinating Sunday dinners and feeding protesters and hungry residents of Ferguson through the work of what began as a very scrappy, very nimble organizing start-up.
“As much as there is a place for shutting it down and things like that, we really try to balance everything with community-building and conversations,” Wade said.
Wade, Stewart and Burton began by soliciting $1,500 to feed sandwiches to protesters in Ferguson the night of Aug. 13. They met their goal in an hour. Two days later, Wade said, they had $10,000, and a week later, they had raised $25,000. They had a PayPal link — they weren’t using a crowd funding site such as Kickstarter or GoFundMe, which meant the money they raised wasn’t subjected to crowdfunding fees — and their method of accountability was to tweet pictures of receipts, documenting how much they had spent and what they bought.
“As the money came in, we just pushed it into the streets,” Wade said.
Eventually, there was $25,o00 worth of scanned receipts sitting in a public Dropbox account. Now that Help or Hush has proven it’s here to stay, Wade said the organization is researching the steps to become a tax-exempt nonprofit. As the organization’s profile has grown, so have its goals. Though one of the founders is based in Ferguson, Wade said the group planned to offer support in Cleveland for demonstrators marching for Tamir Rice, the 12-year old African American boy with a pellet gun fatally shot by an officer, and established a presence in Columbus, Ohio, after the shooting of John Crawford.
Going forward, he wants to provide housing for demonstrators who are couch-surfing because they are college-age students whose parents have rescinded financial support.
Though many of the activists protesting for Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner consider themselves part of a leaderless movement, individuals such as Wade, Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie have emerged as national voices, and they’ve been recognized as such.
Part of the reason funds for Operation Help or Hush grew so astronomically was because its efforts were amplified through tweets by Amber Riley of “Glee” and the singer Estelle. When Teigen reached out to Wade to offer her help, it offered another layer of legitimacy.
Wade, 32, is an Austin-based stylist who’s been living out of his suitcase for the last four months.
“I have a 16-year-old brother,” Wade said. “It started to become more and more personal. These victims are becoming younger and younger as you see with the 12-year-old [Tamir Rice]. I wanted to help my friend’s community, but I also have to think about the world that my brother lives in and the world our children will live in. I got caught into it. I couldn’t leave Ferguson. I saw how bad the situation was and how much work needed to be done.”
Teigen and Legend are part of a chorus of creative types and celebrities who’ve used their platforms to protest, among them rappers Killer Mike, J. Cole, Nelly, and Q-Tip, actor Jesse Williams, and director Spike Lee. They’ve all contributed in their own ways, some choosing to make the pilgrimage to Ferguson and march in the streets while others respond through social media. For Teigen and Legend, the best thing to do was offer support to the protesters while hanging back. Teigen retweeted a message from the Help or Hush account offering free food in Union Square Sunday and answered the food trucks thanking her and Legend:
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) December 7, 2014
Also, all extra food was donated to the homeless by the trucks themselves. Any other questions? pic.twitter.com/gSkxHUGlQz
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) December 8, 2014
“I’ve personally never experienced people going this far out of their way for me and people that I know,” Wade said. “It’s mindblowing to me … this was important to them. They made it happen.”