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By Sue Um

Summer 2021

Despite Northwestern’s proximity to Chicago, by the time I reached my junior year, I was still embarrassingly unfamiliar with the city. It was really a shame, as those were years I could have spent exploring one of the largest cities in the US, learning about its issues and lively idiosyncrasies, and building relationships within its vibrant communities. This past summer, though, I realized it wasn’t too late to start doing those things, as I was able to work with Axis Lab through the generous Community Summer Fellowship.

Axis Lab is an arts and community organization based around Argyle St. in Uptown, engaging in arts, educational programming, and other interdisciplinary approaches to advocate for ethical development for immigrants and refugees. This is especially salient work for the area, as the neighborhood is home to a strong Southeast Asian community, but their work is meant to benefit and uplift all Uptown residents. The folks in Uptown have faced dramatic local changes in recent years, as the neighborhood has been the site of heavy gentrification and community divestment, creating mass displacement for the Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian residents who have lived there for decades.

While Axis Lab always has a few projects in motion, the work we did over the summer was mostly focused on mutual aid in Uptown. This particular project was called Boost the Block, and it was a spiritual successor to a previous Axis Lab project, Food Not Cops. Food Not Cops (not to be confused with Food Not Bombs) began in the wake of the uprisings in spring and summer of 2020. In response to these uprisings, Mayor Lori Lightfoot took away free lunches for Chicago Public School students, later reinstating them only with the addition of police presence in schools. Axis Lab wanted to directly counter this action, proving that communities could take care of and feed their own without police interference or surveillance. Food Not Cops was thus a meal distribution effort originally meant to feed the CPS students who no longer had access to free lunch, but in practice, community members of all ages came. This revealed how vulnerable so many Uptown residents were, and Boost the Block attempted to address these community issues in a more holistic way.

Boost the Block was a joint effort between Axis Lab and the Vietnamese Association of Illinois, as the two organizations worked together to distribute groceries and toiletries on the corner of Argyle and Winthrop every Tuesday in July and August. We set up our tents and tables in front of what used to be Hoa Nam Grocery, a community staple since its opening in 1987. It was no longer running, but its signage and the community mural on the side of the building still remained. Through trial and error, I learned something new about mutual aid and community work every week. While working with Axis Lab, my main responsibilities were press outreach and social media management on top of helping with weekly distribution. I wrote press releases and curated weekly Instagram posts, learning about the media landscape in Chicago and keeping Axis Lab’s work engaged with folks online. Social media proved to be an especially valuable asset for our work, as it helped us garner public attention, monetary and supply donations, and volunteers. I worked with a few other interns from Northwestern, and outside of our weekly distribution days, we also met on campus with Prof. Patricia Nguyen to discuss mutual aid and both theoretical and pragmatic solutions to some of the challenges we were facing. I’ve found that at Northwestern it’s easy to feel stuck in the academic setting we’re in––it’s one thing to talk about mutual aid in a classroom, and it’s another thing altogether to practice it within communities. The work Axis Lab did through Boost the Block was never about me or even anyone in the organization in particular, but it felt rewarding to be on the street and see change occur materially.

By far, the best part of working with Axis Lab was the people I was able to meet through it. It was great getting to know the other interns, volunteers, and VAI staff through our weekly distribution days, but the real fun came from talking to and spending time with the Uptown community members who came to distribution. It was nice to see familiar faces each week, building trust and rapport little by little. I listened to their stories, learning of their joys, their struggles with things like housing, healthcare, and immigration, and the everyday circumstances of their lives. For our last week, we threw a block party with hot food, arts programming, and a DJ, in addition to distributing our regular groceries and toiletries. As we celebrated the end of the summer as a community, I spoke with a community member who told me that he expected to see me again soon. It all felt bittersweet. I am so grateful for the folks in the community for letting me into their lives and engaging in really important and enriching conversations.

Occasionally I’ll drop by Argyle and I’ll run into someone I met this past summer. We’ll quickly catch up before going our separate ways, knowing that it probably won’t be the last time we’ll see each other. We are not strangers, but rather members of a community together, and I am forever grateful for Axis Lab and the Community Summer Fellowship for making that possible.