The Collective

Collective Co-Founder and Board Member Sarah Markey poses for a photo in front of the nonprofit’s recently completed mural. Standing beside her are a handful of community organizers and this summer’s youth fellows working to advance social, racial and economic justice.

The RI Gives Vax Challenge already helped distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding to dozens of local nonprofits that supported community members through the pandemic – including one right here in South County.

The Collective, an organization that grounds itself in community efforts to advance social, racial and economic justice, has been running an expansive mutual aid program to help neighbors in need through the pandemic.

The nonprofits efforts to help local community members in need began soon after the lockdown went into place, and since March of 2020, their facilitation efforts have had a tremendous impact. In that time, the Collective has provided $4,808 in laundry assistance for those who weren’t able to go to the laundromat at the height of the pandemic, $6,185 in grocery shopping cards tofight food insecurity, and $76,094 in cash assistance to help keep people afloat with rent and utilities.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a social service,” said Sarah Markey, one of the four original founding members of the nonprofit. “We think of ourselves as being in community with people – and when you’re in community with people, sometimes people are struggling, sometimes they have needs that can’t be met.”

“We try to think creatively on how we can rise to that occasion,” she added, stressing the importance of providing assistance in a way that everyone feels equal, that everyone in this process treats one another with dignity.

The Collective has primarily served community members throughout South Kingstown, being that they’re located in the heart of downtown Peace Dale, but the nonprofit didn’t confine itself to any borders. The Collective also provided assistance to individuals and families all across southern Rhode Island, according to Markey, in communities like Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton, and Westerly.

Even in some of the state's most affluent communities, like East Greenwich, there were still families that were in much need ofassistance. Although the nonprofit would attempt to help connect people to more specialized services in their communities when possible, Markey stressed that no one was ever turned away because of where they lived.

The RI Gives Vax Challenge, which has been awarding grants to local nonprofits each time the state reaches another vaccination milestone, has provided the Collective with $10,000 to continue helping neighbors in need – whether they live next door or several towns over.

Unlike other vaccine incentive programs in neighboring states that offer individual recipients the chance of winning millions, the RI Gives Vax Challenge has been giving back to local nonprofits that were there for Rhode Islanders in need during the height of the pandemic. Every time another 5,000 individuals receive their first dose of the vaccine, another round of grants is distributed to local nonprofits.

On Tuesday, Gov. Dan McKee announced this outreach program is “ahead of schedule, considerably,” and that the fourth round of grants will be announced in the next few days.

So far, however, the RI Gives Vax Challenge has awarded $370,000 in grants to 37 nonprofits through the first three rounds.

“It takes a team to get the job done, and Rhode Island is lucky to have so many nonprofits stepping up to keep us safe, support vaccination efforts and help those in need,” McKee said. “Over the last few weeks, we continue to see increases in demand for vaccinations – that’s great news for our collective public health and great news for our nonprofits in the RI Gives Vax Challenge.”

“We know that vaccines are our best tool to keep our communities healthy,” he added. “If you haven’t yet, get your shot.”

Since July 6, when the RI Gives Vax Challenge was announced in partnership with the Rhode Island Foundation, at least 15,000 people have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It is inspiring to see Rhode Islanders stepping up to help organizations that are delivering food, housing and health care to those most affected by the pandemic,” said Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg, “but make no mistake, more resources will be necessary. The need is not going away.”

The $10,000 grant does go fast, according to Markey, even for a small nonprofit like the Collective,

but receiving these funds has been exciting. According to Markey, it’s “hard to compete, nationally, with other organizations when it comes to foundation funding and grants.”

“We’re in the smallest state in a small town,” she added, “and it’s just hard to compete against nonprofits doing similar things inbigger cities, in bigger states. Every ounce of money helps.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t just a small staff of people helping to make grocery shopping trips for high risk individuals or collecting food to deliver to the Jonnycake Center. While those in need were reaching out to the Collective for help, there was another swath of community members looking to help fill those needs.

“It wasn’t us doing it all,” Markey said. “We were facilitating. We met really awesome people who would, again and again, show up to help their neighbors.”

Through all of this, she’s seen the Collective’s role as a facilitator.

“As hard as the pandemic has been, it was really wonderful to see so much good in people,” Markey said. “Sometimes a crisis can bring out the best in people.”

“There were just moments where I think a lot of people felt really supported and seen, and cared for, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic for that to happen,” she added. “That’s something I really try to think about – how do we keep that momentum going?”

One of the reasons the Collective served as a facilitator to other services, and worked hand-in-hand with other partners, rather than trying to take on everything on their own, was because they didn’t want to pull any funding or services away from other local nonprofits already helping community members in need.

It’s also part of the reason she feels there’s much more nonprofit work happening in urban areas, compared to more rural settings.

“I think what that ends up doing, because there’s not enough support or funding for nonprofits, generally, in Rhode Island, is freezing people out who would do good work and build a nonprofit outside of Providence.”

Community organizing in small towns, Markey said, is something that fascinates her, and in part, is what inspired the creation of the Collective.

“When you think about it, overall, a majority of Americans live in small towns and yet the places where social justice, racial justice and anti-poverty organizing happens are mostly in urban areas,” Markey said. “In an East Greenwich, in a North Kingstown, in a South Kingstown, that poverty is more unseen.”

“You don’t see it as much,” she added.

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