When the pandemic shut things down in March 2020, Chamieka House-Osuya’s first thought was her students. She was working in Milwaukee Public Schools administration at the time, and had spent years working with students with special emotional and behavioral needs.
“I immediately thought about the kids that I used to serve at that school” when Governor Tony Evers announced the closure of schools across Wisconsin, she told Madison365. “A lot of our students rely on meals from school. They need their meals from school or they’re not eating… I was like what can I do from the safety of my own home and keeping other people safe to help bridge the gap?”
She and a friend jumped into action, creating The Snack Sack – bags of food, delivered to families, purchased through donations.
“The money just started coming in, like hundreds and hundreds (of dollars),” she recalled. “I really didn’t have to do much. It was such an uncertain time. Everybody was trying to help out and do something.”
House-Osuya already had a strong online presence and knew how to leverage social media to gather people and their attention on issues. She built a website and social media pages where people in need could say what they needed, and others could donate to help out. The Snack Sack quickly became about more than snacks, as people started asking for help with utility bills, school supplies, furniture and more. And it became about more than money, too – sometimes someone just needed help getting to the grocery store.
The Snack Sack served as the hub between those in need and those willing to help.
Two and a half years later, House-Osuya has moved to Texas (“It’s Texas, but we like it,” she said) and runs The Snack Sack as a full-time job with two full-time staff, one part time assistant manager and a cadre of volunteers. She has a number of monthly donors, but the bulk of the work happens in response to immediate needs: a person in need can go on the The Snack Sack website and fill out a form, and then House-Osuya and her staff put out the call. And The Snack Sack donors almost always come through.
“I could raise $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 are cut off today, I need my lights turned on today. I can’t go through the application process,” House-Osuya said. “Mutual aid works to kind of close that gap between what people need without trying to create excessive barriers to support and to access. It’s doing things in kind for other people with no expectation of getting things back. It is the opposite of the nonprofit system. It is community based giving. It does not require people to fill out applications. It does not require people to stand in long lines. It’s neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends. It is communal.”
Mutual aid became an important part of helping people through the early pandemic, but it has lasted beyond those early pandemic days in some communities because it was actually nothing new to those communities.
“This model has been working in marginalized communities forever,” House-Osuya said. “We have given it a name now, but this is how we’ve lived in Black communities for our entire 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 great-grandmother, Louise Dunlap, was one of the city’s earliest Black residents, living on the south side before many of the roads were paved.
“She was stories for days about how it used to be dirt roads everywhere, and chickens roaming the streets,” House-Osuya said. “We didn’t really have money and stuff like that, but what we had was community. We’ve never missed out on anything, and we never had the money to pay for anything. Madison is really good for wraparound support, and I learned a lot from that.”
Since it launched in 2020, House-Osuya said The Snack Sack has helped gathered more than $1.1 million to help 3,000 families. About half of those families have just needed a little help once, and about half more regularly rely on The Snack Sack’s support.
The organization has also started organizing community events at various places around the country.
House-Osuya never intended to be a nonprofit entrepreneur, but loves her new career.
“It’s turned into something that has had such a positive impact on families, that there’s nothing else that I would want to do. This is my calling,” she said.
And she still credits her roots in Madison for instilling the understanding of the power of mutual aid.
“I am a daughter of the city,” she said. “There’s no other place in the world that I would rather be from.”