Editor’s note: this story has been updated with corrections and clarifications.
Since founding Uprising Theater in 2014, Iymen Chehade has worked to tell stories of marginalized communities, especially those of Palestinians and Palestinian Americans. The specificity of their focus makes them singular. But like every other theater in Chicago, Uprising has been dark for over a month, one of countless casualties of COVID-19.
But the uninvited hiatus hasn’t stopped Chehade and Maren Rosenberg—who signed on as Uprising’s co-artistic director in 2019—from sticking to the company’s mission. In collaboration with a triumvirate of femme-led, all-volunteer start-ups, Uprising is working to put face coverings and other personal protective equipment in the hands of health-care workers and other hard-hit communities.
“We’ve refocused our energy to try and empower marginalized communities in different ways,” Rosenberg said of the wide-reaching Mask-er-Aid project. “We know masks are unavailable to many people. They can be expensive. They can be hard to find. We wanted to do something about that.”
With so many of their artist colleagues abruptly out of work, Chehade and Rosenberg brainstormed the possibility of a New Deal–type arrangement: put unemployed theater practitioners to work making PPE.
They weren’t alone in the notion. In tandem with the Chicago-based Artists’ Resource Mobilization (ARM), California’s Personal Protection Equipment for Healthcare Providers (PPEforHCP) and ProvidePPE (which operates out of Chicago, Detroit, and Oakland), Uprising has pivoted from drama to disease prevention, from fund-raising for performance to fund-raising for PPE.
“My idea was to put costume designers to work sewing masks,” said ARM founder and costume designer Kristen Ahern. Since designers are used to creating “all types of outlandish costumes or props,” the construction challenges of creating PPE seemed doable, she added.
Still, as with nascent efforts at PPEforHCP and ProvidePPE, ARM faced a formidable early challenge. It can take weeks—sometimes months—to get 501c3 status, the official nonprofit imprimatur that makes donations tax-deductible. While the Kafkaesque process labors on (“It’s a lot of paperwork that really can take you away from what you’re actually trying to do,” said ProvidePPE team member Meghan Larson), aspiring nonprofits often use “fiscal sponsors” as a workaround.
ARM secured a fiscal sponsor in the Apparel Industry Foundation Inc. Uprising quickly signed on as fiscal sponsor for ProvidePPE and PPEforHCP. “We’re kind of like a middleman,” Rosenberg said. “Since we’ve had our nonprofit status for years, we can take donations [on behalf of PPEforHCP and ProvidePPE] that let the donors get the tax write-off.”
For ARM, donations have so far paid about 20 theater artists a piece rate between $2.50 and $3.50 per mask, depending on the design. “Our target is to make sure people are making between $15 and $20 an hour,” said Ahern. They’ve distributed 1,500 items so far to NorthShore University Healthcare Systems, Advocate Aurora Healthcare, and various veteran and eldercare groups. ARM also runs an Etsy store where the general public can purchase face coverings.
“I joke with my partner that I got a dry run for COVID when he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago,” Ahern added. “I’ve always been one to respond to a crisis with a spreadsheet, but I really had to learn to respond calmly, rapidly, and rationally to a traumatic and emotional situation. It’s like, ‘OK, what do I need to know, how do I need to organize the information, and what are the steps I need to take?’”
PPEforHCP founder Sophia Boettcher is similarly driven to provide protection to health-care workers. The data scientist has spent her professional career studying rare diseases, inspired by her own diagnosis with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that can cause skin to harden and scar tissue to form on internal organs. “I’ve always been interested in rare diseases and advocating for people that have them, in part because I have one. So when COVID first surfaced, I followed it closely,” she said.
When Boettcher learned that COVID-19 had left one Washington hospital so short on PPE that health-care professionals were using craft supplies to make masks, she posted a query about the need for PPE on social media. She quickly learned it was great. “I made some phone calls, and basically bought all the masks I could find in the (San Francisco) Bay area. Then I shipped them out,” she said. PPEforHCP provided ARM with funding for fabric for mask prototypes that ARM will be making for PPEforHCP to distribute.
As the weeks went on, Boettcher was inundated with anecdotes from the front lines: disposable masks being reused time and again, plastic bags serving as gowns, one-time-use gloves being rinsed out and reused. Larson and Ahern were working on parallel tracks, fielding similar requests for PPE.
With an initial boost in fabric funding from ARM, PPEforHCP has donated more than 20,000 face masks to health-care providers across the country, including 1,200 to Chicago’s IMAN (Inner City Muslim Action Network). PPEforHCP also sent 1,200 surgical masks to the U.S. Veterans Association as well as 100 face shields (full face coverings with clear panels).
In late April, PPEforHCP had another 15,000 masks ready to ship. They’d also acquired 400 isolation suits and 2,600 bottles of hand sanitizer. “I’m literally looking at gallons of hand sanitizer right now,” Boettcher said from her home in Santa Clara County. In February, the organization filed a patent for a flat anti-tamper, latex-free, FDA- and CDC-compliant medical face mask design that provides the protection of the increasingly impossible-to-procure N95 masks.
Since December, Boettcher has been working with a family-owned factory in Guangdong, China. “We’re hoping to figure out a way to replicate the manufacturing process in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s tough, getting things out of China. I feel like customs regulations between here and China change every day. The labels have to be so exact. We’ve tried to let everyone in the distribution chain—including customs officials—know what we’re doing. We’re just like ‘please don’t stop us.’”
So far, Boettcher says, most of PPEforHCP’s work has been almost exclusively self-funded, although a “tiny” GoFundMe had raised $2,322 at presstime.
“We’re all just normal people who have made really big sacrifices to fund this,” she said of her cohorts at PPEforHCP. “I put off my grad school plans. That freed up some money. I’m not renewing my car lease because that’s no longer a priority. Obviously funding this way isn’t sustainable. And it gets a little depressing when you’re paying $1,200 in shipping costs every time you leave the house, although UPS does give us a 10 percent discount.”
During normal times, ProvidePPE’s Larson oversees Adistry, the start-up she created to package and sell ads to the cannabis industry. Now, she’s working with ARM, Uprising, and PPEforHCP as well as ProvidePPE.
“We’re all interconnected, like one degree of separation,” she said of the groups. “We’re all facing the same issues. The information is fluid, the money is tight. Usually I’m all about making money, I mean, I’m the founder of a start-up. But now? Now we need to deal with this,” she said.
Uprising was hoping to produce a full production of Returning to Haifa with Prop Thtr this fall, but the production has been pushed back to spring of 2021.
For now, Rosenberg and Chehade have their sights squarely on battling COVID. Virtual meetings among ProvidePPE, PPEforHCP, ARM, and Uprising take place weekly as Larson, Boettcher, Ahern, Rosenberg, and Chehade work through the labyrinthine webs of sourcing and supply chains.
“The Palestinian community in Chicago has a history of being very community-outreach oriented,” said Chehade. “We feel very comfortable going to these groups and saying, ‘Hey, we have boots on the ground here. We can get supplies to people who need them.’” v
Since publication, Uprising has collaborated with ARM to produce keffiyeh masks in honor of World KeffiyehDay, May 11. These masks are available through Etsy.