Welcome to #CLPSpotlights, our monthly series highlighting individuals and organizations that make a difference in their community. This month, we interviewed Shanon Williams-Hughes from The Wellness Collective, a resource collective that brings neighbors together. When people join the collective, they agree to pay an amount they feel comfortable with every month and are connected to needs-based providers.
Q. How has your work evolved during the pandemic to meet the community’s needs?
A. The pandemic shifted our trajectory in a significant yet purposeful way. Prior to COVID-19 reaching Southwestern PA, we were making incredible waves in supporting neighbors who are overlooked or otherwise lack access to traditional social safety nets through mutual aid before the term was commonly and commercially known. We were planning and developing opportunities for neighbors to continue our mission of filling the wellness gap when the pandemic began and altered everything. Our first move was to focus on strategic response and organization. We created the Allegheny County Resources and Support Amid COVID 19 group on Facebook, which currently has 8000+ members offering, seeking, and facilitating support.
For several weeks straight, we brought together community members, groups, elected officials, educators, foundation leaders, etc. to discuss what was happening, what was needed, and worked together to fill those gaps. One of those gaps, as we know, has been the ability to pay rent, utilities, and other basic needs. Thanks to the support of our friends in the philanthropic community, we were able to facilitate direct funds for all of these needs to help bridge folks through this trying time.
The necessary safety precautions limited many from necessities such as food, medical supplies and household essentials. To address this concern, many neighbors volunteered themselves to deliver for immobile neighbors. We created our Community Delivery Hotline so that we are able to, as our core intentions dictate, ensure our most vulnerable, invisible, and inaccessible neighbors have access to valuable resources.
Q. What is your favorite part of what you do?
A. My favorite part of what we do is definitely the community building that occurs quite naturally. Our folks experience pains and struggles that are completely avoidable if only they had a little help in the beginning; and it’s always just a little help that is needed to keep from falling down that slippery slope of need becoming too big to manage. When we facilitate fundraisers for our neighbors, the most incredible thing happens – people feel connected. Neighbors who give feel amazing because they know their dollars went directly to saving someone’s home (for example). People who receive are in awe at watching strangers pour into them, not only with their money, but their words of love and support. They become neighbors for life in a very personal way without ever having met or even knowing who the other is. Gentrification has taken a lot from us. To be able to help mend community, reconnect, and rehumanize people in this way, gives a feeling that I do not quite have words for.
Q. How did you come to work for your organization?
A. I actually founded The Wellness Collective. I’m a social worker by trade. Anyone who works in social service can tell you a story about how someone who came to their organization for support was turned away. It happens. It’s unavoidable in the traditional space of social service. However, I cannot tell you a time when that happened and I did not feel immense, visceral pain. Knowing that folks who would be turned away would likely not find support on the other side of the door was almost too much for me to handle. In my 11+ years of service, I’ve gotten used to taking my organization hat off and being the person on the other side of the door, once it was closed on one of our neighbors. TWC is something that I have been working on in different ways for over a decade. I finally got enough pieces to the puzzle together to bring it to fruition and here we are.
Q. What do you wish the public knew about your organization?
A. I want the public to know that TWC was created for the expressed purpose of filling in the gaps of our social safety net. It’s no secret that it has always been the people, not programs, that have stabilized communities. We’ve seen that demonstrated repeatedly throughout the pandemic. That is why we have developed the Community Bank.
This “bank” allows neighbors to contribute to and receive from our communities in intentional and impactful ways. Be it financially, re-homing items, acts of service – you name it. This bank was created with transparency, accountability, access, and people in mind. This revolutionary design is our opportunity to “be the change we want to see,” as they say. We welcome anyone who is committed to making a difference in the community to become early members of the bank so that we, as a community, can make change happen together.
Q. Tell us your favorite story about the library!
A. If you mean personal story, my fondest memory was going into the Allegheny Room at the then-newly built library on Federal Street. Being from the Northside, it was cool learning about Allegheny City and Pittsburgh’s early years.
Q. Who’s your favorite author or artist at the moment?
A. Milan Kundera for The Book on Laughter and Forgetting and Amy Cuddy for her upcoming book, Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts.
Q. If you could change one thing about Pittsburgh, what would it be?
A. I would remove from “power” anyone and any entity that does not put the lives and wellbeing of indigenous Pittsburgh residents first and make transparent all systemic processes, history, and procedures so that we can truly have a safe, equitable, progressive and livable city.
Q. What was an especially fulfilling moment for you in your work?
A. We hosted a Virtual Pizza Party during the shutdown. It was the sweetest thing! We invited several other groups and had something for everyone. The event started off with activities facilitated by MiMi’s Kinder Connection and storytime by Reading is Fundamental for the kids, which was beyond adorable. Sharise Nance of Hand in Hand Counseling led a conversation on managing burnout. LaSheshia Holliday of Naptural Beauty Supplies led a pedicure demonstration. Tammy Thompson of Catapult Greater Pittsburgh led the conversation on “the pressure to perform [during the pandemic]” and we closed out with Terrell Milliner and Jonnie Geathers speaking [about] “the pressure for men to perform and the intersection of toxic masculinity.” While the event happened, we had pizza delivered to participants all over Allegheny County and facilitated bingo and raffles where there were prizes for kids and adults including toys, gifts from some of our facilitators, groceries – even rent and utility payments! The event was closed out with a grounding exercise led by LaKeisha Wolf of Ujamaa Collective. It was a cool time.
Q. What is a favorite local business or organization of yours?
A. One of my favorite organizations would be Eden’s Farm. They are an amazing group that supports victims of sexual exploitation. The founder, Annalisa Gibbs, is one of the most caring and creative people I’ve ever met.