Community fridge co-founders started a project but need to take a step back

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a three-part series about Evanston’s community refrigerators and the people behind the mutual aid effort. Read the first part here.

Maggie Quinn, 37, co-founder

Maggie Quinn, 37, believes in the phrase ‘it takes a village’, in building community, because doing things for each other makes everything a little easier – and a little better. A self-proclaimed lifelong volunteer, she says she’s not very good at making money or asking to be paid for her services.

Maggie Quinn

Her community story in Evanston began in June 2016 when Quinn, her husband, Kevin, and their two young children sat on a blanket in their new garden, eating takeout. They still had no furniture or kitchen appliances. Over the past 10 years, they had bounced around Chicago neighborhoods.

“We were … looking for a more community vibe, like a neighborhood street and a neighborhood school that you could walk to,” Quinn said.

They found this in south Evanston and bought a house next to a couple who were the age of Quinn’s parents.

That night, the neighbors came over and introduced themselves to the Quinns, and in the days and weeks that followed, they became surrogate grandparents.

Neighbors took care of the Quinns’ two eldest children when Maggie gave birth to a third, so Kevin could stay with her during the birth. They invited her on the evenings when her husband worked night shifts – because caring for three children alone can be exhausting.

During the pandemic, when the school switched to remote learning, parents in the neighborhood rotated classes for “recesses.” Quinn, who coordinates a program at Chicago Volunteer Doulas that trains incarcerated people to become doulas for their pregnant peers, has used her own lactation and doula training to support her pregnant neighbors and those with young children.

When a doula Instagram account that Quinn followed shared messages on The refrigerator of love in Chicago, which was just getting started at the time, she began to learn about the idea of ​​community refrigerators.

She reached out to Love Fridge initiative founder Ramon Norwood to offer help with the organization and helped procure refrigerators from the warehouse where her husband worked. She wanted to start something similar in Evanston, she told Norwood.

Quinn connected with Maia Robinson through the Evanston Fight for Black Lives (EFBL) Instagram account, and the two met up with the Love Fridge team on Zoom to discuss vision and logistics. And so, Evanston Community Refrigerators was born.

The community fridge at 717 Custer Ave., outside Kombucha Brava, is known as Sunrise Fridge. Credit: Richard Cahan

Everyone needs food. This is why community refrigerators exist. But for Quinn, it’s even more than that.

“Food is so intertwined with culture,” she said, “and sharing food and sharing culture is a way to connect with people, and it’s meaningful and necessary.”

Quinn, 37, is a vegetarian, with vegetarian children. She shops a lot at Trader Joe’s – for the kids and their snacks but also for the store’s ready meals. She’ll buy for herself, and then she’ll get a few extra things for the fridges: staples like eggs and milk, or sometimes oat milk. She tries to buy things that pantries don’t always have: food for people with alternative diets and special dietary needs or foods important to different cultures. She wants the food to be served with care and to come from everyone.

Quinn’s father is a house painter, her mother a housewife, and as a young adult Quinn said she could see – right in front of her – that the world operated in systems that were exclusive and defective. She imagined a different world. It’s something she sees fridge co-founder Maia Robinson doing now.

Maia Robinson, 22, co-founder

In the summer of 2020, Maia Robinson was the one on the EFBL team who opened Quinn’s Instagram post asking if the group wanted to help organize a local fridge.

Looking at pictures of Chicago refrigerators, Robinson was struck by their artistry.
“It felt like such a drastic act — it was also beautiful,” she said. “And I think sometimes we forget that activism can also be very beautiful.”

Maia Robinson

It reminded him of the city’s little free libraries, those birdhouse-like structures where people go out and pick up books. She thought about how community care could start small.

She thought of her high school, ETHS, where more than a third of students were entitled to a free or reduced price lunch. She knew there were hungry Evanstonians.

Robinson, a student at Barnard College in New York, eventually returned to school but found living on campus during the pandemic to be isolating, so she returned to Evanston several times, returning to the city she loved and the town that needed a refrigerator.

For months, she had contacted any business or organization that she thought could plug a refrigerator into a power source outside of her building. She received rejection after rejection. People thought a fridge would be a liability. Or they didn’t know if a refrigerator would help anyone. Or they were worried about people hanging out.

Robinson was beginning to feel defeated, and when Childcare Network of Evanston said yes, she was relieved and then ecstatic.

The refrigerator, donated by the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, was placed next to the Childcare Network building. Robinson built a platform for the fridge and a local artist painted it a reddish pink, decorating it with illustrations of a carrot, a head of lettuce, an apple and lemons. In March 2021 the refrigerator was ready to be plugged in.

And then one Saturday morning, Robinson woke up to Facebook messages from people she didn’t recognize, telling her they’d heard a crash the night before and wondering if the fridge was okay. She got out of bed and headed for the refrigerator, trying to convince herself during the seven-minute drive that nothing bad had happened.

But when she arrived, she saw what was left of the fridge frame had fallen over, its foam innards exposed. No longer hinged to anything, the door protruded under the two sides of the refrigerator which remained connected. Another dented side lay several yards away.

Robinson got out of her car, walked to the mess hall and started crying.

Still in tears, she called Quinn and then Childcare Network with the news. Crying, she took pictures of the destruction on her phone. Crying, she got back into her car and drove home.

Robinson took an hour to compose himself, then posted an update with the photos in the EFBL Facebook group.

A social media post shows the first refrigerator before it was destroyed and describes the momentum to replace it.

Immediately there were comments and direct messages. People asked to donate and offered spare refrigerators. Reporters called from the Chicago Tribune and Hello America, ask for interviews.

Robinson said she’s always had a little fear: “What if we get this fridge but nobody actually uses it, and it’s just like a token thing, that Evanston thinks we’re awake and like a progressive city, but it’s just…unnecessary.”

She had no idea that so many people cared.

The replacement refrigerator was installed later that same week. Robinson visited it with friends. As she was organizing the pantry, two women walked onto the lawn, opened the refrigerator, took some food and put it in a bag. Before leaving, they said “thank you”. “You’re welcome,” she told them. Yes, she thought. That works.

Now the refrigerator project will have to work without its founders.

Robinson visits the fridges when she’s home, but with Barnard back in session, she’s back in New York. She graduates in December.

And in June 2022, after six years in Evanston, the Quinns returned to Columbus, Ohio. Maggie Quinn maintained contact with the fridge team via Slack. But after the new website launched in August, she moved into the background, as she always intended to do.

Next in this series: A look at how Evanston’s community refrigerators have been decorated and cared for, as the mutual aid effort looks to the future.

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