Last March, life as we knew it came to a screeching halt as a virological menace ravaged the world over. Nearly four months later as millions of Americans sheltered-in-place, George Floyd’s killing circulated across social media and television networks. A cruel realization emerged: Police brutality doesn’t pause during a pandemic.
With a raging virus and protests for justice in the streets, Jasmin Walters ’21 was overwhelmed. The political moment had fixed a magnifying glass over two crises: racial injustice and widening economic inequality. Amid national uprisings, Walters reached out to Vassar Political Education chairs Hayley Craig ’22 and Chelsea Quayenortey ’22 about founding a wealth redistribution initiative.
With the help of other interested friends, the students founded the Vassar Political Education Wealth Redistribution (VPEWR) group. VPEWR distributes funds to communities most impacted by policing and police brutality. During the summer of 2020, that meant supporting Black activists and organizers doing on-the-ground work in their communities across the country. This work ranged from mutual aid networks and deportation prevention, to community-based safety initiatives and support for formerly-incarcerated women.
“I think it just helped me channel those feelings, and also helped me feel capable of contributing [to these issues] with COVID going on,” said Walters.
The founders and core student organizers ran two week-long drives in June and July. For each drive, the students advertised an application for those interested in helping with that week’s redistribution outreach. The organizers chose 10 people from these interest pools to manage teams of 10 to 15 callers each week. Callers were tasked with contacting 10 people in their personal networks willing to redistribute some of their wealth to the group’s Venmo, Cash App and Give Butter. The group evenly distributed these funds between four and five organizations chosen by the lead organizers.
“We didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen, that it would get this big or we’d get so much money from it,” said Craig. “We just kind of jumped into it and it just happened to work out really well.”
Really well is an understatement. The students raised an estimated $65,000 for nine Minneapolis and Washington D.C.-based organizations, including Black Immigrant Collective and Life After Release. This success highlighted a need for more core organizers to help their operations run smoothly, which led to the expansion of VPEWR’s leadership.
As the student organizers crowdsourced funds for these causes, people began reaching out with individual emergencies as well—from pending evictions and overdue medical bills, to food insecurity and electricity shut offs.
Last spring’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was supposed to save Americans from these crises. And for many, it did. Economists hailed the stimulus package as an ambitious expansion of the safety net after it rescued millions from the pandemic’s economic crunch. But many fell through the cracks, especially those who are low-income and Black or brown—who were more likely to see weeks-long delays before receiving payouts.
VPEWR’s mutual aid page redistributes wealth to those for whom these policies fail, or for whom a one-time $600 to $1200 check isn’t enough: Black trans and queer people, single caregivers and those formerly incarcerated. The students say many who redistribute on the page are outside of the Vassar sphere, thanks to the Instagram Explore page algorithm.
Why Wealth Redistribution?
As for the call to wealth redistribution versus other forms of activism, the group saw the potential to mobilize some of the wealthiest families in America—Vassar students and their families—toward a reparations movement.
Vassar has its fair share of students from the upper echelons of wealth. Roughly 32 percent of Vassar students were from America’s top 5 percent at the time of a 2017 study. These students’ parents are part of the Silent Generation and baby boomers—two groups which, collectively, will bestow their heirs up to $30 trillion by 2030, and up to $75 trillion by 2060, according to the consulting firm Accenture.
“As Vassar students, we know people with exorbitant amounts of wealth that they just sit on while there’s millions of people going homeless,” said Quayenortey. “A lot of [them] have the power to change this.”
Some people have argued more broadly for national redistribution of wealth through higher taxes for the rich and income transfers to the poor. But for those keen to America’s history of racism and the “cradle-to-grave” economic inequality many Black people face, reparations prioritize the racial reckoning Black people were robbed of at emancipation. Freed African Americans never got the 40 acres and a mule they’d been promised. America created Black codes, Jim Crow, red lining, over-policing and mass incarceration instead.
“By redistributing to the orgs, we’re allowing Black people to see their money go where they want it to be invested—systems of safety that are actually created to keep them safe when they know that the police aren’t there for their own safety,” said Craig.
Also guiding the student organizers’ work is an understanding that this isn’t charity, which Craig says puts the charitable upon a moral pedestal. This is about solidarity, not self-righteousness.
“It’s an act of redistribution because people feel so entitled to their wealth and their family’s wealth, but it’s not something they earned,” said Craig. “Mutual aid requires people to reflect on their privileges and ask themselves why they think they deserve the money they hold or hoard.”
The Emotional Toll and Ethical Dilemmas
The org’s leaders have also confronted the psychological weight of uplifting those at their lowest. Choosing between finishing a homework assignment or crowdsourcing rent money is a repeat dilemma for the students. But even when those needs are met, it often doesn’t feel like enough.
“Poverty is traumatizing,” said Quayenortey. “I can post your GoFundMe, but how can I rectify this emotional turmoil that you’ve been through?”
She continued, “You’re not a therapist—all you can do really is give them money, but what they need is more than money at this point.”
Craig, who started seeing a therapist during the fall, said that establishing boundaries between their organizing, school work and self care keeps them afloat. These priorities also come in handy when they encounter trolls on their Instagram page. These trolls range from naysayers who blame those in hard times for their economic hardships, to critics of their activism’s focus on the Black community. While it’s tempting to call these people out, the students know their energy is best spent elsewhere.
“If you focus your attention on people in the comments, you’re going to miss out on people in the [Instagram] DMs who actually need your help,” said Quayenortey.
Looking to the Future
True to their political education roots, the students at VPEWR hope to educate more people about this brand of organizing. That goes for both their critics and others unfamiliar with the ideological underpinnings and real world importance of wealth redistribution and anti-capitalist activism.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not just going to be middle and upper-class Vassar students giving 10, 20 dollars, whatever they can,” said Quayenortey. “It’s going to be tax laws that take money from the rich and build sustainable programs for low-income people.”
They also hope to gain fiscal sponsorship from the non-profit Production Farm, who would help them collect more funds and better manage their finances. And after ironing out issues with their bank account, they’ve planned more redistribution drives to meet Black individuals’ financial emergencies. Their Black History Month drive reached its $10,000 goal as of Friday night.
While they gear up for graduation or senior year, the student organizers also ponder their involvement with the initiative post-Vassar. It’s tempting to leave behind all remnants of undergrad when the time comes, but they say wealth redistribution transcends Vassar.
“It’s a necessary work that needs to be done,” said Quayenortey.