#YouAreEssential Highlights Workers Ignored During COVID-19

Ashlee Marie Preston
Ashlee Marie Preston
Photo: Courtesy of Ashlee Marie Preston

We’ve seen an outpouring of support for essential workers risking their lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But for all of the attention nurses, doctors and other workers are getting, activist Ashlee Marie Preston found that many of these efforts tend to ignore stereotyped and marginalized workers: sex workers, the elderly, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people within essential worker occupations and others who don’t have access to traditional fundraising organizations earmarked to support them.

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That’s why she started #YouAreEssential, a social impact campaign and national relief fund that gives grants to grassroots organizations and networks supporting vulnerable communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What happens is you have these organizations that start out with the right intentions and then, as it grows and becomes more corporate, the funds become salaries for the CEO and all of these other folks,” Preston told The Root. “Then it ends up being about the donors. So, basically, sucking up to the donors and the people who are funding their interests and it gets so much about the pomp and prestige that it’s no longer about the demographic they serve.

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“So instead of these organizations being a channel through which services or access can take place, it becomes counterproductive and, in many cases, they start to marginalize us because we are not in positions of leadership because we don’t have a true voice or an advocate. Even when I used to work in the non-profit sector, I remember always being one paycheck away from being in the same predicament as those I served. It’s basically everything that we’re trying to dismantle at the macro level is happening at the community level and so this was an opportunity to really seize, celebrate and support those organizations and folks that are actually doing the work.”

So far, the campaign has raised $50,000. U.S.-based public charities with a current IRS 501(c)(3) determination, or those operating under a fiscal sponsor 501(c)(3) are eligible to apply for funding.

Preston—a 2017 Root 100 honoree and the first trans woman to become editor-in-chief of feminist magazine, Wear Your Voice—is raising the money from a wide range of individuals, but her most active donors are sex workers, the exact demographic of people her campaign aims to help. Sex work employs some of the most marginalized people in America’s economy who do not have access to healthcare or unemployment because the trade is criminalized. It is one of many professions that has been hit hard by COVID-19 and Preston says is ignored in coronavirus relief efforts.

“Sex workers were my guardian angels when I was homeless,” she said. “Before I got deep into sex work when I was younger, they would let me sleep in their hotel room or on their couches. They made sure I had food and took me shopping to get clothes because I didn’t have anything. Sex workers have always been on the frontline helping people and because of their profession in how they show up in the world. People see them as criminals or immoral. Some of my friends are porn stars and they gave some of the largest donations.”

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Revolve Impact, a creative agency, is a key partner supporting the campaign.

Mike de la Rocha, a co-founder of Revolve Impact, told The Root their agency is uniquely positioned to support Preston’s campaign. It has been involved in a number of campaigns supporting Proposition 47 in 64 California and the bailout of 105 people from Rikers Island in New York. Of #YouAreEssential, de la Rocha says, “I honestly feel extremely fortunate and privileged to work alongside Ashlee because she carries on a strong tradition of queer black women in particular and being at the forefront of different social movements,” he told The Root. “Whether we’re talking about Black Lives Matter or the civil rights movement, she continues with this tradition of being a part of the community that’s directly impacted and disproportionately impacted. We feel, as a company, excited to learn from, grow with, and share with Ashlee in this whole process.”

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So far, $17,000 has been given to various organizations and more money is going out to organizations that need it most, Preston said. The initial organizations awarded money support the incarcerated, groups that help trans people, marginalized southeast Asian communities and other diverse causes.The best way to summarize #YouAreEssential is that some of the most active donors are from the very marginalized communities the money is helping.

“It is always sex workers, porn stars, basically the people who sometimes even don’t even barely have anything to give, will give you the shirt off their back and the people who have everything they just kind of distance themselves or they kind of lean into their own oppression and into their own stuff,” she said. “I don’t care what office I end up in, I don’t care how much money I make, what circle I end up in; there’s never going to be a time that I don’t stop and recognize that the most vulnerable people do the most vulnerable work and it’s always been.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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