In Depth: Middletown Potluck

This is another installment in our series of interviews with student groups at Wesleyan.

I sat down last week with Ari Ebstein ’16 and Yael Horowitz ’17 to talk about the Middletown Potluck group. With a big fundraiser underway and an upcoming potluck (today from 6-8pm!) we had much to talk about with regards to social justice, sharing food, and funding a homeless lockers campaign.

Middletown potluck is a group dedicated to building a community between Middletown residents and Wesleyan students.  Based strongly out of 200 church, the group began spring semester of 2013. Since its inception the group has already hosted six potlucks, each with a certain theme. Ari explained choosing the themes, “In the beginning we didn’t really have any community connections so the first ideas we had were ours. But since then we have really tried to get the Middletown community involved in deciding.  It’s about being able to facilitate dinners and themes that emerge from the community.”

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The first potluck was called “The Middletown Experience. Second was an acoustic jam and poetry slam with spoken word and songs, third was about Middletown history, and the fourth centered around Middletown stories. Halloween 2013 the group held a gathering at Green Street Arts Center geared toward children and most recently they held a potluck/ community forum about homelessness.

The idea of a homelessness theme was a suggestion from a community member at one of the earlier potlucks. That night began with a big meal for everyone and afterwards the tables were pulled back to facilitate a larger group conversation. Yael elaborated saying, “The aim of that discussion was to get a focus from people who had experience being homeless and their direct needs. So there were a bunch of direct needs thrown out, some which were more feasible to do than others… One of the things that people were talking about was the fact that private property is often stolen, destroyed or taken by the police and there should be something done directly about that. Which is where the idea for the lockers came up. So Lydia, the women who works in, or runs, St. Vincent de Paul (food pantry) is working with the coalition on homelessness in Middletown to figure out where we are going to put them and get it through the city council.”

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The group has put on a various fundraisers in order to raise the $3,000 necessary to buy the materials for the lockers.  They are getting increasingly close to their goal through their indegogo campaign, multiple bake sales, super bowl nacho sale and even a polyamorous, anti-capitalist Westco Valentine’s day lovefest. One striking feature of their fundraisers is the minimized emphasis on raising as much money as quickly as possible, a typical fundraising goal. Instead, this group has a goal of raising awareness and allowing people to give what they can. For their bake sales Yael explained that even if you only gave a quarter you could still take a baked good.  Ari chimed in that you could take one even if you gave nothing. Both emphasized the group’s importance of giving from the consciousness of the heart. Ari then added, “The end of having lockers in Middletown, while I think will in some way improve the quality of life for a totally disenfranchised and systematically invisibilized population, what, to me, is cooler about this is the process is trying to respond to community needs, seeing how you can be helpful. And that is why we hold a high volume of events. We could have just done the internet fundraiser….but ‘s not just about getting the money and running, it’s about consciouizing people to this issue and making them think about how it is happening so close to where we are students.”

Along this subject Yael emphasized Wesleyan’s need to “reevaluate the way we look at service on this campus. A lot of the way we look at community service is coming down to help.” For example,” Ari explained, “it is a policy of Wesleyan University that our community service vans are only accessible for wesleyan students.  We have tried in the past to get community service vans to go pick up people from the Eddy shelter to bring them to our potluck, when they weren’t booked. But the policy is that isn’t ok.” Yael went on to say, “there’s the idea that community service done by Wesleyan is for Wesleyan students to be able to give. It is not thinking about what the systematic roots of these things are or what the actual effects your work is having. I think this group tries to be intentional about that and it is something we grapple with.”

For now, the group is continuing to bridge the gap between Wesleyan students and the wider Middletown community.  The potluck tonight is themed “Music for a Social Movement” and will be held in 200 church from 6-8 o’clock. After food has been eaten some protest songs will be learned and shared. The facebook page states the event is in memory of Pete Seeger.  While this upcoming potluck might have some goals that are a bit less lofty than the homelessness forum, Yael reminds us,”Getting together to eat a meal, while that might feel very simple, is actually a very important act that can be very empowering for everyone involved.”

When I asked what the group needs most at the moment the Ari and Yael agreed it was committed new members to help with the responsibilities that are currently being taken on by the small group. The group is run very by “people stepping up to take the responsibilities that they feel capable of,” says Ari, but, “there are so many different access points of how you can get involved.  Even people who just show up to the potluck, which is a totally fine thing to do.”  After all, Haenah Kwon ’17 gave me the inside scoop that Middletown Potluck is really just “an overflowing of love and lentils”.

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