Barriers and Bridges: The Lawrence Masks Project

May 28th, 2021 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, Spring 2021
Jackie Schierembergg is a community organizer and advocate in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Well on her way to becoming a “Bread Lifer,” she was a student writer in Andover Bread Loaf’s programs for youth. She followed her passions to become a Writing Leader as well as a member of the BLTN Next Generation Leadership Network’s Youth Advisory Board. This year, she is Director of Health Initiatives for the Andover Bread Loaf – BLTN NextGen Alliance. Jackie graduated in 2020 from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a degree in Public Health.

Jonathan, a second grader, approached the laptop where he could talk to me. He introduced himself and was excited to show me his red mask decorated with stickers. “This is my mask. I wrote my mom’s name on it because I am going to give it to her. But I heard my parents say they don’t like wearing masks.” That was Jonathan’s introduction to his written piece. He smiled at the camera and proceeded to hold his paper over his face as he read, “I wear my mask for my grandma, my little brother, and my friends. Without my mask, everyone would get sick, and I do not want that.” I snapped my fingers in appreciation on one side of the computer screen and Jonathan’s peers joined in from their side of the screen. Over the next several minutes, I heard many pieces like Jonathan’s, each accompanied by proud smiles and interested friends.

When I began hosting virtual workshops, I did not know what to expect. I was accustomed to being interactive with our participants and talking to them in-person. Now, a computer screen was the barrier between us. Every workshop ended with me staring at the kids leaving the Zoom room until I was the only face on the screen. I would think, “I hope this has some impact on them.” For a quick second, I doubted myself and The Masks Project. This virtual project was new and intimidating to me. But hearing Jonathan and his friends read their pieces made those concerns disappear. 

As workshops continued, Karen Kravchuk, the Director of Education for the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, would tell me about club members who constantly wore their decorated masks from the workshops. Recently, we adjusted a poster-making workshop into a mask-decorating workshop. This allowed our returning participants to make more masks for the adults in their lives. Our youth wanted to influence the adults in their lives. This is when it all clicked. I began to see our mission coming to life.

What follows is a short account of how The Masks Project came to be. 

New Beginnings in a Pandemic

I began my position as Director of Health Initiatives at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This position was created to help various BLTN NextGen (NextGen) and Andover Bread Loaf (ABL) sites focus on their community health issues. The pandemic put a halt to our normal work routines. There would be no traveling. There would be no helping other sites without helping Lawrence first. I was a recent college grad and had to begin my first job working from home. There was no class that could have prepared me for that. While developing a new project, I faced the difficulties of maintaining virtual communication, looking for resources, and assuring program sustainability. Even with many forces pushing against me, I was able to develop and launch The Masks Project, expand our partnerships, learn how to properly utilize community resources, and continue impacting my communities.

The Masks Project: Planning Our Focus

With the pandemic raging, we decided to give it our focus. The health initiative team was created with the help of Next Gen Lawrence site representatives and ABL Writing Leaders, Faith Omosefe and Gladdys Jiminian.

A youth-led health initiative was something Lawrence needed. And with Lawrence quickly becoming a “high-risk” city for positive Covid cases, Dixie Goswami gave us the idea of “The Masks Project”, a project where youth would become “health influencers”.

This made sense; Lawrence residents weren’t wearing masks, barely social-distanced, and often held large gatherings during the quarantine period. To start off, The Masks Project team decided to distribute masks and flyers. We met twice a month where we would share information on how to develop a program plan, discuss program goals, workshops, materials, search for mask sources, and develop a budget.

Outside of team meetings, I would reach out to Lawrence public health officials, the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, and other ABL partners. I received help from the Covid-19 Team of Lawrence to locate the number of Covid cases. Those numbers were used in a written report to support the need of The Masks Project in Lawrence. Since I would log into every ABL Lawrence Collective meeting, I was able to pitch The Masks Project workshops to various groups and programs in hopes that they were interested. We were ready for a group who would allow us to turn our ideas into a formal workshop curriculum for that particular group.

Distanced Program Planning

Materials and Budgeting

Once we decided we would be distributing masks, more questions arose: Where could we get masks? How much would they cost? How could we safely get the masks delivered to us? My only experience budgeting for a program was through classes and mock scenarios. This time, I was putting together numbers for actual funds. As part of a non-profit organization, I felt the need to be careful with funds, especially when we had a short time to make decisions and our ideas were more expensive than what we could afford. Before Write to Change provided a grant to The Masks Project, we thought about ABL’s possible contribution and brainstormed fundraising ideas. Even after receiving financial support, the team would continue to think of fundraising tactics that we could fall back on if ever needed.

While looking for masks, we initially wanted to order disposable ones but there were some factors we had to think about. At the time, there was a fear of receiving packages due to news accounts of Covid-19 virus remaining on the surfaces of packages. This led us to keep it green and local. We opted for reusable cloth masks. After looking at various local businesses, we came across Lavish Co, a local Latina-owned business that sold handmade cloth masks. This way, we could support a local business and avoid the fear of possibly contaminated packages. But, this wouldn’t be the only obstacle The Masks Project team had to overcome.

Pros and Cons of Virtual Learning

Not only did we have to think about how our participants would be able to virtually interact, but we had to consider how our youth leaders would be able to maintain running workshops while experiencing their own demanding virtual learning in school.

When we launched The Masks Project, Faith and Gladdys would join the workshops, but as the school year went on, their workload also increased. This raised the issue of how much work the rest of my team could take on. With a hiring hold in place at Phillips Academy, ABL’s veteran writing leaders were able to take on multiple projects. Faith and Gladdys balanced school, ABL programming, The Masks Project, participating in the Next Gen Youth Advisory Board, and their personal lives.

Although they were willing to plan workshops with me, sometimes they would not be able to make them and planning meetings became difficult. Formal meetings were not sustainable. Instead, we relied on text messages and sharing Google Docs with one another. Not only was virtual schooling affecting ABL and The Masks Project participants, but it began to affect my team. When we did find time to meet over Zoom, I always did a wellness check with Faith and Gladdys. Without these check-ins, I wouldn’t be able to sympathize with them and fairly distribute their workload. There was also a month where I would be the only one to lead workshops due to their extremely packed schedules.

This constant balancing within The Masks Project team has been vital. We are all able to recognize and respect each other’s workload. The pandemic has tested how far we can stretch ourselves within our responsibilities. My hope is to expand ABL/ NextGen’s Health Initiative team by having more youth participate. Once this pandemic subsides and we arrive at some kind of new normal, I am certain that we can offer this opportunity to many more Lawrence and NextGen youth.

The Covid Flyer

The Inspiration

While we were planning, Dixie continuously sent us emails with headlines, quotes from health professionals, and she even sent us a handmade poster. In this poster, she took images of the ABL summer program and hand-drew masks on everyone. This sparked an idea for a Covid flyer. I began to research various businesses that could help us create graphics. This led me to teach myself how to use programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. With these tools, I made a mock version of Dixie’s original poster by photoshopping masks onto the same images she used. After meeting with The Masks Project team again, we came up with the idea of a Covid “Do’s and Don’ts” flyer to distribute to our future workshops.

Click for larger image.

Lawrence Public Schools: Printing and Distribution

The flyer was created in English and Spanish. It was originally distributed to our workshop participants and local ABL partners, such as El Taller Café and Bookstore, where they posted it on the front door of their business. After a couple of months, ABL Associate Director, Rich Gorham, asked if it was okay to show the flyer to a Lawrence Public School (LPS) partner who was responsible for poster distribution. With some edits, we were able to go through the LPS administration and get the flyer approved. ABL was able to print out a few hundred copies to be distributed at the mobile market that happened once a month at the Lawrence High School. LPS also sent the flyer electronically to students and parents before the holiday season. Recently, LPS asked to reprint the flyers for their students. This time, they are in charge of printing and redistribution.


Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence

The Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence was the first program to respond to The Masks Project. At the time, they had just been approved to become a remote learning center. Approval made the BGCL a perfect place to host The Masks Project workshops. Our team thought it would be a good idea to target young kids first. When you start habits young, kids tend to keep those habits when they get older and even pass them onto family members.

Our work at the BGCL allowed us to articulate our initial mission for The Masks Project: “A youth-led health initiative focused on influencing others to wear masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

With BGCL as a willing partner, we began to plan for virtual workshops with the Slice program, an ABL feeder program for elementary children. Meetings consisted of planning ABL-style workshops combined with the public health aspect of distributing simple information on why wearing a mask and healthy habits are important. When we presented our ideas to Dixie, she reminded us of the power of literacy,  and advised us to focus more on the kids’ stories than on disseminating information.

We launched the first Masks Project workshop with BGCL in October 2020. We focused on prompts such as, “I wear my mask because…”, “My mask feels like…”, and “What does your mask tell you?”. Once virtual workshops began, it was an easy transition since all of us had experienced ABL programming over Zoom. BGCL kids–ranging in age from 6 to 11 years old– were engaged in the material and wrote or drew pieces that were both adorable and moving. Many of the participants understood the severity of the pandemic and expressed their concerns in the work they created. When the masks were delivered, our workshops transitioned into mask decorating workshops. We distributed masks, the Covid “Do’s and Don’ts” flyer, and a health goodie bag that contained stickers and hand sanitizer. The workshops were held for 50 minutes, with 20 minutes for writing, 20 minutes for mask decorating, and 10 minutes for sharing pieces and masks. Most of the time, the workshops would go over time, and the kids would ask for more decorating/ writing time.

Images from Masks Project workshops at the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, Massachusetts

BLTN NextGen National Cross-Site Sharing

With BGCL as our strongest partnership, we knew we had to share The Masks Project with the NextGen community. BLTN NextGen director, Tom McKenna reached out to Faith, Gladdys, and me about sharing an update on The Masks Project to the rest of the NextGen sites. In January 2021, we were provided the opportunity to present in a NextGen Cross-Site virtual event. Within this event, there were six national sites present: Aiken, Louisville, Atlanta, Vermont, La Casa Roja (Navajo Nation), and Santa Fe Indian School. With approximately 40 participants, The Masks Project team shared our workshops and led a discussion on the Covid pandemic. I presented a Masks Project update on the partnership with the BGCL, the workshop format, and the distribution of the Covid flyers within Lawrence. Faith and Gladdys hosted the writing portion with prompts “What does my mask symbolize?” and “My mask, my barrier, my bridge”. At the end of this event, we hosted a question- and-answer session. Conversations focused on how other sites can adopt this project, how to talk to people who are anti-mask, and the health models that inspired the structure of The Masks Project.

The Masks Project PSA Series

There came a time where we were close to running out of masks. How would we continue the project’s momentum?

With virtual learning affecting my youth leaders, I felt a need to create a new aspect of the project that would not fall solely on the shoulders of Faith and Gladdys. How would we continue spreading this project if not through mask distribution? In the long run, a mask decorating workshop would not be sustainable for the various populations we were trying to reach in Lawrence. Thus, the idea for The Masks Project Public Service Announcement was born. How else to show the impact of this project but in a 2-minute video?

We weren’t sure if we should focus on health information or not. With an increase of flyers, PSAs, and commercials being released everywhere, The Masks Project team decided to use the power of writing and arts within our community. After having worked with young children, we wanted to work our way up to an older crowd. I reached out to all the ABL Writing Leaders in December 2020 asking for them to submit images of themselves or pieces of art explaining why they wear masks. Due to the holidays and vacation, I did not receive any response. It was not until mid-January when I was contacted by Amaryllis Lopez, the program director of Elevated Thought that I heard from them. She had pitched this idea to her team, and they were interested in creating art for our Masks Project PSA. I continued to reach out to other Writing Leaders who then became interested in submitting images. From February to March, I received submissions, met with Faith and Gladdys about their PSA visions, filmed Faith’s piece of the PSA, hosted more BGCL workshops for another PSA, worked alongside our editor, and focused on other ABL related tasks.

This PSA was released on April 3rd, 2021 during ABL’s Spring Writers’ Conference. There were 50 participants who viewed our PSA for the first time. Our PSA, or Public Service Poem as some have called it, is titled, “16”. This piece was written and performed by Faith Omosefe. This video is the beginning of a Masks Project video series where we will focus on life experiences during the pandemic.

Current Projects

Since The Masks Project PSA release, we have updated The Masks Project mission to, “A youth- led health initiative focused on developing youth into health influencers for their families and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Our most recent project is related to our second PSA in the series. It is in collaboration with the BGCL. They expressed an interest in continuing the Masks Project workshops with their elementary- age students. Gladdys, Faith, and I focused on an idea that Dixie and Tom had mentioned: posters answering why kids wore masks. Our new workshops focused on poster designing. With signs that read “I wear a mask because…”, stickers, markers, and the kids’ imaginations, participants were able to create various posters. These posters featured hand drawn images of the COVID-19 virus, cartoons about mask- wearing, and poems answering the prompt. Currently, the team is working on getting materials together and filming our youth leader, Gladdys.

Aside from the PSAs, The Masks Project team is focused on a large goal in 2021: expansion. With the Covid pandemic not disappearing anytime soon, masks also won’t disappear. Now, the team is working with ABL’s Network Coordinator, Yaneris Collado, to reach out to various Lawrence programs. So far we have had a workshop with “Si, Se Puede”, a program located in the Merrimack Courts Housing Projects that works with youth who reside there. We are also in communication with GroundWork Lawrence, an environmental program that focuses their work with Lawrence teens. These developing partnerships are the beginning of The Masks Project expansion. Masks will continue to be present and the need for this project will become larger.

The memory of Jonathan reading his piece and the way he flaunted his mask is what keeps me motivated. He is one of dozens of kids who were energized by the power of their creativity and their community. Although computer screens were a constant barrier, The Masks Project is one of many bridges being built as young people like Jonathan realize the power of their voices. 

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