Boo Torres and family

4. Solidarity not Charity, with Boo Torres

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Today’s episode is about one busy family and the food drop-offs they are doing for over 100 people. One of the tenets of mutual aid is that it is grounded in solidarity, not charity. When you hear Boo Torres talk about what she’s up to, you can feel the embodiment of what Edward Galeano calls the “horizontal respect of solidarity” versus the top-down relationship of charity. Boo shares practical advice about how she convinced her friends to receive help, and about how she parents and grandparents toward values of collective care and mutual aid. 

Boo is a queer Chamorro mother of five and grandmother of two, living in Skyway, Washington. She is a union electrician and the owner and operator of Tribal Electric LLC.

Episode Transcript

Becka Tilsen:
Hello everyone and welcome. You are listening to Dispatches: Conversations about getting through the COVID crisis with community care, mutual aid, and personal and collective resilience. Today’s episode is about one busy family and how they are doing food and supply drop-offs that make a difference for over a hundred people.

Becka Tilsen:
So, one of the tenants of mutual aid is that it is grounded in solidarity and not charity. And that difference can feel theoretical sometimes, but I think when you hear Boo Torres talk about what her and her family are up to, you can feel the embodiment of what Edward Galeano calls the horizontal respect of solidarity versus the top down relationship of charity. Boo and her partner Joanne are incredible doers and builders, both literally and figuratively. They make stuff happen in a house with a big family. One of them has a business to run, the other is the executive director of an organization, and they are out being generous and connected.

Becka Tilsen:
So, I heard through the grapevine that, in addition to all they are usually doing and holding, they are making massive food runs for lots of people and I wanted to find out how they were figuring this out. So, Boo got on the phone with me and talked to me about it in the midst of kids and grandkids running in and out of the house, which you’ll hear in the opening of the conversation. You’ll hear from Boo Torres and her daughter, Amber. Boo is a queer, Chamorro, mother-of-five, grandmother of two, living in Skyway, Washington. She is a union electrician and the owner and operator of Tribal Electric LLC.

Becka Tilsen:
I love this conversation because it is so satisfying to me to get down to brass tacks, and Boo shares some practical advice and wisdom about how she convinced her people to receive help, about how she thinks about fortifying her team so they can be of service to others, about how she parents and grandparents towards values of collective care and mutual aid.

Becka Tilsen:
And I’m your host, Becka Tilsen. I’m an organizer and a movement baby, and a somatics practitioner, and a mother living in Duwamish territory, otherwise known as Seattle. We started this podcast in the tradition of our community-organizing ancestors who taught us that we need each other and we have each other, and that even in these unprecedented times, we collectively do have what it takes to meet this moment. Creativity, love and grit.

Boo Torres:
It’s time to go outside loves.

Speaker 3:
Why?

Boo Torres:
I’m going to talk to my friend. Okay? I’m sorry, Becka, I don’t know your pronouns.

Becka Tilsen:
Oh yeah. That’s okay. She and her. Yours is what?

Boo Torres:
She and her.

Becka Tilsen:
She and her, okay great. No problem to have kiddos. This is supposed to be in the middle of our real life, not a break from real life.

Boo Torres:
My name is Boo Torres. I live in a small house in Skyway with my wife Joanna Alcantara, my three of five children, Amber, [inaudible 00:02:53], her son, Jonah, and my other two kids, Knuckles and Mango.

Becka Tilsen:
So, we’ve known each other for many years, but I don’t know lots about what you’re doing in the world. But I heard that you were dropping off food and I’d love to just hear about that. I want to know anything you want to tell me about how this COVID crisis is impacting your life.

Boo Torres:
Sure. Well, I’m an owner of a small business. My wife and I own Tribal Electric. A few weeks ago, we pulled the plug on our business sooner than a lot of people did, so this is actually our third week of no work. And when we knew what was going on, I didn’t have a clear sense of how to keep my [inaudible 00:03:36] safe as well as myself, so I just had to pull the plug. We decided that we were going to encourage our close circles to self-quarantine and we can’t just say that without offering help. So we have done the big grocery shops. We were those people that took 10 cans of Spam off the shelves, but then we delivered it to the people that we knew were-

Speaker 3:
Mama.

Boo Torres:
Hold on just a second.

Speaker 3:
Can I get a [inaudible 00:04:11]?

Boo Torres:
Why don’t you get an apple, my love? Okay? And then we’ll talk about it in just a minute. Okay?

Becka Tilsen:
Is that a six year old?

Boo Torres:
She’s five. And then my grandson is four and then my son is three. I have one other grandson but he doesn’t live with me, and two other older daughters that don’t live with me.

Boo Torres:
Okay. So anyways, there are people in our circles who are immune-compromised, who are elders, and we wanted to support them in wellness. So what we would do is, me and Joanne have this system of going to the grocery store, knowing what people need. We’ve got them to submit to giving us lists, because what we started doing was everyone denied help and we just left food at their door.

Becka Tilsen:
That’s interesting. So you asked people if they wanted to help and then they said no, and then you said BS? Okay. This is a very important piece of the puzzle I think, because I think a lot of people do that.

Boo Torres:
Yeah.

Becka Tilsen:
It’s really hard to accept help.

Boo Torres:
It is really hard, especially when we’re in circles of really good people who also want to help.

Becka Tilsen:
Sure.

Boo Torres:
But if they don’t have the ability to do it… Like Joe and I are in this privileged position where there are two of us in a house who are capable of helping. So one of us can stay at home and take care of the kids and the other one can go out and take care of our community. There are people who don’t have two well grownups who can do that.

Becka Tilsen:
Yes.

Boo Torres:
And we’re both young and we’re healthy, and we’re also really mindful about the social distancing and all that stuff. We take it really seriously because we understand.

Becka Tilsen:
So you’re helping them not have to leave the house and not spread?

Boo Torres:
Yeah, that’s the goal. I think one of the things that was super helpful for me and that in the beginning started to turn me around as far as how I live my day, we’re not supposed to be going out thinking, “COVID-19 is out there and I have to protect myself from it.” We should be thinking about it like, “I might have COVID-19 and my responsibility is not to spread it.”

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah.

Boo Torres:
And because we don’t have symptoms for a while, and then my body could take it fine, but then could kill somebody right next to me. That’s horrible.

Becka Tilsen:
Yes.

Boo Torres:
That freaks me out. So before this whole thing came out, I had a cough that I couldn’t get rid of. I didn’t have any other symptoms. I just had a horrible cough. Never had a fever. Anyways, when that was happening, Joe was like, “I need you to lay in bed all day and just get better because I need you. If we’re going to help our community I need you to be solid.” By taking care of myself, I can take care of more people.

Boo Torres:
That’s what might be helpful for folks who don’t want to receive help. They understand that it’s temporary. You get your household solid so that you can go and help other people. And so what happened was when we were trying to ask people, “Can we drop food off?” “We’re fine.” We would start leaving food at their door and then driving away and then calling them saying, “We left you something.” And then we did that a couple of times and then we’re like, “Can you just give me a list of what you’d like to eat? Tell me what you want and we’ll go shopping for it.” And that’s how it’s worked out. So now folks are giving us lists of things that are important to them.

Becka Tilsen:
So you have all these folks that you just made them take your food. And that really did like… It sounded like it melted something. Like, I can imagine that if you dropped off food at my house, or if anybody in my life did, that part of me that wanted to say, “No, I don’t need it,” if I was sick or if I couldn’t leave, would go, “Oh geez, if you’re going to go do it anyway, I might as well give you the list of the things I actually want.”

Boo Torres:
Yeah.

Becka Tilsen:
Okay. So how many people, families do you have in your rotation, or have you done drop-offs? How many places have you dropped off?

Boo Torres:
Six. Six regulars every week.

Becka Tilsen:
Wow. Every week?

Boo Torres:
Yeah.

Becka Tilsen:
Amazing.

Boo Torres:
We also have a [tent city 00:00:08:44] in our neighborhood, so they were kind enough to give us a list of things that is helpful for them. My daughter, she… We would take all of the kids with us to do the food drop-offs. The kids are strapped in the car, they’d never get out and all the food is in a separate part of the van. But I think it’s important for our kids to see this and to be part of it so it’s not so foreign to them.

Becka Tilsen:
What do you want them to see, feel, believe and carry with them into adulthood? How do you want them to talk about this time and just in general what they’ve learned through their parents and their grandparents?

Boo Torres:
I think that we, before the pandemic, we laid a pretty good foundation with them, always talking about how people are important and all people. So, workers are a big deal in our family and every time we go to a restaurant I asked them, “Can you spot how many workers there are? Let’s count the workers.” And, “Look, there’s a worker over here taking money and here’s a work over here making the food. The worker over here is cleaning a table for us.” Workers are huge because we’re ingraining in them to notice workers and to respect workers. One, because they will also be workers. Two, a safety thing. A lot of people want to say, “If you’re lost, find a cop.” And that’s not safe.

Becka Tilsen:
No, not for everyone.

Boo Torres:
Yeah. Not for everybody, but you can always spot a worker. So now what they know about this pandemic is that there a lot of people getting sick and a lot of people who are dying, and that’s what they know about the virus. They also know about death. We’re not shy about talking to them about death. They’ve had death in the family, already had a dog that died, another grandma’s died. We talked to them about, and this is part of my culture, when people die they become [foreign language 00:10:43]. And that’s, in my language, it’s literally people from the past, and they just become spirits to help guide us now. So anytime they miss their dog, Luna, they know that Luna’s in their heart, they look up at the moon and they say, “Luna, Luna.” Or if there’s a beautiful butterfly flying around they’re excited that it’s their dog-

Boo Torres:
Oh, sweet.

Becka Tilsen:
… Wanting to play with them again. So they’re getting these little lessons about life and people and connection. They watch us drop off the food and while we were doing that, Amber, our older daughter, she says, “Mom, can I go grocery shopping? And buy some stuff for tent city?” “Yeah, you can.” And 50 bucks is a lot for her. She doesn’t have a lot of money. She spent 50 bucks, bought all this food and we dropped it off at the tent city.

Boo Torres:
And what do you bring to tent cities? Every tent city is different. So the one that I am going to, what they have specifically asked for was generators. Other things is the sanitation stuff that everybody needs and nobody can get. There’s water, hand sanitizer, soap… Is everything okay?

Speaker 4:
No.

Boo Torres:
Yeah?

Speaker 4:
My ankle. So, I was climbing. Can I show you what I was doing?

Boo Torres:
Excuse me.

Speaker 4:
[Inaudible 00:12:14] outside and he’s not listening to me.

Boo Torres:
Okay. How about everybody go outside for 10 more minutes? And then I’m going to make you guys a snack. He’s cute, right?

Becka Tilsen:
Oh my God.

Boo Torres:
Yeah. I feel like everybody’s story and ability is different, but I don’t feel like I could be sustainable like this if I didn’t have a team. A team inside the house, because we need to keep this place running and keep us safe. Of course our main priority is our close family or [inaudible 00:12:49] family friends. I feel like we’re at a good place right now where we’re sustainable and we can help out a little bit more. I put on my website and how Tribal Electric is hanging up our tool belt so that we can do this other stuff. And if somebody needs help they can contact me and if I can’t help them personally I can give them resources. My daughter just came home right now who bought some food for the tent city, if you want to talk with her also?

Becka Tilsen:
Sure.

Boo Torres:
Wash your hands, and do want to be part of an interview?

Amber:
Yeah.

Boo Torres:
This is my first daughter, Amber.

Becka Tilsen:
Hi Amber, really good to meet you. I’m Becka.

Amber:
Hi.

Becka Tilsen:
Can you tell me about going to tent cities? How you figured it out? What is it like?

Amber:
Well, one of the things I was thinking about doing for the next tent city run was to get hygiene [inaudible 00:13:46]. I don’t think a lot of females get like tampons because I don’t think a lot of people think of that. I think people are more focused on food and everything, which is great. But I don’t think a lot of people focus on like maybe getting diapers or like getting tampons because you don’t really think about those kinds of things.

Becka Tilsen:
So you’ve been going on these trips and then you decided to do your own trip?

Amber:
Yeah, I decided to do my own trip because I wanted to help out. I don’t know, at my work like when the virus was going on, a lot of people had said that they think that the homeless community has contributed a lot to this, and I don’t think that’s really necessarily true.

Becka Tilsen:
Well, there’s certainly a lot of people that have wealth and power that have the virus, so.

Amber:
Yeah.

Becka Tilsen:
Part of the goal of this is to make these kinds of mutual aid efforts more accessible to people, like they feel like they can pick them up and do them. And so I’m wondering if you have any thoughts for people about both sides of it? About what it takes to let in help and what it takes to figure out how to offer and extend and even insist?

Boo Torres:
What I think might be helpful for people who want to start out also is for them to know that it doesn’t have to be like once a week. It can be a one-time drop off. If you have 20 bucks in your pocket and you wanted something to help, you can go and buy the things that they need to drop it off and call it a day. Like, it doesn’t have to be a commitment.

Boo Torres:
The idea is if I do a little bit and you can do a little bit and you can do a little bit and then not one person has to do everything. That’s how we sustain this. This is how we help each other. That’s how we’re there for each other as a community. And I think what’s great about what you’re doing is that, like I said, if I just do one drop off and somebody hears about it, it might inspire them to go and do one of their own. If everybody just does one.

Becka Tilsen:
Yes.

Boo Torres:
It’s not about like getting recognition or a pat on my back. I don’t need none of that. But if somebody can say, “Oh, well I could do that,” then that’s what’s worth it.

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah. Nice.

Boo Torres:
One time, one time.

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah.

Boo Torres:
Everybody does one time.

Becka Tilsen:
Thank you everyone for tuning into Dispatches.

Becka Tilsen:
So I want to tell you that the day after this interview, Boo sent me a message that just said, “Hey, doing a drop-off. Need anything today?” For those of you who might be looking for a practice to come out of today’s episode. Maybe make a new offer this week or make a new ask or both, or notice an offer or an ask that was easy to dismiss, but you might pick it up and answer it.

Becka Tilsen:
I want to dedicate today’s episode to Wallace Roney, jazz trumpet player and protege of Miles Davis who died in March of complications related to COVID. Rest in power, Wallace Roney. And if you’re looking for music to play this week, try to play some of his music.

Becka Tilsen:
Dispatches is a Kitchen Dance Party production. Producers are myself, Becka Tilsen, Basil Shadid, and Molly Tilsen. Today’s episode was edited by the fabulous Jill Irene Freidberg. Many thanks to all of our friends and supporters. If you like what we’re up to at Dispatches, please rate and review us. Please tell your friends about us, and if you have an idea for a person we should talk to or a story we should tell, please get at us on our website. Until next time, remember that we need each other and we have each other.

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