Local Women, Community Members Join Forces for Library's "Empathy and Equity" Box
Above: Jessica Lee-Cullin shows the array of donated goods on the shelves of the E2 box outside the East Lansing Public Library.
Jessica Lee-Cullin saw a hunger for something other than knowledge at East Lansing Public Library.
As the teen librarian, Lee-Cullin overheard that some of her adolescent and young adult patrons hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch, and didn't have the means to buy or prepare it for themselves. Paying close attention, she heard about high schoolers who needed not just food, but personal hygiene products and school supplies, too.
"The need surprised me a bit," says Lee-Cullin, a Chicago-land native. "But it's something I've seen in a lot of communities. The reputation of an area might be more affluent than all of the members of that community."
Lee-Cullin took matters into her own hands starting in 2015. She bought a plastic supply bin and put it in the library's teen room. Every week, she filled the bin with things like soup, Chef Boyardee and Pop-Tarts. Every week, things disappeared. Soon, library patrons got involved and started putting things in the bin, too.
As the cycle continued, Lee-Cullin began exploring additional ways to dispense needed items. She arrived at an idea for an anonymous, accessible pantry that could be placed outside the library door. In late 2016, she presented the concept at the Michigan Library Association's Library SOUP—a fundraising event that empowers local residents to financially support neighborhood projects. Her idea was awarded $630 and people stepped forward, offering to help.
Within months, library patrons, city departments, MSU sororities, and supporters had built, painted and stocked the small, free-standing pantry for anyone needing food, school supplies, personal care items or crisis intervention information. And on October 13, 2017, the box debuted, situated for discreet access near the library's front door.
"There's a good and bad to this kind of thing," says Lee-Cullin. "Ultimately, my hope is that the need goes away. But the idea that this effort is so appreciated speaks to the sense that people do want to help others in their community. This pantry gives them a way how. It's an entryway to help fill the gaps."
A local zeitgeist
Meanwhile across town, another person was simultaneously doing something similar. In August 2017, Adrianna Flores had launched an initiative to provide personal essentials like tampons, pads and toilet paper to low-income women through a small pantry. She had stationed her "Empathy and Equity Box" near Edgewood Village—a low-income housing complex on the northeastern edge of East Lansing.
"It was all serendipitous," says Flores, a 2009 alumna of East Lansing High School and 2017 graduate of Michigan State University. "Jessica and I didn't even know of each other and didn't even meet until the end of September. It all just came together."
Flores and Lee-Cullin met and agreed to unite behind a single name and movement. In October, the second Empathy and Equity Box—or E2 Box for short—was completed and stationed in a nook near the library's main entrance. A small engraved plaque on the outside of the bright blue and white 5-foot tall structure invites people to "take what they need, leave what you can." Tampons and pads, cereal, dry and canned goods, snacks and school supplies rotate on the shelves, visible through a see-through door.
"It's amazing we were thinking along the same lines at the same time," says Flores. "I'm so happy these boxes exist and hoping they will be at other places, too. On the other hand, I'm sad that the need is even there. But it's good that so many people are saying it's not OK and are addressing the issue."
Among the supporters and contributors to East Lansing's second E2 Box at the East Lansing Public Library are C2AE architects, East Lansing's Department of Parks and Facilities, local engineers Ashley and Ryan Julien, student volunteers from East Lansing High School and the MSU Community Relations Coalition, East Lansing's Department of Public Works, library staff Jason Shoup and Emily Adams, and numerous community and MSU Greek groups. Both the library and Edgewood Village boxes are supported through Helping Women Period—a Lansing-based all-volunteer nonprofit that supplies homeless and at-risk women with hygiene products. Volunteers, donations and financial support is ongoing for both E2 Boxes. Contact Jessica Lee-Cullin at East Lansing Public Library here or Adriana Flores here for details on how you can contribute to the cause.
A condensed version of this article will appear in Capital Gains and is used with permission.