Splinter, “The Grassroots Movement to Transform Our Broken Disaster Relief System”

It would have been a beautiful autumn day in Oakland, if not for the haze. Standing in a parking lot next to the iconic Lake Merritt, the smoke hung over everything, turning the sky a bluish beige and blurring anything more than a few hundred yards away.

A few volunteers and reporters milled about in the lot. We were there to see a 26-foot truck deliver 50,000 N95 particulate masks from Southern California to the organization Mask Oakland, a collective started by two people to address the toxic smoke in the East Bay that resulted from the fires in Sonoma County last October.

“There were just so many people outside walking through visible haze. It was gnarly, you know? You could taste it sometimes,” Mask Oakland co-founder J Redwoods told Splinter on the phone last week, remembering the fallout from the devastating Tubbs Fire last year. Redwoods, who identifies as non-binary, looked around then and saw thousands of homeless people walking around without masks on, breathing the toxic smoke. They went to the store and spent $100 of their own money to buy masks. They began visiting Oakland’s innumerable homeless encampments, handing them out to whoever wanted one. By the time the smoke cleared, Redwoods and local organizer Cassandra Williams, who became Mask Oakland’s other co-founder, ended up using a few hundred dollars in donations they received on Venmo to buy and distribute 4,000 masks.

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