See a problem? Take action. That’s Monica Cannon-Grant’s M.O. Whether it’s getting neighbors acquainted, coordinating anti-racism protests, feeding hungry kids or whatever it takes to chip away at a problem, she’s on it.
And the problems she is focused on can be boiled down into her organization’s name: Violence in Boston. She launched VIB to counter the forces that can lead people to hurt each other—societal forces that are a kind of violence in themselves—and to help people recover and heal from all forms of violence.
“My inspiration is my grandmother,” says Cannon-Grant. “She’s one of the best organizers I know. She was on her Tenants’ Association in Dorchester where we grew up, and would hold these big cookouts and have the city councilors come. That was our opportunity to tell them all the stuff they needed to fix. That was my example. At around 14, my first job was handing out flyers where I lived in Franklin Hill to get people to come to a community event. And I thought, ‘This is fun. I like how this feels.’”
Fast forward to adulthood: She started her antiviolence work about a decade ago after a close call for her son and a summer with 15 shootings on her street. She channeled her grandmother and started hosting block parties herself. “When everyone in the community can get to know each other, you’re less likely to get in trouble because someone will tell your mom or dad.” Organizing the events—doing everything from ordering the food to recruiting volunteers to setting up—reminded her that she liked the feeling of rallying people, and was good at it! She also organized folks to distribute backpacks of school supplies for kids each fall. Then in 2017, through Facebook she posted a call to protest the Charlottesville White supremacists’ planned rally in Boston, and ended up organizing a peaceful march of 45,000 people. That year saw the official launch of VIB, which enables community members to get involved on Social Impact Teams to do something to help, whatever their talents or resources. The teams run programs in areas from legal aid to personal healing and from social media monitoring to material support for families and students. A key program is Back Pack 68, which goes into schools on Fridays and provides kids with food for the 68 hours away from school.
With her knowledge of widespread food insecurity, she got worried when she heard the Mayor talk about closing the Boston Public Schools as COVID-19 arrived in force. “Already more than 5,000 kids were hungry and homeless and struggling,” she says, “so I asked a friend—want to help me feed BPS students?” They started just before the shutdown and served around 200 kids in a week. The Monday that schools closed, they served 900 people in a day. And it kept going. Soon new COVID restrictions meant they had to do the entire operation via door-to-door delivery. “That was a blow,” she recalls, “but 25 BPS teachers jumped in as volunteer drivers. We had 10 people in a restaurant kitchen, including cooks and volunteers bagging. A total stranger shared an app that lets you plug in addresses and then creates neighborhood routes so we could deliver the food like a well-oiled machine. We did it day in and day out. After 15 weeks of that,” Cannon-Grant reports, “we’d fed 80,000 people from Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain. It was the most amazing experience ever.”
She wasn’t the only one to think so. The team was featured (alongside Kareem Abdul Jabbar, no less) on BET in a show called Saving Ourselves, highlighting people taking care of their communities during the pandemic. It garnered front page attention from the Boston Globe twice. And Cannon-Grant was honored by Boston magazine as social justice advocate of the year.
Violence in Boston also received $25,000 in funding in the first round of grants from the Boston Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund. That enabled the team to step up the work assisting the community. They provided lunch and dinner every Monday through Friday in communities of color, and for those who wanted to cook their own food VIB delivered care packages with grocery basics to make meals that would last, along with face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, which were hard to come by. Cannon-Grant says that beyond supplying food, the team was also able to provide financial assistance to people behind on rent or utilities, and gave gift cards to their volunteers, many of whom were struggling themselves.
A nationwide eviction moratorium would be welcome, but Cannon-Grant doesn’t hold her breath for other types of federal assistance, expressing frustration with its failure to “trickle down to the people who need it most,” but also expressing satisfaction in the resultant empowerment of community: “Us saving ourselves, so to speak, where it’s direct service, it’s a familiar face. We know where the disparities are, because it’s the community we live in. That makes it easier to reach people to help them because you know exactly where the struggle is.”
Grassroots fundraising is how the team started this movement initially. Cannon-Grant recalls, “Before we got any grant support, those first 15 weeks, I was literally getting on Facebook every night, begging people, ‘Please, guys, we need to go to Restaurant Depot in the morning, and it costs $3,500 per day to feed X amount of people. Can you help?’ And every morning I woke up, we had $3,500. Amazing.” Local support is essential. Cannon-Grant encourages any motivated donor to consider giving multiyear funding to organizations like hers, so they don’t have to chase money while they service the community: “We can just wholeheartedly do this work, help people and get them out of the predicaments they’re in.” And if you’re a community member, she says, “Just find somewhere to plug in and show up because this pandemic and what we’re seeing happening across this country is our [generation’s] civil rights movement. And, you know, we have to show up for each other in a real way right now.”