Part 3: Who’s Not in the Network

Ray Doeksen is a veteran of the Iraq War, and a member of American Legion and the VFW in Chicago. His background is industrial design yet Ray’s superpower is being a connector. In his words, he has “his fingers in everything”, which includes Pumping Station One makerspace and Nation of Makers; he’s on the board of DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab. Ray thinks about reaching out to those who aren’t in the network. He reached out to Jackie Moore because South Side and West Side neighborhoods, predominantly African-American communities, were not represented. He also got local veterans involved in distributing face shields.

 

The South and West Sides

“A friend of mine, a veteran friend of mine, had been doing a fundraiser,” Ray told me. “This was a month before or two months before the pandemic started.” The friend wanted to buy a gravestone, a marker for a guy that died in 1995 during the heatwave in Chicago. “About 750 people died during one five-day period,” Ray said. “They died from heat stroke and heat exhaustion and related.issues and they were almost all minorities from the South and West sides.” People in the well-to-do areas fared well because they connected with friends, had air conditioning and good health care was available for them. “My friend had been hammering on this fundraiser. We were fighting about it because I was telling him that he needed to improve his fundraiser.” That’s Ray, in a nutshell, pushing someone who’s trying to do good to do better and sounding a bit exasperated by it all.

Read more articles about Plan C: What makers are doing to combat Covid-19

Ray caught wind of the documentary called Cooked: Survival By Zip Code, which was about the 1995 heatwave. “it really highlighted the disparity — the healthcare and economic disparity, the racism, and lack of attention given to certain areas of the city.” That heatwave was on his mind when COVID-19 started to spread. “I knew that this was going to be a repeat of 1995, especially if we didn’t start hustling on it right away. The pandemic was bound to kill people unevenly and unfairly in Chicago.”

Case Rate By Zip Code in Chicago. Source: Chicago.gov.

After talking to Jay Margalus about helping organize the Illinois PPE network, Ray told him: “I particularly want to bring in people from the South side and West side.” He added: “They’re all people that we know and they’re friends of ours, but with some people you have to reach out to a little bit more than others.” He reached out to Jackie Moore.

Jacquelyn “Jackie” Moore describes herself as a “community mobilizer” and she is affectionately known as “Robotics Lady.” She organizes a FIRST robotics team and founded America’s first free, public-facing makerspace for teens (LevelUP IRL). She produces the annual South Side Maker Faire. She was named a Chicago Peace Fellow in 2019

 

The Chicago Knights FIRST Robotics Team, which Jackie manages, usually meets at the Idea Realization Lab at DePaul, which Jay manages. They are a community-based FIRST team made up of high school students all across the city. “When the university shut down, we had no place to meet,” she said. “We were already doing a weekly online meeting and the conversation went to what to do now?” In response to COVID-19, the team wanted to 3D print PPE. There was a problem. Jackie was the only one with a 3D printer. So they started sewing masks.

Knowing the team couldn’t meet at DePaul, Jay reached out to ask what they were doing. He offered to work on getting the 3D printers. Jackie said they couldn’t really get enough 3D printers.. “As we tapped into the Illinois PPE network, it was very localized,” said Jackie. “Chicago’s a huge city and they were serving very well just one portion of the city.” Illinois PPE wasn’t serving where she lived, where most African-Americans in Chicago live. “I happen to live in a zip code that has the second highest number of deaths from COVID-19, and it’s symptomatic of a number of things.” The hospitals in her area weren’t being serviced by any nodes and didn’t even know to ask for help getting PPE. “We were overlooked,” said Jackie. Just like the 1995 heat wave, as Ray had been thinking.

Screenshot of Death Rates by Race-Ethnicity in Chicago. Source: Chicago.gov.

“Buddy Checks” for Veterans

“My main emphasis has not been on the veterans, but it’s been there, up until the pandemic hit. I was leaning hard on the veteran community in my own way,” said Ray. “I’ve got my own ax to grind.” In his exasperated tone, he explained how hard it was implementing change in organizations like American Legion and VFW and bring them into the 21st century.

Ray Doeksen

“In the Legion, there’s something called “buddy checks” and you’re supposed to check in on every member every so often,” said Ray. The goal is to do a wellness check on each member, especially those that had not been seen for a while. “And I’ve been in the process of doing that and finding out how frustrating it was.” He was frustrated by getting people to use collaborative tools that he knew to use, such as Google Sheets. “They were veterans but not veterans of Google Docs,” he said. They needed a lot of extra management to use these tools.

For these wellness checks, Ray built a spreadsheet of all 270 members in his American Legion post. “I said, ‘okay, everybody just jump in on it.” He expected them to go in and take ten names each and record that the call was made. It didn’t work that way. Instead, because they wouldn’t go into the spreadsheet, Ray had to divide the list up himself into groups of ten, make a PDF of the sublist and send it by email. “I’d give them some time and then I’d have to check back to see if they contacted their list,” he said.

As he was organizing buddy checks, he learned how hard it was “to prepare for anything if you aren’t prepared for it.” He had also checked the demographics of the veterans. Over half the membership were over 70 and at greater risk than most to COVID-19. “Not only did I know how the pandemic was going to play out statistically,” he said. “I knew that just getting people lined up to do the work was going to be hard.”

What he took away from that experience was there was significant portion of the population who don’t go online and fill out forms telling you that they need something. Something that is obvious and dead simple for most of the people involved in the Illinois PPE network is not even considered an option by others. “In a way, it’s very democratic and very fair, to say come fill out our form and tell us what you need so we can respond,” said Ray. He knew the requests were coming in from the usual places, the privileged parts of Chicago, the, North side, and maybe not from all the hospitals.

With that lesson of organizing Buddy Checks, Ray volunteered to do hospital needs assessment. He wanted to reach out to hospitals and find out what they needed, not depend on them coming to Illinois PPE. “I’m going to do the unpleasant hard work of calling every hospital, identifying their incident commander or head of their ER or somebody in charge of donated PP who can speak for the hospital and have a conversation,” he said. He would ask them: “What do you really need?”

Jackie’s Zip Code

Without 3D printers to make face shields, Jackie arranged to receive 3D printed parts for the face shields.

Jay from DePaul was able to begin getting prints to her. Dan Meyer, who had liberated twenty 3D printers from the Museum of Science and Industry, sent his output to Jackie. Staff from the Adler Planetarium brought home 3D printers and volunteered to produce the part for the South Side as well. Pumping Station One, a community makerspace on the North side, also redirected its output to Jackie. Elizabeth Koprucki of the Polsky Center for Innovation, a makerspace at the University of Chicago on the South Side, had printed 162 face shield components on a Lulzbot Taz5 and provided them to Jackie.

Jackie set up four nodes — two at homes and two at places of business. Each node received 3D printed parts and assembled face shields, sanitized them and then packaged them for delivery.

“I coordinate those four nodes. We’re part of a bigger network but I personally try to see the nodes that are serving the South and the West side.” She recruited others to help her. “I manage the distribution from the sense of finding drivers to do delivery, although most of that was done through Ray. I’m trying to operationalize this.”

Now three of the nodes are making things. When I talked to Jackie, she had three printers in production and three other printers that she was trying to get ready for others to use. She expected more printers to be available but one such offer fell through. DePaul and Pumping Station One have provided filament for her printers.

“One of the reasons we want to borrow 3D printers,” she said “is because I see this as an opportunity to empower community folks to embrace making and stop being afraid of it.”

Finding Out What Hospitals Need: “Hard But Worth Doing”

“What happened originally is that the network was based on personal connections,” said Jackie, “So you can understand why it started in well-off communities. A neighbor who is a doctor goes to his friend and says: ‘I hear you are 3D printing stuff, can I get some for my hospital?’ So that’s how it started.” It’s how Eric Landahl’s mother’s hospital was getting 3D printed PPE or a doctor friend of Jeff Solin could pick up packs of the Solin Shield and bring them to his hospital.

“On the South side though, that wasn’t happening,” said Jackie. Ray Doeksen recognized that the compatible, highly intersecting networks of makers, librarians, doctors and others didn’t have strong connections to the West and South sides, nor to the hospitals serving those areas. As he said the openness of the Internet makes one think it is democratic force, but his work with veterans helped him realize that “not everyone is sitting at a computer with good Internet access and time on their hands.”

Ray began calling the hospitals to find out what they needed. “What are your actual needs?, he would ask and then learn. “Okay. You need a thousand, you need 500, you need 200 a day.” He built up a spreadsheet of 60 hospitals in Cook County alone. I asked him if it was hard to do, and he said: “It is hard but worth doing.”

“The trouble with the hospitals has been that they are organisms, and they’re not monolithic entities,” said Ray, comparing them to a Portuguese man of war that is a collection of symbiotic organisms. “You put a name on it and they do have a name for you –that’s Lutheran General Hospital, but it’s really dozens and dozens of little independent groups shuttling around doing their own thing,” he said. “That’s as it should be. That’s how they function.” Seldom is he talking to just one person and talking to one person doesn’t guarantee that he is able to assess the whole organism’s needs.

Some places have an incident commander that is a good contact, or they’ve got a supply chain person that’s good,, but not all of them. “In those cases, I try to have multiple points of contact and try to balance my assessment of what’s going on.”

Ray sighed and said: “It’s more than one person can do.” He has worked on getting volunteers to help him. That’s not easy, because again, they need to know Google sheets,” he said. “They need to be as persistent as I am about it.”

Ray was feeding information to Jackie about needs for the hospitals in her area. “The response we were mostly getting was: ‘how much can you give me?’” said Jackie. To cut through the back and forth, she began sending them a starter kit of 50 face shields telling them to let her know how long it lasted.

Ray developed some “social engineering hacks” to get information from hospitals who weren’t always willing to cooperate. “You have to call somebody and weasel out of them the information you want, sometimes against their will,” said Ray. “I have to be, be pleasant. I have to match their mood.”

He could ask: ‘Would it be okay if we sent you some PPE?’ Instead, he tries something different: “I say, ‘have you started using our donated face shields yet?’ said Ray of the question he asks. “I put them in the position where they feel bad if they say no. Usually, they respond “gosh, I don’t know why we haven’t started using your face yields if you’ve got face shields.” Instead of saying that he has some handmade items, he’s saying: “I’ve got locally fabricated face shields and we’ll give them to you for free because we know you need them.”

“I’ve Got Missions for You”

Ray describes the Illinois PPE network as a number of “individuals cranking out 10 face shields a day and they may bag up their stuff and drop it on a node’s doorstep.” Each node receives these individual deliveries and then “they might decontaminate it, rebag it, put a label on it, add some plastic sheets, and do the whole punching.” They collect them until they have a quantity that can be a shipment.

“Sometimes the node has a person who can drive it out to the hospital that requested supplies,” said Ray. “When a node is close to a hospital, they can keep that contact going themselves without me being involved. Sometimes when a node has got a few hundred face shields and they don’t have anything to do with them, then I try to identify a place that has the need and then direct a courier.”

And that’s when Ray tapped into his network of veterans. “I put out the word to the veteran community, knowing these guys probably don’t have a 3D printer. They don’t even know what one is, but they probably have a car and I bet they’re going stir crazy at home.”

Ray tells veterans: “I’ve got missions for you,” He said that “they’re good at this, logistics resupply because they’re not screwing around. If I tell a vet very concisely what I need and that I got a thing that has to go from point A to point B, given them all the information, and they go.” Ray got the veterans going all around the city.

“They’re the kind of people who will call me back and say first of all, ‘message received. Got it. I’m on it.’ Then they’ll say, ‘okay, I’ve made the pickup.’ And they’ll say ‘I’ve made the dropoff.’ Then I’ll say, ‘Good job. You’re done.’ The veteran community understands how to operate in a crisis and and how to act on limited information and also how to have the right level of back and forth communication. And that lets me take that off my list.”

I remarked that they were trained to work that way together. “If you want to know if something’s done,” he said. “Give it to somebody who’s going to tell you when it’s done and not drift off.” He’s had mostly a positive response from veterans, especially because he had one of the people doing the buddy checks. “Once in a while, we have people hang up on us, you might hear somebody in the background:

Who’s calling?

Oh, it’s the Legion.

Just hang up.

“Some of the American Legion guys, nobody ever calls them or writes to them unless they want to get money, — their dues are late.”

Many veterans do respond, though. “They respond when they can be personally involved in a mission, in a cause that they identify with,” said Ray. “I’m not asking them to do the dishes or wash the floor. I’m saying, ‘I need some medical supplies to go from point a to point B.’

With COVID-19, the buddy checks, the wellness checks, are even more important for veterans.

The Army Times reported on April 13th the following:

  • 241 patients have died from the illness in the VA system. That’s an increase of 41 fatalities from Saturday. On March 30, the total death toll was less than 20.
  • Across all VA sites, more than 4,000 patients in VA care have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s about 12 percent of all of the cases tested by the department, and more than double what it was on April 2.
  • At least 1,520 VA health care employees have tested positive for the virus. That number has risen by more than 400 individuals in a week. Nine employees have died as a result of the illness, all in the last few weeks.

He needs to keep checking on veterans. “Do you need anything? Do you have family and friends nearby? Are they taking care of you or do you need us to come by and drop off a roll of toilet paper and your medicine?” Ray is spending a lot of time on the phone from his home office because that’s the only way he can reliably reach those who are not connected.

“Doing what you can, where you are, and with what you have”

When I asked Jackie about civic response, she made the point that there already is a community response within her community. “It’s the community continuing its community response and incorporating making.” She said there are “mutual aid societies popping up all the time, except that instead of providing PPEs, they were providing food and transportation and grocery shopping. So this was just the extension of that for us.”

As a Chicago peace fellow, Jackie was connected to other grassroots organizations. “I started mobilizing those people,” she said. “Now we have four nodes that are serving primarily the South and West sides of Chicago.” She added: “We were already doing civic response, every citizen engaged, but they weren’t aware of the power of making.”

Jackie described a television interview with a reporter who came to see what they were doing and said: “Oh, you’re making real things,” which Jackie thought was an odd response.. “From a maker’s perspective, it has simply opened the eyes of the community members to see that making is a real thing. It is not just a hobby for the privileged,” she said. “You can do practical things that impact the community in a positive way.” She wants more 3D printers for her community. “The biggest thing is getting enough 3D printers in the hands of the families that are scattered on the South and West sides of the city,” she said.

Ray said that he and Jackie have different styles, and they sometimes lock horns but they are working together well. “She wants to be a community organizer, and I want to be a logistics officer,” he said, with that tone of exasperation and then catching himself. “But she is right. She is the biggest force multiplier for social change in the places that we most need it.”

***

What I think Jackie wanted me to know, when she says she will speak candidly with me, is that her community has always had to rely on “Plan C” efforts because the government and industry typically left the people in her community on its own. I may sound surprised when the government and industry don’t do the right thing because I have the expectation that they will, even when they are wrong. Jackie isn’t surprised and she understands the value of a very localized community response, not just in times of crisis, but as a way of life. “I’m a big believer in doing what you can, where you are and with what you have,” she said. It happens to be the motto of the Chicago Knights First Robotics team.


Other parts in this series:

  1. Introduction
  2. A Mesh Network for Making Face Shields
  3. The Solin Flatpack Face Shield
  4. Who’s Not in the Network
  5. Binge-making with Dan Meyer