After the shelter-inside order went down in New York City, a bat signal went up in Brooklyn. It was a simple call to feed the workers at Brooklyn Hospital—a major hotspot in the Covid-19 battle—by calling up Graziella’s, a Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Italian- staple restaurant. It was a simple idea: Call up and pay for large pies that would be delivered straight to the frontline. Tagged in the original Tweet was longtime neighborhood resident and regular customer Jeffrey Wright, the award-winning actor who currently stars as Brenard Lowe in HBO’s Westworld.
Wright, who had been filming The Batman in London, apparently brought his Gotham-saving, Commissioner James Gordon energy home. In a flash, the small spark of #OperationPizza exploded into the massive borough mobilization #BrooklynForLife.
“While in London, I’d been tracking the coronavirus closely and told my friend Michael Thompson, owner of Brooklyn Moon Cafe, that to stay afloat he needed to switch to a delivery business because a lockdown was coming,” says Wright. “Before I even got back to Brooklyn, helping support my favorite spots was percolating in my little coffee-pot brain.”
Wright sprung into action, launching a GoFundMe on March 25th and meeting with Brooklyn Hospital’s Senior VP Lenny Singletary and Borough President Eric Adams. (They’ve been friendly since the 90s; Wright was so impressed with Adams’ reform and advocacy organization, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, that he personally sought him out.) In less than two weeks, more than $115,000 has been raised. The campaign has extended from just Graziella’s and Brooklyn Moon to 32 restaurants, covering an area stretching into Bed-Stuy and Brownsville; and from a single hospital to four other hard-hit medical centers as well, plus seven FDNY EMS stations. It’s all overseen by Wright and coordinated by Thompson’s daughter, Camille Felicity. Wright’s organization now has official 501c3 non-profit status and is running nearly 2,0000 meals a day to the health care warriors. For good measure, there’s even $500-a-day allowance for Brooklyn Hospital employees to get snacks at the Greene Bites bodega across the street.
Wright is far from a celebrity dilettante. Hell, this isn’t even his first pandemic-fundraising go-round. For the better part of a decade, Wright travelled back and forth to an isolated area of Sierra Leone, near the Guinea border, working on community-based natural- resource projects, including a gold mine. In the spring of 2014, the project was in its final phase when Ebola erupted. Wright worked with local leaders, diverting $10,000 to buy PPEs and setting up border protection. Only one person in the community of 15,000 died, a doctor who had been outside the kingdom in a nearby larger town.
“Coronavirus presents a totally different health crisis scenario than Ebola did, but what I learned in Africa is this: Get educated with the best information from the experts, and use their recommendations to attack a problem on the ground,” Wright says. “I can use whatever clout I have to facilitate these relationships between the experts and the community.”
At Brooklyn Hospital, listening meant quickly adding more items than pizza, providing breakfasts and, thanks to a woman who asked why EMS wasn’t getting any love, getting grub to that group’s kitchen-less stations. To help keep money flowing to the restaurants involved, Wright’s accountants are paying the bills within 48 hours and reimbursing the actor through the GoFundMe. Thus far, cashflow hasn’t been an issue. People from all over Brooklyn, New York City and beyond have kicked in. Donations have ranged from an anonymous $20,000 gift to $5, $10 and $20 from everyday folks, some who presumably don’t have a lot to spare during this challenging time.
For Wright, there is a minor leap of faith involved. Not every bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich will be accounted for, but he doesn’t care. Like everyone else, he is cooped up at home, with his two teenage children and a 90-year-old aunt; so Brooklyn for Life is the quarantine hobby keeping him “from whipping a rocks glass at the television every night,” he says. Wright, who first lived in Fort Greene in 1989 and moved to the neighborhood permanently in 2000, is in it for the coronavirus long haul. He expects the mobilization will soon expand to meet demand.
“The need is enormous, and feeding vital workers while also keeping restaurants busy has helped bring the community together. It’s energizing people,” Wright says. “I love Brooklyn, and it’s exhilarating to be able to help with this thing. Make no mistake: We’re on a mission here. I need to know, when this thing is finally over, I can still go sit down for a meal of Graziella’s lasagna or Brooklyn Moon’s jerk chicken.”
The man who made a name for himself playing historical figures like Colin Powell, John-Michel Basquiat, Muddy Waters and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is out in the Brooklyn streets making a historical name for himself.
Editorial note: The author of the article helped start #OperationPizza.
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