Editor’s note: This story is the second in a three-part series on Evanston Community Fridges and the people behind the mutual aid effort. Read part one here.
Maggie Quinn, 37, co-founder
Maggie Quinn, 37, believes in the expression “it takes a village,” in building community because doing things for one another makes everything a little easier – and a little better. A self-described perpetual volunteer, she says she isn’t very good at making money or asking for pay for her services.
Her Evanston community story began back in June 2016 when Quinn, her husband, Kevin, and their two small children were sitting on a blanket in their new backyard, eating takeout food. They had neither furniture nor kitchen appliances yet. For the last 10 years, they’d been bouncing around Chicago neighborhoods.
“We were … looking for more of a community vibe, like a neighborhood street and a neighborhood school that you could walk to,” Quinn said.
They found that in south Evanston and bought a house next to a couple who were the age of Quinn’s parents.
That evening, the neighbors came over and introduced themselves to the Quinns, and in the days and weeks that followed, they became surrogate grandparents.
The neighbors took care of the Quinns’ two older children when Maggie gave birth to a third, so that Kevin could stay with her during the delivery. They invited her over on the evenings when her husband worked nights – because taking care of three children alone can be energy sapping.
During the pandemic, when school went to remote learning, parents in the neighborhood rotated yards for “recess.” Quinn, who coordinates a program at Chicago Volunteer Doulas that trains incarcerated people to be doulas for their pregnant peers, used her own lactation and doula training to support her pregnant neighbors and those with young children.
When a doula Instagram account that Quinn followed shared posts about The Love Fridge in Chicago, which was just starting at the time, she began learning about the idea of community fridges.
She reached out to The Love Fridge initiative’s founder, Ramon Norwood, to offer organizing help, and helped procure refrigerators through the warehouse where her husband worked. She wanted to start something similar in Evanston, she told Norwood.
Quinn connected with Maia Robinson through the Evanston Fight for Black Lives (EFBL) Instagram account, and the two met with the Love Fridge team over Zoom to discuss the vision and logistics. And so, Evanston Community Fridges was born.
Everybody needs food. This is the reason that community fridges exist. But to Quinn, it’s even more than that.
“Food is so closely tied to culture,” she said, “and sharing food and sharing culture is a way to connect with people, and it’s meaningful and it’s necessary.”
Quinn, 37, is a vegetarian, with vegetarian children. She shops a lot at Trader Joe’s – for the kids and their snacks but also for the store’s prepared meals. She’ll shop for herself, and then she’ll get a few extra things for the fridges: staples like eggs and milk, or sometimes oat milk. She tries to buy things pantries don’t always have: food for people with alternative diets and special dietary needs or food important to different cultures. She wants the food to be served with a dose of care, and to come from everyone.
Quinn’s father is a house painter, her mother a homemaker, and as a young adult Quinn said she could see – right in front of her – that the world functioned within systems that were exclusionary and flawed. She imagined a different world. It’s something she sees fridges co-founder Maia Robinson doing now.
Maia Robinson, 22, co-founder
In summer 2020, Maia Robinson was the one on the EFBL team who opened Quinn’s Instagram message asking if the group wanted to help organize a local fridge.
Looking at pictures of the Chicago fridges, Robinson was struck by their art.
“It just felt like such a radical act – that was also beautiful,” she said. “And I think sometimes we forget that activism can be very beautiful too.”
It reminded her of the Little Free Libraries around the city, those birdhouselike structures where people leave and take books. She thought about how community care could start small.
She thought about her high school, ETHS, where more than a third of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. She knew there were hungry Evanstonians.
Robinson, a student at Barnard College in New York, eventually went back to school but found living on campus during the pandemic to be isolating, so she came back to Evanston several times, returning to the city she loved and the city that needed a fridge.
For months, she had contacted every business or organization she thought might plug a fridge into a power source outside its building. She received rejection after rejection. People thought a fridge would be a liability. Or they didn’t know if a fridge would help anyone. Or they worried about people loitering outside.
Robinson was starting to feel defeated, and when Childcare Network of Evanston said yes, she was relieved and then ecstatic.
The fridge, donated by the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, was placed next to the Childcare Network building. Robinson built a platform for the fridge and a local artist had painted it a reddish pink, decorating it with illustrations of a carrot, a head of lettuce, an apple and lemons. In March 2021, the fridge was ready to be plugged in.
And then on a Saturday morning, Robinson awoke to Facebook messages from people she didn’t recognize, telling her they’d heard a crash the night before and wondered if the fridge was OK. She got out of bed and drove to the fridge, trying to convince herself during the seven-minute ride that nothing bad had happened.
But when she arrived she saw what was left of the fridge’s frame had keeled over, its foam innards exposed. No longer hinged to anything, the door jutted out from beneath the two sides of the fridge that remained connected. Another dented side lay several feet away.
Robinson got out of her car, walked up to the mess and started crying.
Still crying, she called Quinn and then Childcare Network with the news. Crying, she took photos of the destruction on her phone. Crying, she got back in her car and drove home.
Robinson took an hour to collect herself, then posted an update with the photos in the EFBL Facebook group.
Immediately, there were comments and direct messages. People asked to donate and offered spare fridges. Reporters called from the Chicago Tribune and Good Morning America, asking for interviews.
Robinson said she had always had a small fear: “What if we get this fridge but nobody actually uses it, and it’s just like a symbolic thing, that Evanston thinks we’re being woke and like a progressive city, but it’s just … useless.”
She had no idea this many people cared.
The replacement fridge was installed later that same week. Robinson visited it with friends. As she was organizing the pantry, two women stepped onto the lawn, opened the fridge, took some food and put it in a bag. Before leaving, they said, “thank you.” “You’re welcome,” she told them. Yes, she thought. It’s working.
Now the fridge project will have to work without its founders.
Robinson visits the fridges when she’s home, but with Barnard back in session, she’s back in New York. She graduates in December.
And in June 2022, after six years in Evanston, the Quinns moved back to Columbus, Ohio. Maggie Quinn has maintained contact with the fridge team via Slack. But after the new website launched in August, she moved into the background, as she always intended to do.
Coming next in this series: A look at how Evanston Community Fridges have been decorated and maintained, as the mutual aid effort looks to the future. Read part three here.