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The Role Publishing Plays in the Commodification of Black Pain

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The Role Publishing Plays in the Commodification Black Pain

For more than two weeks now, the United States, and much of the world, has seen daily protests and demonstrations following yet another slew of murders of unarmed Black people. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, too many others, have had their lives snuffed out by the ever-present pandemic of racial and police violence. As usual, a plethora of hashtags arose from the social media seas. Among them was #AmplifyBlackVoices, meant to highlight works by Black authors and writers.

This led to a boom in follows, subscriptions, book sales, likes, and retweets across the board. Hundreds, if not thousands of people showed up to support Black authors. At least, they showed up long enough to make a few clicks. I, like my colleagues, am grateful for the boost in visibility and sales. I’m delighted by the prospect of gaining and engaging new readers, but this moment is bittersweet. I can’t truly savor what’s happening in any real capacity, because I’m plagued by a particular question:

Where was this support before?

Before the murders. Before the cruelties captured on video. Before the TL lit up like a Roman candle of anti-Black abuse and trauma.

The joy of receiving enthusiastic messages about how great my books sound, and how happy people are to find them, is tempered by the fact that Black people had to suffer for any of this to happen. And there are so many messages, though one in particular rises to the surface. Probably because it’s the one I receive the most. “Why didn’t I hear/know about the Nightmare Verse before!?”

A few potential answers come to mind, but if I’m going to be honest—and now seems to be the time—it all boils down to this: My Black books aren’t the “right” Black books.

Remember the conversations around the Oscars and Emmys, and the roles Black actors receive awards for? Gang bangers. Drug dealers. Crack heads. Maids. Parts steeped in stereotypes about the struggle, ready-made for non-Black consumption. Accolades are heaped upon films like The Help and The Green Book, while other Black movies are painted as underperformers due to a lack of support. Just like movies and television, publishing has a way of rewarding a particular type of Black story, and—for lack of a better term—punishing the rest.

So, back to the previous line of questioning; why didn’t you hear about The Nightmare-Verse, or many other stories by Black authors? Because our books don’t center on Black pain. In the industry, stories about police brutality, the struggle, poverty, etc. have been dubbed “issue” books, and it’s a not-so-secret secret that if your book doesn’t fall into this category, it won’t get any real push or marketing. These are the “right” Black books I referenced earlier. Nearly all other Black books are treated as less important. They’re denied the time and resources needed to make them successful. They’re ignored by the industry, by librarians, by awards committees, by schools, and yes, even by certain readers. Unless, of course, there’s a protest going on. Then everyone wants those ally cookies, nom nom.

Let me take a brief moment to say, I’m not mad at a single Black author who has written these incredibly important stories. Issue books provide much needed insight into what Black people, black kids and teens, are dealing with. These stories need to be told, and Black authors are the ones who should be telling them. These stories deserve every ounce of recognition they receive.

But this laser-like focus on the “right” books sends a clear message to Black authors, Black readers, and Black people as a whole: your stories aren’t worth much if you don’t bleed on the page for us. Not only does this take Black narratives hostage, and pigeonhole them into being trauma porn, it exposes the intended audience for those stories to tangible harm. Harm that has been documented and discussed extensively.

Every time another Black person has their life snatched away by police brutality or racism, social media is flooded with videos and pictures of the incident. And, every time, Black people have to remind allies how such posts subject Black communities to both old trauma and new. So many cries for justice have gone unanswered. So many bodies and lost lives have been swept under the rug. Seeing these posts not only carves a fresh wound into the collective Black psyche, it opens scars. These posts take a psychological toll that very often manifests physically, and harken unto darker days when white people would make, sell, and send each other lynching postcards as a form of entertainment.

The same thing happens when teachers, schools, librarians, and others highlight issue books over and over and over. This doesn’t serve the children these books are meant for. No one stops to consider the effects of repeatedly subjecting Black children to racism, police brutality, and anti-Blackness on the page without something to break it up. Then there’s the exploitative aspect of non-Black readers taking in this story and somehow feeling they’ve accomplished something. They’ve managed activism by bearing witness to the events of the book, but then don’t follow up with seeking change in the real world. Reading then becomes performative.

Now, Black people know the importance of all of our stories. We know that for every “issue” book, we need at least five more where we can go on adventures, fall in love, solve mysteries, be heroes, do everyday things like everyone else. Black readers need to see themselves in narratives outside of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality. As do non-Black readers. In order to create a safe world for Black people, books that don’t focus on “issues” need to be given just as much space. They provide an opportunity for Black readers to have a moment for themselves, to take a breath, readjust, and simply exist, and for non-Black readers to see us as fully human.

During moments like the one currently gripping this country, and the world, non-Black people like to talk about how much they’re listening. How they hear Black people. How they see us. But when the moment inevitably ends, when the memory of our brutalization fades into memes and TikTok videos and selfies, Black people will be left to pick up the pieces of our broken, battered selves and try to carry on, now burdened with the truth that people only pay attention to our televised and printed genocide.

The follows and subscriptions will stop. The engagement will decrease. The likes and RTs will dwindle. The hype and industry support will dry up, like it always does. Only one type of story will be worth amplifying, anymore. Back to basics. Back to only acknowledging one aspect of our humanity, which happens to be one of the most painful.

The Hate U Give is an amazing book. Dear Martin is an incredible book. Monster is church stomp worthy. These and all other stories like them are phenomenal works that highlight topics that are important to the Black community. Please, keep buying them. Keep reading them. Keep teaching them. They are needed.

But so are books like Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, which is about a Black boy who goes on an adventure to save a fantastical realm. How about The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, a book about a Black girl in a fantastical world where the price of beauty is a steep, dangerous one. Then there’s A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, which is about two Black girls who are sister friends in a world peppered with the paranormal. Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds is about Black kids dealing with loss, love, and time travel! A Blade So Black is about a Black girl charged to save the world from beasts from the dark world of Wonderland. As I said, Black people recognize how vital it is to read books like these in order to avoid being besieged by Black trauma at every turn. It’s getting everyone else to realize the importance of these types of stories that’s the problem.

I can’t say all, but most Black authors I know, if you ask them which book of theirs is the most “successful” in terms of numbers, awards, engagement, it’s gonna be the one that focuses on Black pain.

And don’t get me wrong, Black authors are happy the industry is paying attention in this moment, but it has to go beyond that. It has to go beyond this hyper focus on our trauma. Publishing and the various entities within it have to see all of us, or this equality thing won’t work. Black people are worth more than our suffering.

I am happy to have new readers. I truly am. I’m thankful for the RTs and likes. I’m glad for the support, but I recognize that it’s conditional. I recognize it took Black bodies, dead and dying, for people to show up. And I recognize how, even in the midst of all this progress, publishing remains unwilling to spend big money on anything but the spectacle of Black pain.

L.L. McKinney is a writer, a poet, and an active member of the kidlit community. She’s an advocate for equality and inclusion in publishing, and the creator of the hashtag #WhatWoCWritersHear. She’s spent time in the slush by serving as a reader for agents and participating as a judge in various online writing contests. She’s also a gamer girl and an adamant Hei Hei stan. Her works include the Nightmare-Verse books, starting with the A Blade So Black trilogy, and an upcoming graphic novel for DC featuring Nubia, Wonder Woman’s twin sister, and more.

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10 days ago
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Birding Whilst Black Sparks White Aggression In Central Park

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There is a very good reason why few African Americans and other ethnic minorities engage in bird watching

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36 days ago
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Revolution Brewing Teams With CH Distillery To Create Anti-Hero Malört: ‘The Most Chicago Beverage I Can Think Of’

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AVONDALE — Two of the city’s favorite alcohol brands have teamed for a truly unique Chicago beverage: Jeppson’s Malört made from Anti-Hero beer.

CH Distillery has made a new batch of Malört distilled from Anti-Hero, Revolution Brewing’s popular India pale ale beer. The special edition of Malört — the infamously strong and bitter liquor — is available to the public starting Friday.

The collaboration between Revolution and CH Distillery was spurred by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the local beer market. Avondale-based Revolution saw an uptick in canned beer sales at the start of the local outbreak, but the drop-off in kegged beer sales has hit Revolution and many other local beer makers hard.

Because they are unable to open, local bars returned 160 kegs of Anti-Hero back to the brewery, said John Carruthers, communications manager for Revolution.

“They were getting near their expiration date,” he said of the returned kegs. “We were looking for a home for this beer rather than destroy it.”

That’s when Revolution turned to CH Distillery, the Pilsen-based distillery that bought the Malört brand last year. The two companies had a relationship, and so Revolution asked CH if they had any use for the unused Anti-Hero.

Malört has been used in other beer crossovers before. Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing Co. used Malört barrels to age an imperial stout. In this case, CH decided to distill a batch of Malört from Anti-Hero, Carruthers said.

The result is a Malört that has the malty sweetness and hoppy aroma of an India pale ale. Malört is already known for its strong flavor profile, but the Anti-Hero components work well together, Carruthers said. Both beverages contain grapefruit flavor notes that are well complemented in the new product.

“This is the most Chicago beverage, between Malört and Anti-Hero, that I can think of,” Carruthers said. “I think it works well.”

A limited amount of the special Malört will be available at local Binny’s, and for pick up or delivery through Revolution’s Logan Square brewpub. Sales will begin Friday, although pre-orders can already be placed on CH Distillery’s website. Bottles will retail for $25.

The collaboration has a charitable aspect, as well. Revolution and CH will donate $5,000 each to Comp Tab Relief Fund, a Chicago-based effort to provide relief to hospitality workers.

Malört was born in 1934 when Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson created a beskbrännvin recipe, a popular Swedish herbal aperitif. The Chicago resident sold the spirit door to door during the Prohibition as a “medicinal alcohol.”

The Chicago icon both beloved and hated by many was produced in Florida by the Carl Jeppson Company for three decades. But after CH Distillery bought the company last year, Malört found its way home and is now being produced and bottled at CH Distillery in East Pilsen, 1629 S. Clinton St.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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43 days ago
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The adorable guide to distinguishing American crows and common ravens


Recently, I published what I hope is one of the most comprehensive crow vs. ravens guides readily available on the web. But sometimes, you don’t want to pour through a bunch of text and details, you want just a quick reference, or a shorthand way of explaining to an inquiring newbie that crows and ravens are actually different.  To that aim, I am so excited to share that I teamed up with artist Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon comics to create a guide that is equal parts charming and informative.  Share it widely and spread the corvid love!

raven vs crow

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44 days ago
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In Some of Ohio’s Most Populous Areas, Black People Were at Least 4 Times as Likely to Be Charged With Stay-at-Home Violations as Whites

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

On April 17 in Toledo, Ohio, a 19-year-old black man was arrested for violating the state stay-at-home order. In court filings, police say he took a bus from Detroit to Toledo “without a valid reason.” Six young black men were arrested in Toledo last Saturday while hanging out on a front lawn; police allege they were “seen standing within 6 feet of each other.” In Cincinnati, a black man was charged with violating stay-at-home orders after he was shot in the ankle on April 7; according to a police affidavit, he was talking to a friend in the street when he was shot and was “clearly not engaged in essential activities.”

Ohio’s health director, Dr. Amy Acton, issued the state’s stay-at-home order on March 22, prohibiting people from leaving their home except for essential activities and requiring them to maintain social distancing “at all times.” A violation of the order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine. Since the order, hundreds of people have been charged with violations across Ohio.

The state has also seen some of the most prominent protests against state stay-at-home orders, as large crowds gather on the statehouse steps to flout the directives. But the protesters, most of them white, have not faced arrest. Rather, in three large Ohio jurisdictions ProPublica examined, charges of violating the order appear to have fallen disproportionately on black people.

ProPublica analyzed court records for the city of Toledo and for the counties that include Columbus and Cincinnati, three of the most populous jurisdictions in Ohio. In all of them, ProPublica found, black people were at least four times as likely to be charged with violating the stay-at-home order as white people.

As states across the country attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, stay-at-home orders have proven instrumental in the fight against the novel coronavirus; experts credit aggressive restrictions with flattening the curve in the nation’s hotbeds. Many states’ orders carry criminal penalties for violations of the stay-at-home mandates. But as the weather warms up and people spend more time outside, defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates fear that black communities long subjected to overly aggressive policing will face similarly aggressive enforcement of stay-at-home mandates.

In Ohio, ProPublica found, the disparities are already pronounced.

As of Thursday night in Hamilton County, which is 27% black and home to Cincinnati, there were 107 charges for violating the order; 61% of defendants are black. The majority of arrests came from towns surrounding Cincinnati, which is 43% black. Of the 29 people charged by the city’s Police Department, 79% were black, according to data provided to ProPublica by the Hamilton County Public Defender.

In Toledo, where black people make up 27% of the population, 18 of the 23 people charged thus far were black.

Lt. Kellie Lenhardt, a spokeswoman for the Toledo Police Department, said that in enforcing the stay-at-home order, the department’s goal is not to arrest people and that officers are primarily responding to calls from people complaining about violations of the order. She told ProPublica that if the police arrested someone, the officers believed they had probable cause, and that while biased policing would be “wrong,” it would also be wrong to arrest more white people simply “to balance the numbers.”

In Franklin County, which is 23.5% black, 129 people were arrested between the beginning of the stay-at-home order and May 4; 57% of the people arrested were black.

In Cleveland, which is 50% black and is the state’s second-largest city, the Municipal Court’s public records do not include race data. The court and the Cleveland Police Department were unable to readily provide demographic information about arrests to ProPublica, though on Friday, the police said they have issued eight charges so far.

In the three jurisdictions, about half of those charged with violating the order were also charged with other offenses, such as drug possession and disorderly conduct. The rest were charged only with violating the order; among that group, the percentage of defendants who were black was even higher.

Franklin Country is home to Columbus, where enforcement of the stay-at-home order has made national headlines for a very different reason. Columbus is the state capital and Ohio’s largest city with a population of almost 900,000. In recent weeks, groups of mostly white protesters have campaigned against the stay-at-home order on the Statehouse steps and outside the health director’s home. Some protesters have come armed, and images have circulated of crowds of demonstrators huddled close, chanting, many without masks.

No protesters have been arrested for violating the stay-at-home order, a spokesperson for the Columbus mayor’s office told ProPublica. Thomas Hach, an organizer of a group called Free Ohio Now, said in an email that he was not aware of any arrests associated with protests in the entire state. The Columbus Division of Police did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.

Ohio legislators are contemplating reducing the criminal penalties for violating the order. On Wednesday, the state House passed legislation that would eliminate the possibility of jail time for stay-at-home violators. A first offense would result in a warning, and further violations would result in a small fine. The bill is pending in the state Senate.

Penalties for violating stay-at-home orders vary across the country. In many states, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, violations can land someone behind bars. In New York state, violations can only result in fines. In Baltimore, police told local media they had only charged two people with violations; police have reportedly relied on a recording played over the loudspeakers of squad cars: “Even if you aren’t showing symptoms, you could still have coronavirus and accidentally spread it to a relative or neighbor. Being home is being safe. We are all in this together.”

Enforcement has often resulted in controversy. In New York City, a viral video showed police pull out a Taser and punch a black man after they approached a group of people who weren’t wearing masks. Police say the man who was punched took a “fighting stance” when ordered to disperse. In Orlando, police arrested a homeless man walking a bicycle because he was not obeying curfew. In Hawaii, charges against a man accused of stealing a car battery, normally a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail, were enhanced to a felony, which can result in 10 years in prison, because police and prosecutors said he was in violation of the state order.

The orders are generally broad, and decisions about which violations to treat as acceptable and which ones to penalize have largely been left to local police departments’ discretion.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a legal organization focused on racial justice, said such discretion has opened the door to police abuse, and she said the U.S. Department of Justice or state governments should issue detailed guidelines about when to make arrests. That discretion “is what’s given rise to these rogue practices,” she told ProPublica, “that are putting black communities and communities of color with a target on their backs.”

In jails and prisons around the country, inmates have fallen ill or died from COVID-19 as the virus spreads rapidly through the facilities. Many local governments have released some inmates from jail and ordered police to reduce arrests for minor crimes. But in Hamilton County, some people charged with failing to maintain social distancing have been kept in jail for at least one night, even without any other charges. Recently, two sheriff’s deputies who work in the jail tested positive for COVID-19. “The cops put their hands on them, they cram them in the car, they take them to the [jail], which has 800 to 1400 people, depending on the night,” said Sean Vicente, director of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s misdemeanor division. “It’s often so crowded everyone’s just sitting on the floor.”

Clarke said the enforcement push is sometimes undercutting the public health effort: “Protecting people’s health is in direct conflict with putting people in overcrowded jails and prisons that have been hotbeds for the virus.”

Court records show that the Cincinnati Police Department has adopted some surprising applications of the law.

Six people were charged with violations of the order after they were shot. Only one was charged with another crime as well, but police affidavits state that when they were shot, they were or likely were in violation of the order. One man was shot in the ankle while talking to a friend, according to court filings, and “was clearly not engaged in essential activities.” Another was arrested with the same explanation; police wrote that he had gone to the hospital with a gunshot wound. The Cincinnati Police Department did not respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment.

In Springfield Township, a small, mostly white Cincinnati suburb, nine people have been arrested for violating the order thus far. All of them are black.

Springfield Township Police Chief Robert Browder told ProPublica in an email that the department is “an internationally accredited law enforcement organization” and has “strict policies ... to ensure that our zero tolerance policy prohibiting bias-based profiling is adhered to.”

Browder said race had not played a role in his department’s enforcement of the order and that he was “appalled if that is the insinuation.”

Several of the black people arrested in Springfield Township were working for a company that sells books and magazine subscriptions door to door. One of the workers, Carl Brown, 50, said he and five colleagues were working in Springfield Township when two members of the team were arrested while going door to door. Police called the other sales people, and when they arrived at the scene, they too were arrested. Five of them, including Brown, were charged only with violating the stay-at-home order; the sixth sales person had an arrest warrant in another state, according to Browder, and police also charged her for giving them false identification.

Brown said one of the officers had left the group with a warning: They should never come back, and if they do, it’s “going to be worse.”

Browder denied that the officers made such a threat, and he said the police had received calls from residents about the sales people and their tactics and that the sales people had failed to register with the Police Department, as required for door-to-door solicitation.

Other violations in Hamilton County have been more egregious, but even in some of those cases, the law enforcement response has stirred controversy. On April 4, a man who had streamed a party on Facebook Live, saying, “We don’t give a fuck about this coronavirus,” was arrested in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the setting of a 2001 riot after police fatally shot an unarmed black man.

The man who streamed the party, Rashaan Davis, was charged with violating the stay-at-home order and inciting violence, and his bond was set at $350,000.

After Judge Alan Triggs said he would release Davis from jail pretrial because the offense charged was nonviolent, local media reported, prosecutors dropped the misdemeanor and said they would focus on the charge of inciting violence, a felony.

The Hamilton County prosecutor’s office declined to comment on Davis’ case.

In Toledo, there’s been public controversy around perceived differences in the application of the law. On April 21, debate at the Toledo City Council meeting centered around a food truck. Local politicians discussed recent arrests of young black people at house parties, some contrasting them with a large, white crowd standing close together in line outside a BBQ stand, undisturbed by police. Councilmember Gary Johnson told ProPublica he’s asked the police chief to investigate why no one was arrested at a party he’d heard about, where white people were congregating on docks. “I don’t know the circumstances of the arrests,” he said. But “if you feel you need to go into poor neighborhoods and African American neighborhoods, you better be going into white neighborhoods too. … You have to say we’re going to be heavy-handed with the stay-at-home order or we’re going to be light with it. It has to be one or the other.”

Toledo police enforcement has not been confined to partygoers. Armani Thomas, 20, is one of the six young men arrested for not social distancing on a lawn. He told ProPublica he was sitting there with nine friends “doing nothing” when the police pulled up. Two kids ran off, and the police made the rest stay, eventually arresting “all the dudes” and letting the girls go. He was taken to the county jail, where several inmates have tested positive, for booking and released after several hours. The men’s cases are pending.

“When police see black people gathered in public, I think there’s this looming belief that they must be doing something illegal,” RaShya Ghee, a criminal defense attorney and lecturer at the University of Toledo, told ProPublica. “They’re hanging out in a yard — something illegal must have happened. Or, something illegal is about to happen.”

Lenhardt, the police lieutenant, said the six men were arrested after police received 911 calls reporting “a group gathering and flashing guns.” None of the six men were arrested on gun charges. As for the 19-year-old charged for taking the bus without reason, she said police asked him on consecutive days to not loiter at a bus station.

With more than 70,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, government officials have not figured out how to balance the threat of COVID-19 with the harms of over policing, Clarke said. “On the one hand, we want to beat back the pandemic. That’s critical. That’s the end goal,” she told ProPublica. “On the other hand, we’re seeing social distancing being used as a pretext to arrest the very communities that have been hit hardest by the virus.”

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54 days ago
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COVID-19 Relief Efforts at PS1

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While we remain closed in compliance with the Illinois stay-at-home order, a small and dedicated team of volunteers has been busy producing PPE at Pumping Station: One for Chicago’s front line health care workers and vulnerable populations.

You can make a tax-deductible donation to support our PPE production by clicking the button below. Keep reading to learn more and to join the effort by making PPE at home!

Face Shield Production

PS1 has made over 2,500 3D printed face shields and counting. They are being distributed primarily through the network established by Deborah Beien and the Facebook group she created: 3D Printed Face Shields for Swedish. Deborah’s network of makers has produced 10,000+ face shields over the past five weeks, distributing them to dozens of health care facilities throughout the Chicago area and beyond. PS1’s contribution accounts for 25% of the PPE distributed through Deborah and the Swedish Hospital Facebook group!

We are also partnering with Illinois PPE Network, a consortium of universities, libraries, museums and other major local institutions working together to fill the enormous unmet need for PPE.

Going forward, PS1 and our distribution partners will be putting special emphasis on bringing PPE to health care facilities serving the city’s hardest hit and most vulnerable populations on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

Here’s some media coverage about Chicago makers making PPE:

You Can Help!

  • Have a 3D printer? Sign up to receive a free roll of filament and instructions for 3D printing face shields from home.
  • Have a sewing machine? Sign up to receive free pre-cut fabric and instructions for sewing face masks from home.
  • If your financial situation allows, please stay the course with us and keep supporting PS1 with your member dues. 
  • Consider making a tax-deductible donation to support PPE production at PS1. Click here to donate now!
  • Support PS1 through Amazon Smile:
    • Click here for instructions to start using Amazon Smile.
    • Select “Pumping Station One NFP” as your charity.
    • Navigate to smile.amazon.com whenever you make purchases, and Amazon will donate 0.5% of your purchase amount to the charity of your choice. That may sound small, but it adds up quickly!
    • Make charitable giving effortless by installing a browser extension to automatically load the Amazon Smile URL every time you use Amazon. For example, here are extensions for Chrome and Firefox.
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70 days ago
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