Cultures of Care | Kristina Wong | Interview
Photograph of Kristina Wong, an Asian woman with shoulder-length wavy black hair, poses defiantly. She is dressed as a sewing super hero: she wears a shiny black suit, with a bandolier of sewing thread draped across her torso. She holds a tomato pin cushion in one hand, and measuring in the other.


How can we create dignity in labor? What would it mean to forefront and resource mutual aid in crisis response?

Photograph by Tom Fowler
Watch our conversation with Kristina Wong and read along below.

Video Transcript

Auntie Sewing Squad is a network of hundreds of Aunties across the United States who have sewn and shipped tens of thousands of masks to First Nations, farmworkers, migrants seeking asylum, incarcerated communities and poor communities of color. The group was founded March 24, 2020 by performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong shortly after California went into the first shelter-in-place order. The youngest Auntie is 8, while the eldest is 93.
Learning Guide Connection ▶

1. What are some other forms of care you’ve heard of that compensate for what the government does not do in a moment of crisis?
2. Kristina did not foresee that her sewing skill would be as essential as it was. Can you identify a skill of yours that could be used to provide some form of care? What's the skill and how would you apply it?

I actually didn't know what mutual aid was. People were like, “what you're doing is mutual aid” and I had to look up a YouTube video on it and I was like, oh! It's like charity, but without the condescending, patronizing thing about it.

We're literally like watching our cities in complete chaos with unrest and stuff, and I remember typing, “If this is the end, we go down sewing.”

I heard that there was a need for home-sewn masks. It was a moment where I was like, I have an essential skill. I didn't become a nurse, but I can help a nurse. I was like okay, I’ve only sewn my set pieces, vagina costumes, like completely crude props, all sorts of fabric genitalia — never made medical equipment, never expected to save anyone’s life with this kind of stuff, but let me do this!

I started sewing masks and I offered very naïvely — you know, with my half yard of cotton fabric — “Oh, I'll make you a mask.” And that quickly escalated into hundreds of requests, very scary requests from people who are afraid to go to work. I’m talking about nurses, people working at homeless shelters, delivery people, [people] who were like “I don’t know what to do,” or “They're telling us at the hospital to tie bandanas around our face.”

So, you know, I was totally overwhelmed.

Why 'Aunties'?

Learning Guide Connection ▶

1. Kristina talks about the deliberate use of the word “Auntie” in naming the sewing squad. She says that it both removes the “professional” pressure from the practice of sewing and connects people to the real people behind this labor. What does the name “Auntie” invoke for you?
2. What is the danger of not seeing who makes the things we use and consume? Imagine you called a worker in a restaurant or a delivery driver Auntie or Uncle or Cousin. Does this change how you would see them? How?

The gift of Audrey just sort of planting that image in my head as we were like on the street, and they handed me their pre-cuts and said, “You know, my hands are actually best made for breaking bread, so I can't cut any more, but I'll find you other volunteers. They all have to be Chinese” — which was really weird.

But planting this idea of Aunties in my head was great because I think it sort of takes the pressure off of ‘professional seamstresses making masks’ or ‘anonymous people with no faces who labor for you’. Like that's to me what a lot of these other groups are implying. But something about saying “Auntie” in the group has given folks a script for how to enter the group, it sort of casts them, gives them a role to play in the group.

The fact that we can reference each other — and some Aunties still go “Hey ladies!” and I'm always like… because I feel like it's better to say “Aunties” because it's just so much sweeter.

But yeah, I think it implies a sort of care.

I usually try to just say “Thank you, Auntie” — like, I don't know what gender they identify with — but I think people like that because they feel like, “Oh, I'm part of this community. I'm an Auntie, I'm in this family.”

Dignity in Labor

Learning Guide Connection ▶

1. How did the Aunties stay connected to the people who were receiving the masks?
2. What is the value in people seeing who is doing the labor behind masks or anything that is produced by other people?
3. What is the danger of not seeing who makes the things we use and consume?

For a lot of the Aunties, they’re very social in the group and love talking and sharing, and this has been their comfort in this time. This has been their community in a very scary time. It has given them a sense of purpose that keeps them from feeling helpless but also making sure that they feel like they are directly connected to who they are sending their masks to.

So when we have a request from a community, we offer it out to the group. It's not an automatic “okay, we'll send those over.” It's we can put up your request and the Aunties decide whether or not they're going to stay up through the night or whatever their process is to sew those masks.

I think for me it's very important for the recipients to… because we've gotten so Amazon Primed to understand that you can just get things by pressing buttons, you forget that there's someone on the other end who did that. But occasionally I get a request that felt like they were treating me like a free version of the 99-cent store or that like I just have nothing to do all day and I just love sewing free stuff for people. I felt like I wanted to give dignity to that labor.

A Collective Process

Learning Guide Connection ▶

1. The process of structuring the Auntie Sewing Squad was emergent. New roles formed over time and everyone stepped up to serve in the ways they were skilled to do. What types of collective work processes have you been part of? What made them a space of belonging or othering?

We have a whole team of Super Aunties, and those are the Aunties who maintain our spreadsheets and vet the requests that we get from organizations. Yeah, we have all sorts of positions that have been invented over the last nine months.

We have Haggle Aunties, these are Aunties who, at one point when it was really hard to get materials, would go into the Garment District and their job is to bargain for the lowest price. We have a Wheel-and-Deal’em Auntie; she’s Korean and she found a Korean guy who sells inkjet cartridges and medical equipment. We have Cutting Aunties who cut the fabric. We have Driver Aunties.

I find also in the Asian American community that's being used as a reference more and more to create a certain kind of pride around getting older, like “I'm an Auntie, I’m one of those Aunties sitting around watching TV.” And it sort of gives us a sense of pride versus self-loathing around getting older or being without child or whatever.

Care is Political

Learning Guide Connection ▶

1. What contributed to the political shift in the work of the Auntie Sewing Squad?
2. Kristina says there is an immediacy with mutual aid that the government can’t attend to. Do you agree with this? How could the government support people in more immediate ways? What systems would need to be in place for the government to play a role in supporting the work of the Auntie Sewing Squad and other collectives/people/organizations that are able to provide more immediate and connective care?

We have to find other ways for this work to create value and meaning for us who are performing it or else we’re just gonna croak, pop, get exploited by these systems. It feels like this weird performance, like I’m building this platform — with help, right — but it's also about reminding people that this labor takes time.

But really, at this point, that’s why we just see it as solidarity work. At this point, this is unpaid labor supporting groups that are invisible.

So that's when the shift began to happen, where it began to feel more political in the sense of, when you begin to look at who these communities are: a lot of them are indigenous; a lot of them are undocumented; a lot are immigrants; a lot don't have access to water, to food, to health care. That's when it begins to feel political because it feels like why didn’t the government help provide for these folks who, you know, provide our food table for us.

There's sort of an immediacy with mutual aid that government can't fit. But also I feel like FEMA should be abolished and replaced with us — like with salaries — but we could totally do it way better. We could find those communities. But I do feel like there's sort of a culture of care and actual human connection that is missing from how care is delivered, and there's something I think really amazing about receiving a box of home-sewn masks versus like a giant crate of factory-made masks. Like yes, both serve the same function, but there's something about making that heart-to-heart connection with the community that we do that we would love to figure out how FEMA could also do.

I don't want to preserve the pandemic part of this, but one thing I really loved is the care and the respect that I feel for people that I never really had time to do before. Like, I never really had time to sit and contemplate and connect with these folks who, in any other situation, I could see myself meeting them and just like not getting along with them or not finding a way to connect. But something about doing this project together has connected us for life.

Word of the Year

Learning Guide Connection ▶

1. What are some other examples of invisibilized care that were operating during the pandemic?
2.How did you give or receive unexpected forms of care during the pandemic?

They say that the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year is “pandemic.” I really feel like it’s “care” and it’s about thinking how radical an idea it is to care for people you’ve never seen, to put your care and energy into people who are actually indirectly caring for you — whether it’s farm workers, or day laborers, teachers or medical professionals. You might be in the hospital, but it is so radical to think about, like, I can put my labor towards these communities that keep us going, that keep our economy going, that keep food moving through our cities.

And that's huge.

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