134 Gisele Fetterman, Rebuilding a Community through Food Rescue, Friendly Street Signs, and a Free Store
Gisele was born in Rio de Janeiro and immigrated to the U.S. at age eight with her mother and was undocumented for many years. Growing up in the cities, she was acutely aware of the vast inequalities between Brazil and the United States, and between the working-class community that she lived in and the more affluent communities where her mother secured work as a housekeeper.
These days, you can probably find her at the Free Store – a brightly painted converted storage container that Gisele Fetterman stocks with donated or surplus clothing and necessities for her neighbors in Braddock and nearby communities in Allegheny County. The concept was something she imagined as a kid and new immigrant in New York City. Gisele was frustrated by how easily people were willing to throw things away. Now, three years into the endeavor in Braddock, it’s a full-fledged enterprise run entirely by volunteers and serves 1,600 folks monthly.
In Braddock, Gisele is a force in her own right behind the good works and progressive change she and her husband, Mayor John, are sowing in their home town.
In addition to the Free Store, Gisele co-founded the 412 Food Rescue, which aims to fight hunger by collecting fresh, healthy food scheduled to be wastefully discarded and distributing it to community organizations that serve those in need.
Gisele spoke at Going Deep Summit 2.0
Gisele’s Challenge; Connect in some small way with 5 strangers every day.
Connect with Gisele Fetterman
If you liked this interview, check out episode 48 with her partner at 412 Food Rescue Leah Lizarondo where we discuss food deserts and community service.
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Watson: Gisele, thank you so much for coming on my podcast.
Gisele Fetterman: Thank you for having me.
Watson: I'm so excited to be here, thank you for welcoming me into your house and giving me these delicious grapes. I appreciate it. I want to start off by giving you the opportunity to tell people. About the Braddock Free Store, something you're definitely known for.
That's just really exciting, when I first heard the idea, I think a little over a year ago, it kind of captured the imagination for someone who's really dedicated and interested in helping other people, and finding a way to have a positive impact on their community. So to really kinda start things off, I'd love it if you could just explain what the Braddock Free Store is and a little bit about where the idea came from?
Gisele Fetterman: Sure, absolutely. So the Braddock Free Store, it's almost four years old. It'll be four in October. It's like a child to me, and it was kind of my journey to America. I was born in Rio, Brazil, and we immigrated to America when I was a child, and we were starting from nothing. My mom was a single mom. She didn't speak English. When we moved here, we didn't know anyone. We were in New York, and on top of all these things, we were undocumented. So, we're in this strange new place kind of learning your way around.
One of the things I first did, maybe a month in, we would go for these walks at night, and we came here to the curb and it was just full of furniture, and it looked great. There was nothing wrong with it. It was just a dresser, a bed, a couch. I couldn't understand why it was there. This doesn't exist in other countries. I learned that it was bulk garbage day that folks bought a replacement- a newer, nicer model, and they took theirs, which is perfectly fine, but they don't longer need it. They put it on the curb and then the truck comes and crushes it.
That was really strange. It felt really sad because we didn't have furniture in our home. And we were able to furnish our first apartment entirely with what we found in the curb. I thought that if we're in a situation, I'm sure there's many other families that could have also used this furniture that was just destroyed.
It kind of set this responsibility for me that I needed to find homes for things. I was able to see that my original country, my country of origin, could probably live on what America discarded, and that was wrong. It just didn't feel right. It was like, if my kids were growing out of an outfit, I needed to find a home for it. If I was getting a new piece of furniture, I needed to find a home for it.
But, I wanted a place where this could happen instead of just finding people to give these things to. I wanted to create a space that was safe and warm and loving, and folks can come in and shop for their needs, but it would be a dignified experience. We would also be encouraging recycling and reusing and conscious consumerism at the same time.
Watson: How did you find your way to Braddock here- part of the multitude of Pittsburgh neighborhoods over from New York?
Gisele Fetterman: That's kind of a romantic story, so everyone get your tissues ready. I'm so at that time I was working and living out of New York/New Jersey. My background is in nutrition. So, I actually did nonprofit nutrition out of Newark, New Jersey. I was at a yoga retreat, and there was this article lying around talking about Braddock, this discarded city.
It spoke about how half the world's steel came out of Braddock, and it built the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate, and it just made such a contribution to America. Then it was left to die. It was left discarded and no one loved it and that just felt wrong. It felt sad. I came home, and I kept thinking about the city that gave so much, and then, no one loved it in return. I would drive the Brooklyn Bridge and I would think the city built this bridge and something told me, ‘write a letter.’
I actually wrote a letter to the borough, and I shared that my work was in nonprofit nutrition, and that I'd love to visit and do something. I didn't know what that something looked like, but it just made me write a letter, and I did. Eventually the letter ended up with John, who called me and said, ‘well come visit.’ I did. That it was many years and three kids that go.
Watson: Wow. Yeah, you're definitely right. Braddock has this rich history, and both you and John have been working to help it in a turnaround effort. In everything that you're doing both with the Braddock Free Store, this nonprofit work previously, and your other project 412 Food Rescue, is just an incredible amount of public service, awareness, and empathy for the situations of others.
I think it's fair to say that a lot of that product came from your background in your first experiences coming to the United States, but is there an underlying reason? I'm always fascinated by what motivates people to be self-sacrificing when you see so many people who aren't necessarily in that same self-sacrificial vein? Do you see it that way?
Gisele Fetterman: Those are really generous worlds. That made me uncomfortable. No, I think it was, for me, it's always been about showing value. The value in a place like Braddock that so many walked away from. 90% of Braddock residents left. Think about that. 9 out of 10 people left this town, but there's still amazing value in this home, these buildings, these people that stayed behind. Through Braddock, it was our work to show the value that exists here.
The people at the store it's showing the value in these items that are being discarded. I often talk about my immigration story because the conversation about immigration is so heated in America, and I was an undocumented person. I want to show the value in immigration as well. My work is to be able to kind of force people to have a perspective shift and look at these things that others may not look at as a positive way, but to see the value in them. I think my journey to America had a lot to do with it. I think I had a really strong and great mother example. To me, there was never another way. It wasn't like, ‘oh, am I going to go work on wall street? Or am I going to do this?’
So, it was always really easy. It was always an easy decision. It wasn't a struggle. It was always like your time here should matter and should count. I'm not religious. It's not motivated in any way. I think it's just humanism.
Watson: I'm curious, as you and John and told me, other people are working to help rebuild this area and other parts of the city that have kind of been left as the steel industry moved away. How do you see this kind of new era of Pittsburgh emerging? I know Braddock and Pittsburgh are technically different areas, but it's all the same Western Pennsylvania region. And as you know, Pittsburgh kind of is this darling of we've got these great restaurants. We've got this little technological area with Carnegie Mellon, how do you see Bradick fitting into that space and where it can occupy in terms of getting back to value, the value that Pittsburgh will get from Braddock?
Gisele Fetterman: Sure. Yeah. For me, it's seeing that, at one point we had to look at who remained, right? So, when 90% of the residents left, the 10% that remained were those that would never leave. They were born here. They’re going to die here. Or, there were those that didn't have an option. They can't afford to start over. We wanted to create one more category of those who lived here. Those who chose to come and live here. We see folks who want to buy an abandoned home and fix it up and be a part of the community and be able to participate.
We've become part of that decision making, a family that would have never looked at Braddock in the past. Now, we've become part of that decision matrix, you know, should I move to Garfield or am I considering Braddock? That took a long time, and we're still working on that, but we've seen that happen.
We've seen the reputation begin to change, whereas someone would say, ‘oh, you're only in Braddock. If you're going to do something bad or you're buying drugs or, you know, whatever ugly things.’ That has changed. Folks come here for art shows, for gallery openings, to the Brew Gentlemen, you know, it's been a number of churches. I mean, any number of activities. So, we've become part of that conversation and the cultural aspect as well.
Watson: Absolutely. Not really changing lanes too much, I'm always fascinated by how people self-assess, and how they judge the work that they're doing. So, a really quantifiable example is a writer who says, if I wrote my thousand words every day, that was a good day.
I'm curious. In the work that you're doing at the Free Store and 412 Food Rescue, there are great numbers, the Free Store serving more than 1600 people every month. This is absolutely fantastic. But, I'm curious if you have a method or metric by which you self-assess yourself, whether it's daily or weekly in some other?
Gisele Fetterman: I mean, there's some days I feel like I wasn't productive at all, and I'm kind of bummed, but I make lists throughout the day to remember all the things I have to do. I feel like I'm able to connect with the Free Store; I was there today, so I was able to connect with a few hundred folks, and I feel that's a really productive day when you have the opportunity to connect. So, on off days, I try to make sure I'm always doing something. It doesn't matter if I'm really tired. I have to give myself a certain to do whether it's work in an email I'm due to get out, or submitting a grant, or reconnect with someone. That's how I assess that.
I think I'm hard on myself. Whereas, some days I feel like I did nothing, but I also have three small kids, so my brain is fried often too, but it's also just kind of trying to find a balance, and knowing that I can do everything and that's okay too. At least, I have to do something each day.
Watson: Your partner at 412 Food Rescue came on this show. You were in the midst of your campaign to get a new truck for 412 Food Rescue, and now that that's been completed, and you've had the success of getting the new truck, what other challenges are on the horizon for the Free Store or 412 Food Rescue that you're working on right now?
Gisele Fetterman: We're constantly trying to grow our reach, not only in the food that we're collecting and from the partner organizations that are donating to us, but also where we're delivering. We want to make sure we're reaching everyone. The Free Store is the same. I'm working with Penn Hills right now and looking to open one as well as Clariton. So, I’m trying to help them with what worked for us, what lessons we learned on their journey, and then there was always a project or two in the works as well.
Watson: Exactly. You led so well into my next question of replicating what you're doing because the Braddock Free Store, I mean personally, before hearing of that, I'd never heard of that concept before. The idea that we're replicating it elsewhere for 412 Food Rescue is a very kind of Pittsburgh identity with the 412 area code there. It seems like it's already starting to happen with the Free Store. Do you see both of those efforts eventually being replicated elsewhere in the region, around the country?
Gisele Fetterman: It was delivered that way so that it could be 212 and it could be 724. The goal is that we have this app that other communities can download and can implement and can start rescuing food as well. We'll have everything we've learned along the way, all the special practices and such, but that's why we called it 412, because we want that to be interchangeable with other communities and with a Free Store, Wilkinsburg has been the first spinoff. There was also a church in East Liberty that is running a free store as well, the same model within their church.
My goal was that each community had its own. Right now, we're serving everyone. So, if someone comes in, I don't recognize them. I know all my residents. I'm always curious, you know, where did you come from? It's Westmoreland County. It's McKees Rocks. It's Homewood. It's really everywhere. If each community has a version of it, the neighbors that are doing great can help those that aren't doing so well. It can just become this really organic kind of sharing movement.
Watson: Where do the donated items usually come from? How did you kind of broker those partnerships or how did that happen?
Gisele Fetterman: When I saw that furniture on the curb, and that feeling how wrong that was, I've had that feeling again in many situations. We were shopping at Costco. I'm a huge fan of Costco and how well they would pay their employees, and their business model is wonderful. An employee was wheeling back these kinds of pallets of bananas, and they weren't black bananas. They weren't mushy, they weren't spotted. They were just yellow bananas and I'm nosy, so I'm like, ‘where are you taking these bananas?’ They were being removed. They were being discarded. The reason is that Americans don't buy yellow bananas. Folks want to buy them green and like to witness the ripening in their kitchen or something. But, no one buys yellow bananas in America as a whole.
So, you think of yellow bananas in every grocery store, across the country, they're likely being composted or discarded because no one buys them. So, that's how the partnership started. We said, ‘well, what if we pick this food up from you each week, would you give it to us?’
They agreed, and they are amazing. They donate food to us at least three times a week, every week. Right now, we receive their produce, their deli items, and their baked goods. Every week, and through this one partnership with Costco, which was how it started at the Free Store, we were able to essentially eradicate food insecurity in our community, just with one partner.
That's when Leah and I sat down and said, ‘well, we've, we were able to do this for Braddock, with one store. What can we do for the county? What can we do for the state?’ That's how 412 Food Rescue was born.
Watson: Now, with your background in nutrition, and I know Leah is also very nutrition focused, was there much consideration for certain types of food and their nutritional value as well as opposed to, we're just trying to get anything out the door for people?
Gisele Fetterman: Well, mostly what we get is produce. We get a lot, we've got some prepared stuff, but we have a lot of produce. We don't usually get like chocolate bars. I do have someone at a CVS, an employee, and every time they have a new shipment in all of this, the chocolate bars that are on display are discarded, and they're not expired. They're just discarded because there's a new shipment that comes in, and this employee who wants to remain anonymous, they make him discard it, and he just thinks it's wrong. He sneaks them, and brings them to the Free Store.
So, once a week I can give chocolate bars to everyone. I take the nutritionist hat off because everyone deserves a treat. That was another situation. These things happen where I learned that at the end of the season, like all the Christmas stuff in every store, it goes to the dumpster right behind the store at the end. All the swim stuff at the end of the summer, it goes to the dumpster.
So, we slowly partnered with all these different places. We have Toys R Us, Babies R Us, Gymboree, Oshkosh, all these different partners that agreed to call us and let us know when there's a pickup, and we go and pick up.
I have a storage container separated kind of by season. So when Easter comes, I already have hundreds of Easter baskets for every kid in town. When Christmas comes, I have sleds in my garage, like 50 sleds for kids to go and sled. So, these are items that were previously going to a dumpster, and now, we're going into homes and to see a kid get something that's new and just for them, you never get over it. It's amazing, that experience, and how special they feel and how loved and embraced they feel. That's what we want to do every day.
Watson: Cool. I know I'm fired up. I'm sure that there are a number of you out there listening who are inspired by your story and all the amazing work they're doing. Maybe there is somewhere between the point where you started the Free Store, started these projects and after, when you had that experience of ‘why is this couch out in the street,’ where they kind of have the inspiration, the desire to fix something they see isn't right, but for whatever reason, pulling the trigger on actually starting that project or getting something off the ground. They just haven't made that happen yet. As someone who has executed in this area and really made a difference for people, what advice or wisdom would you care to share with someone who hasn't yet made that move?
Gisele Fetterman: For me, the moment was when the idea became a project, and it became a reality once you name it. So, I had this idea of the Free Store for so long. I wanted to do this for a really long time, but I didn't act on it because I would talk to people, and sometimes they would say you can give stuff out for free.
I would ask, ‘well, why not?’ You know, no one does it, but why don't we? I wanted to kind of push that conversation, but once I had a name for it, I saw the Free Store. Then, once I had a logo, it's like, once you get a logo, I think there's no turning back. You owe it to yourself to see it through. That's how it was for the Freestore and 412 Food Rescue. Once we had a name for this vision, then you need it to move forward, you have to hold yourself to it. I would say for someone who's toying with this idea that you have, which I'm sure is a great idea, because that's how ideas are born every day is to name it. Then, it becomes real. It becomes like a real thing that you have to follow through.
Watson: It's much easier to share the idea with someone else. Even if you kind of add the explanation of it in the background onto it, they can at least identify it.
Gisele Fetterman: I was working on the Free Store. It gets some legitimacy once you name it. I think it changes from just kind of this vision to something more concrete.
Watson: I love it. So, to be perfectly honest, I got to change the lane up here a little bit. The first time I became aware of the work that you're doing was actually through your husband's Ted Talk. I'm curious about the experience, as a couple of being on the campaign trail and trying to make these things happen, what has it been like? How you work together as a team to pursue this pretty big goal that will affect both of your lives?
Gisele Fetterman: He didn't win. He had a really good showing. He won Allegheny County. He didn't win the seat. But, campaigning was really fun when we did it. We got to travel the state and meet all these folks in towns, just like ours, across the state that were going through struggles and building themselves up. So, that was amazing. It was a really good time, it really was. It was a very different experience. Having people follow you around was unusual. We had a tracker that would follow us around, and that was bizarre, but to be able to connect with as many people as we did, we were outspent 15 to one. Even with as little money as we had, he had over 20% of the vote, which was incredible. I feel really grateful that we got to be a part of that experience.
Watson: Absolutely. Hopefully, just the campaign and getting to meet with those different communities continues to spread the ideas and the goals that you've set up for Braddock and implementing them elsewhere, and as we were saying before, sharing the story of the free store.
Gisele Fetterman: Yeah. We wanted to talk about things that no one was talking about. We wanted to talk about heroin addiction. We wanted to talk about equal rights and each of the ads were based on that. They weren't actors saying this and that. It was real issues. It was issues we lived, here in town. We wanted to expand the reach on those issues that matter to us.
Watson: Absolutely. Well, we're going to start wrapping up, but before we talk about where people can connect and you issue a challenge to the listeners, I want to just see if there's anything that I didn't give you a chance to say.
Gisele Fetterman: No, I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to share the work that we're doing. When you matter, something matters to you, and you love what you do, that alone is really great. But, when other people care as well and want to ask about it, then that just provides more validation that you're doing something that matters.
Watson: Absolutely. I'm excited for more people to just learn about this. The effect that it had on me the first time I heard of it, I just want to recreate that with more people, if at all possible.
So, thank you so much for opening your home to me and letting me come here and stick a mic in your face. If people want to learn more about you and the work that you're doing, where can they connect with you?
Gisele Fetterman: Sure. On Facebook, we are Free Store 15104 and 412 Food Rescue also on Facebook. I'm on Instagram @gfett. I'm on Twitter @giselefetterman, as well as Free Store as well as 412 Food Rescue. But, if you are on my Instagram, it is a ton of kid photos. So, prepare yourself.
Watson: Awesome. Well, we will link to all that. In the show notes, goingdeepwithaaron.com/podcast, you will be able to find it there. You'll also be able to find the challenge that Gisele issues. We're gonna give her the mic one last time, so she can take it away.
Gisele Fetterman: Okay. So my challenge is, I started this project in town called the Positive Parking Signs, which you'll see when you drive out of town. We constantly see these kinds of signs telling us what to do, and they're kind of I don't know, mean, you know, stop here. I know that's important. You know, don't park here, you're going to be fined, and we see these signs slowly, everywhere we go, anywhere you drive in there. Of course, are important. There are rules, but I wanted to see how it would affect our days, and if it would affect our days. Instead of seeing these signs or in addition to seeing the signs, we were seeing really happy, positive and inspiring things.
So, I launched the Positive Parking Sign project, which has 122 signs on almost every municipal owned pole on Braddock Avenue, the entire length of it and their municipal strength and real signs. Instead of saying things like ‘don't park here,’ they say things like, ‘notice, follow your dreams.’ Or ‘you are loved’ or ‘eat more vegetables.’ I have about 14 different sayings, and I wanted to shift the day. If you're having a rough day, maybe you see something positive, and it kind of forces you to shift that. I think that's the power of connecting with people.
So, my challenge would be to try to connect with five strangers each day. Whether that is complimenting them on something, ‘oh, hey, I really like your shoes’ or ‘that's a great backpack.’ Or, ‘you have a great smile,’ just five completely different people you've never met before. You may never see them again, but see if you can be that force of change, that's going to kind of disrupt their day, but in a positive way.
Watson: I think it's so easy to show up. If, whether you're in an elevator, or standing in line for coffee to just direct your attention right down to the phone, instead making eye contact with people and kind of having real connections. I think it's good.
Gisele Fetterman: I look forward to that every day, just meeting, just connecting with people. I'm a hugger. There's nothing like connecting with people.
Watson: Love it. Well, this has honestly been an inspirational talk Gisele, and I appreciate you so much for taking the time. Once again, we just Went Deep with Gisele Fetterman, and I hope everyone out there has a fantastic day.
Gisele Fetterman: Thank you for having me.
Watson: Have a great day.