If you’ve driven by the corner of Lexington and Central in St. Paul over the past several days, chances are you’ve seen a line of people wrapped around the block, waiting for food and other supplies. That’s because of comedian Shay Webbie.
In less than one week, Webbie, a standup comic who typically uses her voice to make people laugh, has used her voice to bring together her fellow comics and volunteers of all backgrounds to create the massive food bank that has fed thousands of community members.
“It’s been a positive vibe,” she says of the miniature city that has been created to help people whose grocery stores were destroyed this past week. “It’s been beautiful. People are crying tears of happiness. It’s been so good to see everybody step up together for humanity.”
Webbie says the inspiration for the food bank started when she attended a rally for George Floyd.
“I went to the rally the day after George Floyd was murdered with Pastor Carmen Means, and I met with my sister [fellow comic] Ashli Henderson. She wanted to start a food pantry in Minneapolis that Friday, and then Saturday I decided to start mine in St. Paul,” she explains. “We went from two tents to a whole field of supplies and volunteers in just a couple of days, and a lot of that is thanks to my comedy family for stepping up.”
One of those comics is Ali Sultan, who started off gathering donations for Webbie, but quickly ended up as her right-hand man.
“I was out at 38th and Chicago for a protest and saw that Shay was there collecting,” he says. “I donated anything that I could personally. Food, cash, whatever. Then I decided it would be good to try and help other people do this too. So I called a couple more comics and put it out on Facebook, and we started to gather up supplies and brought out some tables and a tent. That made it more official, and since that day it’s just grown from a few people to the whole block in like one second.”
By Webbie’s count, the number of people served is well over 2,000. While the rest of the country is hearing more about the destruction happening in the Twin Cities, she says that this gathering of hope is far more indicative of the community around her.
“They show a lot of negativity in our neighborhood, but our neighborhood – Frogtown, Hamline, Midway – is beautiful. They never show the positive. They show the shootings and the lootings, but [the community support] happens on a regular basis around here. Maybe not quite this big, but we support each other out here.”
For the moment, Webbie says that the plan is to open up shop on the same corner every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., until stores are able to once again serve the community. But with the outpouring of support comes challenges.
“I did not expect all of this,” she says. “We’re to the point where we’re turning down donations. Not because we don’t want them and appreciate them, but because we don’t have the space to store them or a building we can keep everything in.”
Sultan says that he believes the key to maintaining momentum lies in finding people to keep supporting the cause moving forward.
“I called for other comedians to be involved and we’ve got 20 of them here today,” he says. “But we need bodies. We need bodies that are willing to make this a long-term thing.”
Sultan says the outpouring of people wanting to volunteer has become so massive that a Facebook page and email address ([email protected]) have been created, and people interested in helping should inquire through there.
As for Webbie, she’s focused on helping the people in her community one day at a time.
“Between making my community laugh and giving them emotional, physical, and financial support, that’s what I want to do.”