By Brittany Crowell
“I still don’t fully understand what happened and I’m not sure that I ever really will,” Simone Policano told me, “these past few months have been a fever dream.”
In the middle of March, Policano was walking home and passed a group of elderly folks outside a supermarket, waiting for it to slow down so they could safely enter. Concerned for their well-being in the time of the coronavirus, she posted on social media – “How can I help?” The response she received was monumental, but from people who were looking to lend a hand and similarly didn’t know where to go. With New York City beginning to shut down and shelter-at-home, and grocery delivery programs like Fresh Direct, Instacart, and Amazon overwhelmed with requests, Policano, along with friends Liam Elkins and Healy Chait, created ‘Invisible Hands Deliver.’
Now, two months in, I had the pleasure of getting to spend my Friday morning talking to the fierce women who joined Simone and the team to build Invisible Hands Deliver into the expansive community that it is today, amassing over 10,000 volunteers within their first month and facilitating almost 5,000 deliveries by the end of their second.
Policano, along with Laura Moss, Julia Kennelly, Karine Benzaria, and Monica Jacobs all work in the film industry. Simone is an actor and producer for both theater and film; Julia is a line producer, writer, and director; Karine is a TV and editorial producer; Laura is a filmmaker, writer and director; and Monica is a props master. All of these women have directly felt the effects of the pandemic on their jobs and their industry, and were led to Invisible Hands while looking for ways to give back and fill their time.
When Laura Moss joined the organization, she had seen a post on social media and wanted to help. She was working on writing a feature film for a studio, set to direct a commercial (which was pulled due to the pandemic), and in pre-production for a film that had been postponed indefinitely. Moss saw that the organization was growing rapidly and soon the founders would not be able to handle the influx of requests, “…basically, it felt like the entire city was calling us.”
Moss aided the team in creating a call center to receive the increasing inquiries (until this time, Policano had been listing her personal number on the fliers). “I think of a lot of what I do as a director is part artist and part construction foreman.” Moss told me, “It’s making sure that everyone has the tools they need to do their job and also is empowered and pointing in the same direction.”
Moss was soon joined by Julia Kennelly and Karine Benzaria, producing partners at Dream City, who helped the call center handle the breadth of requests and implemented additional forms and structures, “My work is all about efficiency.” Kennelly told me, “That is a big part of what we’ve been successful with at Invisible Hands, because we all have that mindset of ‘everything is about efficiency and maximizing efficiency.’”
“Filmmakers, at the end of the day, they’re inventors,” Benzaria added, “we’re constantly inventing. Even though you spend months prepping for a film, there will be something that happens, and [Invisible Hands] has just been a different form of that. In the way that things can fall apart on set, the world has fallen apart, and whenever that happens, we’re so used to being in the brain-space of, ‘Ok, well, we’re fixing it with the scotch tape and the weird glue, and this is how it will come together.’ That’s what has worked for us in terms of Invisible Hands.”
However, efficiency and invention were not enough. Just like in film, the team needed to find the balance between the structure and the heart. You can’t make a good film with a bad script, no matter how well-run your set is, Kennelly told me, “Once we got a system that worked, we were like, ‘What are the needs of this space that aren’t about efficiency.’”
Monica Jacobs, who now runs the call center for Invisible Hands, explained that many of the calls they were receiving were about so much more than securing a delivery, “We’re the ones who hear the people calling first, and so a lot of our time is spent not just facilitating delivery requests or putting in the orders, but also talking to people who are scared and alone and need help and want someone to speak to sometimes.”
One of Policano’s goals in creating Invisible Hands Deliver was to find a way to give the community a social experience, even in being socially distant from those they are delivering to. Much of this manifested in making space for not only the immediate physical needs of their deliveries, but also the emotional needs. The order process may take only five minutes, but Jacobs was finding that, in many cases, that conversation would go on afterwards, with neighbors looking to connect to other New York City neighbors.
When asked how her experience at Invisible Hands had changed her view of the film industry, Jacobs responded, “What we’ve experienced here and what we’ve learned is that there are broken systems that exist and that need to be restructured.”
The pandemic and the collateral impact it has had on the arts has woken the entire team to the safety concerns of being in an industry with a culture of “Well, it’s dirty. That’s fine, we’ll have tough immune systems now;” or where the mantra “The Show Must Go On” causes an actor to continue performing with strep throat, getting the rest of his cast sick; where unions are there to protect a few and others are left to protect themselves; or where movements like #metoo rise after years of silence and “swallowing it” are considered normal and par for the course.
“There is a lot of the ‘We’re fine. We’re tough.’ And that’s just not the way to operate anymore,” Monica responded. Many producers in the film industry are beginning to look around at their communities and ask the same question that Invisible Hands asks of their at-risk constituents, ‘What do you need?’ “Now that we’ve had the time to only think about how to address the issues of the pandemic, we can’t unlearn what we’ve learned once we go back to regular work.” Jacobs added, “How do we continue to work knowing what we know, and knowing the systems that need fixing?”
Invisible Hands Deliver has seen how the practice of working 17-hour days for a project has impacted their current volunteer leaders. “Our value, how we feel our own personal value, has been really put to the test in this crisis because we are used to working all these hours and we know that if we work all these hours and we don’t get a lot of sleep, but we create this beautiful thing, then we did something good; we made something beautiful because we sweat and we put blood into it, so that’s our value,” said Jacobs. Moss noticed this pattern early on and asked the team to hold themselves to a strict 40-hour work week. By instigating these limitations and encouraging everyone to go outside for walks and put work away on the weekends, the team was able to see the worth in their work within a healthy structure, and see that they still had value without sacrificing health and safety.
The team also began asking other important questions of their return to the film industry: How can we look at the impact that filming in a location has on the neighborhood and the residents of that space, and care for them in our approach to being in their space? How can we find our value as women who had to bust our way into a male-dominated industry without feeling the need to push ourselves to the limit to prove ourselves? How can we take these lessons back into our system, which is about efficiency, and also maintain the heart and community connection that brought us into the industry in the first place?
“Working with these women, we’re bringing this drive and sense of community to saving our city and saving our industry,” Kennelly said to me, “We’re all in this together, and we’re going to get through it, no matter how crazy it is.”
To learn more about Invisible Hands, visit www.invisiblehandsdeliver.com
To volunteer with Invisible Hands, click HERE
To donate to Invisible Hands, click HERE