PROVIDENCE, R.I. – It has become a holiday ritual in Rhode Island to take time on Black Friday to donate a warm coat, or pick one up for free.
The "Buy Nothing Day Winter Coat Exchange," held the Friday after Thanksgiving at sites around the state, is Rhode Island's twist on the anti-consumerism movement and attracts people of all stripes.
The idea was hatched during a meeting of the state's Green Party in 1997, when members wanted to highlight the problems with consumerism while also doing something useful for the community, organizer Greg Gerritt said. The first year, around 250 coats were collected. Gerritt estimates that 50,000 coats have passed through the group's hands since then.
Gerritt, who said he is stepping down after 20 years at the helm, spoke with The Associated Press recently about the drive. It will be held at around a dozen locations this year, including its main site on the Statehouse lawn.
Q: What is the idea behind the exchange?
A: "It's very mainstream, but we always maintain our radical core. ... How, in the richest country in the world, do people not have winter coats? What kind of crazy place is that? We always point out that consumerism is something that damages the ecosystem and helps generate the inequality that makes our communities much more difficult to live in."
Q: What has changed over the years?
A: "Not much. The donors are still the same people. Some of them are the exact same people. We have some groups that have been collecting coats for 10 years. ... The need has, if anything, grown. Moms with small kids, people with limited English, people who sleep on the streets. They all come."
Q: Have you seen changes in the need as the economy has gone up and down?
A: "As we've gone through the years, the mainstream agencies and state, even, have told people about it. Every year, we seem to get more people coming for coats. The knowledge of it has been institutionalized around Rhode Island. ... There's no drop-off of need. Rhode Island still hasn't come out of the recession."
Q: What does it say to you that it's become a holiday tradition?
A: "It says that, one, lots of people really care about these issues. And two, (for) lots of families, going out and spending and spending the day after Thanksgiving doesn't cut it. A lot of people would just as soon sit out Black Friday and do something useful and give back to their community rather than just spend money. We're really glad to be able to offer such a service for people."