Hand Sanitizer for the People: The Allyship of an Actor and PhD Student

Jamal Trulove gives out hand sanitizer to Fillmore residents, local workers and those in need on Fillmore Street on April 17, 2020. The sanitizer is manufactured by The Science Policy Group at UCSF. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Jamal Trulove and Elina Kostyanovskaya were both working in different ways to serve marginalized communities in the Bay Area before the coronavirus hit.

Trulove, an actor, activist and San Francisco resident notable for his role in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” is focused on the criminal justice system: He spent over six years in prison before being acquitted in a 2015 retrial. (He received a $13.1 million settlement for being framed by police for murder.)

Kostyanovskaya, a Ph.D. candidate in developmental and stem cell biology at UCSF, has worked as an organizer on issues of housing and justice.

The dire need for supplies like masks and hand sanitizer has now forged an alliance between the two. They, along with a group of volunteers, have been producing and distributing hand sanitizer to incarcerated people and low-income neighborhoods in the Bay Area since mid-March, working to get crucial supplies to those who need them the most.

Trulove said at the beginning of the crisis he looked for hand sanitizer and face masks in many local stores without any success. For many low-income people, he said, there's a lot more to worry about with the coronavirus.

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“People are worried about food, people are worried about rent ... And a lot of these families, they're living five to six people in a two bedroom, it's tough,” Trulove said. “If there's not attention being shown in our communities,” in regards to prevention and testing, “we won’t find out the cases, we’ll only find out about the deaths."

Trulove noted that the African American, Latinx and Native American communities have been hit the hardest.

Kostyanovskaya and Trulove were linked up through recently elected San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Trulove said he reached out to Boudin to find out if the city had hand sanitizer or masks he could bring to underserved communities. Boudin then connected him to Kostyanovskaya, who had previously worked on the Boudin election campaign and was just beginning to make hand sanitizer as part of a project with the UCSF Science Policy Group.

UCSF Ph.D. student Elina Kostyanovskaya and actor and social activist Jamal Trulove give out hand sanitizer and face masks on Fillmore Street on April 17, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Kostyanovskaya said that her project initially began in collaboration with the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter. The DSA had heard from incarcerated people in the Bay Area that there was little, if any, information sharing about what the coronavirus is, or how to prevent people from getting sick.

So, she took action.

“This is one thing I know how to do. I can make hand sanitizer, I can make it in a lab,” Kostyanovskaya said. After some initial funding from the DSA and the California Wellness Foundation, lab space from a fellow UCSF student and a materials order — they began.

“It took us about a week to get up and running,” Kostyanovskaya said. After mixing everything together in the lab, the group bottles, labels and distributes sanitizer, along with a pamphlet explaining a bit more about the virus, social distancing and hand washing.

Kostyanovskaya said they can make about a thousand bottles in a day.

“For San Quentin, we got stuff [materials] on Tuesday night and there were three of us, so we worked from Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. until the next morning, Wednesday at 4:15 a.m.,” she said. Santa Rita Jail did not accept a donation, despite 14 people reportedly infected with the virus, but San Quentin and San Francisco County Jail have accepted the free hand sanitizer.

Thus far, the project has distributed over 250 gallons and 8,300 four-ounce bottles of sanitizer. The group has started a GoFundMe page to continue their work, but Kostyanovskaya says they’ve also racked up some personal debt to keep the project up and running.

Though the focus is on hand sanitizer, the project is also providing masks. Trulove says he’s seen people begin to use masks and hand sanitizer more often.

“After passing out these masks, and hand sanitizer, you start seeing more people wearing the masks,” Trulove said. “And it's almost teaching people's minds.”

He likens it to the “new shoe effect,” when someone wears a new pair of Jordans.

“You see one person with the new Jordans, and you're like, ‘Oh, them is tight as hell.’ Next thing you know, it's like, ‘Man, I gotta get those. I don't want to be without those.’ Don’t be without your face mask and your hand sanitizer, because it could save your life,” Trulove said.

Everett Butler holds a sign that says, 'Free Hand Sanitizer & Masks,' in the Fillmore on April 17, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Kostyanovskaya said they will be serving two large prisons next week. And while she thinks mutual aid projects are great, she also said these kinds of projects are “usually something that you have to do only when someone — and in this case, the government — fails to fulfill a critical role.”

“I can't just sit on it, and do nothing,” Kostyanovskaya said.