As soon as Emma Downs discovered that Massachusetts had the nation’s highest increase in food insecurity rates during the pandemic, she knew something had to be done.
The idea was simple, Downs recounted.
“I realized that I had 38 [meal] swipes left, and it was a week before finals,” Downs said. “I posted on the POC Jumbos Facebook group, [asking], ‘Is there a way to donate these swipes to outside organizations?’”
When Downs realized that there was not yet a way to donate her meal swipes, she decided to take on the initiative.
“[I thought], ‘Okay, I am just going to start this,’” Downs said. “I had the idea, I posted on Facebook, got a group together [and] we organized things.”
What initially started out as a social media post soon grew into the student-led group JumboSwipes, which continues to combat food insecurity in Tufts’ host communities of Medford and Somerville by redistributing students’ meal swipes.
Downs shared how her Instagram post, which invited community members to donate their meal swipes, went “semi-viral.”
“I started posting on my [Instagram] story being like, ‘Hey, these are some stats, I had this idea, does anyone want to help?’” Downs said. “Suddenly, it started going around the school, and we got over 500 sign-ups to donate.”
Downs explained that since there is no way to transfer the university’s meal swipes directly to outside organizations, she would collect Tufts students’ meal donations — purchased with their meal swipes — and deliver them to local homeless shelters or community fridges.
Through it all, Downs underscored that JumboSwipes has been a collective, not individual, effort led by the Tufts community members.
“Everything from seeing students drop off everything they have in their house on my porch to give away or people volunteering to sit on my porch and sort food for an hour during finals week … it’s incredible to me,” Downs said. “Dropping off food at [the community] fridge and talking to the people who run the fridge, and them telling me how much that this is making a difference … to me, it’s inspiring.”
Overall, she elaborated on the significance of JumboSwipes, particularly in light of her understanding of equity and racial justice in the United States.
“For me, what has always driven me is the goal to create a positive impact on the world and to promote inclusion and equity,” Downs said. “My mother is a diversity consultant, so I’ve always grown up understanding how inequality manifests itself in our institutions and in the world and in our interactions with everyone around us.”
Downs added that issues such as food insecurity disproportionately impacts the Black and Latinx communities in Massachusetts. In this context, Downs noted that JumboSwipes has been a vehicle through which she can bring about substantive changes on the ground, for the greater good of society.
“Actually going into the community and affecting lives in some way is progress toward resolving all of the issues that we care about, [such as] racial inequality because a lot of this disparity is based on racial lines,” Downs said.
On top of JumboSwipes, Downs has pursued a wide range of academic and extracurricular passions over the past four years. She taught an Experimental College course titled Deconstructing Avatar: the Last Airbender, interned for Massachusetts State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and produced podcasts for the Observer. She has also worked as a data analysis intern within the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.
Among her many interests and passions, though, Downs emphasized that the theater community has been her anchor and a constant during her time at Tufts.
“I’ve been in musicals since I was in sixth grade, and I’ve been singing since I could speak,” Downs said. “At Tufts, I think [theater] has really allowed me to explore [my identity], especially in the last production I was in, ‘Spring Awakening’ (2006).”
As a political science and theater and performance studies double major, Downs can ultimately see how her manifold interests help her “imagine” and “create” a better world. In this regard, Downs highlighted the interconnectedness of politics and art.
“I think all theater is political, and all politics is theater,” Downs said. “Theater is political because it is representing ideas and people … [and] it’s helping [to] spread information and new ways of imagining the world and what is possible. … Art is a fundamental aspect of many political movements, [ranging from] feminist movements in Cuba to even now with Black Lives Matter. Art is essential to how we relay political messages and reach hearts and minds.”
On such a view, Downs contextualized JumboSwipes and her love for theater as a part of her desire to foster understanding and, by extension, her passion for social justice and equity.
In light of her outstanding service and leadership, Downs received this year’s Presidential Award for Civic Life. Downs also won the prestigious Critical Language Scholarship, awarded by the U.S. Department of State, to study abroad in Gwangju,South Korea this summer.
Half-Korean, Downs shared that the opportunity to study the Korean language and culture resonates with her personally.
She elaborated on her plans going forward.
“After [studying in Korea], I need to take a class next semester [at Tufts],” Downs said. “What I am going to try to do [then] is to audition for theatrical productions and [have] a day job in something having to do with equity.”
In the future, Downs hopes to continue inspiring changes through her academic and professional endeavors, as an extension and outgrowth of her journey at Tufts.
“Expanding people's perspectives through storytelling and art is extremely important to me,” Downs said. “All my interests revolve around my goal of making this world a better, more inclusive, more understanding, more culturally comprehensive place.”