Several months ago, when the global pandemic began to grip New York, Jessica Wertz and her partner Rob Herschenfeld took action. Wertz, a former bar owner and host of local motorcycle show The Brooklyn Invitational, works in tandem with Herschenfeld, a furniture designer with a background in physics and robotics, at their Brooklyn-based construction company called Lee Wertz Inc. Herschenfeld suggested that they make and distribute PPE, and so they first reached out to a friend who is an emergency response coordinator. Their friend put them in touch with Mount Sinai, which desperately needed face shields in local hospitals. After cold calling plastics companies, Wertz and Herschenfeld sourced all of the materials needed to make face shields. They created a prototype which they took to Mount Sinai, who decided to place an order on the spot for 500,000 shields. Wertz and Herschenfeld then assembled a small army of former colleagues, friends, local tattoo artists, bartenders, servers, and builders to help with production. After amassing a 40-plus team and pulling many all-nighters, Wertz and Herschenfeld fulfilled the order and have been producing face shields for other local hospitals and medical centers ever since. Their operation is called Shield Our Heroes NYC.
But during the last month, just after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, they shifted their focus. “We felt that we needed to take on the next big challenge, which was to be helpful, in any and every way possible, in the fight for racial justice,” Wertz told Vogue. After brainstorming with the team, the majority of whom had experienced first-hand loss and illnesses due to Covid-19, the group knew that they needed to provide local protestors with PPE. They began to play around with various fonts and lettering, taking the idea of a protest sign and applying it to their face shields. Together, they crafted 200 stickers that spelled out two phrases: “No Justice No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter.” Wertz and the crew made 200 of these PPE and brought them to their local protest in Brooklyn to hand out for free. “Protestors were running up to us,” Wertz remembers. “Everyone grabbed them and put them on right away. There was a sense of enthusiasm and strength.”
This past weekend, as more protests took place throughout the city, in particular the 15,000 person rally for Black trans lives in Brooklyn, Wertz and her factory of friends and colleagues made and distributed 500 more protest-ready face shields. They’re also currently selling the shields on their website, along with t-shirts printed with the words “Vote for Racial Justice” and “End Police Brutality,” with all proceeds going toward purchasing more materials for the production of face shields for protestors, as well as the NAACP, and Stacey Abrams’s anti-voter suppression organization Fair Fight. The Shield Our Heroes crew will continue to produce and distribute face shields to hospitals and protestors nationwide, not only because there is still a huge need in the medical space but also because, as Wertz points out, Covid-19 has disproportionately affected BIPOC. For her and the team, this PPE is about protection, but it’s also about showing support to those on the front lines of the fight for equality. As she says: “These face shields are about safety, but really, they’re about unity.”(From left) Lauren Flax, DJ, music producer, and activist; Jaci Portillo, GM of Shield Our Heroes NYC; Isaac Arvold, artist.Photo: Chris Shonting