More than a second lady: How Gisele Fetterman came to serve Pennsylvania’s neediest

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A former undocumented immigrant who became a citizen and used her platform to help all manner of Pennsylvanians, she is far more than a figurehead or a lieutenant governor’s spouse.

That anyone would be called the n-word during a quick trip to the grocery store for golden kiwis is unsettling — all the more so once you learn what Fetterman overcame simply to give back to others.

The mother of three was at a grocery store in Braddock, a PIttsburgh suburb, Sunday evening when a woman recognized her and began haranguing her, saying she didn’t belong, calling her a thief and referring to her as the n-word that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman married, she told CNN.

Gisele Fetterman’s family fled the violence of Rio de Janeiro in 1990 and grew up poor in New York City. Her mother told her and her brother to, “Be invisible,” and she has regularly shared childhood anecdotes of looking over her shoulder and fearing every knock at the door.

“So even though I’m 38 and I’m second lady and I have a family and career, I was immediately again a scared 9-year-old undocumented little girl at that grocery line,” she said of Sunday’s encounter.

“It was a hard reminder for me that it doesn’t matter what I’ve overcome, what I’ve achieved, that to some I will always be viewed as inferior simply because I was not born in this country,” she said.

Fetterman’s record runs deep. She has spent most of her adult life in the United States helping others, whether they’re impoverished, immigrants, LGBT, minorities, imprisoned or hungry. She’s also spoken out on the importance of wearing masks and participating in the Census.

She’s lighthearted, preferring the titular acronym, SLOP, over Second Lady of Pennsylvania, which she feels is “stuffy” — and is one of the foremost purveyors of positivity on social media, once quoting Rumi: “Even if from the sky, poison befalls all, I’m still sweetness wrapped in sweetness wrapped in sweetness.”

She told a writer this month she would never seek public office because “politics is mean and I am not.”

Here are some snapshots of what she’s achieved and overcome:

Her marriage was born of caring

In 2007, she read about the Rust Belt town of Braddock and learned that steel from Braddock and other communities was used in the Brooklyn Bridge, one of her favorite landmarks.

John and Gisele Fetterman walk to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's inauguration last year.

Fetterman had had her green card for a few years, and though only in her mid-20s, she was already an activist, focusing on nutrition and food equity. She wrote then-Mayor John Fetterman to find out more about the town, whose declining population numbered around 2,000 at the time, and his efforts to improve his community. After he wrote back, she began visiting Braddock.

“Of course he fell in love with me,” she told a women’s luncheon earlier this year, the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre reported.

They were married in 2009, the same year she earned US citizenship. Since then she’s used her platforms as a naturalized American and second lady to help others.

She opened a free store for low-income families

On their fourth wedding anniversary, John Fetterman asked his wife what she wanted as a gift and she told him, “I want a shipping container.” He didn’t ask why, she told the Under the Radar entertainment blog earlier this month.

Gisele Fetterman had local artists paint the container, spruced up an abandoned lot and began doling out household goods, baby items and bicycles to those in need.

The store’s motto is “Because the best things in life are free.” It has spread to several locations and served hundreds of clients.

“We dream of a community built on relationships based on mutual aid and cooperation,” Free Store 15104’s website says. “We use the distribution of free items as a catalyst for change. We encourage recycling and reuse as a means to counteract excessive waste and consumption. We aim to eradicate food and clothing insecurity.”

She helped develop a clever way to fight hunger

412 Food Rescue, which she co-founded, sends volunteers to retailers who have surplus food that risks going bad and delivers it to nonprofits that serve the hungry.

“With the help of 2 trucks, 1 van, and thousands of volunteers, we are able to rescue perfectly good but unsellable food that would otherwise be wasted and redirect it to people who need it,” the nonprofit’s website says.
Fetterman stands with 350 boxes of produce in June, encouraging residents to swing by if needed.
Based on the premise that it would take only one-third of the nation’s discarded food to feed its hungry population, it also strives to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from food waste, which the organization says is almost double that of aviation and the iron-and-steel industry combined.
The Pittsburgh City Paper cited both the Free Store and 412 Food Rescue in naming Fetterman 2017’s best activist.

The Fettermans opened the ‘The People’s Pool’

When John Fetterman took office, the couple opted not to move to the 2,400-square-foot state residence in Fort Indiantown Gap, instead opting to live in a remodeled car dealership in Braddock. Fetterman told Pittsburgh magazine this year that it was “not appropriate” to live in a taxpayer-funded mansion with staff. Plus, he said, Braddock is home.
As a result, the property’s 30-by-40-foot swimming pool was going unused, so Gisele Fetterman opened it up to nonprofits and summer camps and instituted a program to teach water safety because federal statistics show African American kids have a 3 times greater risk of drowning than do White chlidren.
“We can have a direct role in changing those statistics,” she said. “Swimming comes with a painful legacy of racial segregation. If my children can swim in that pool, so should every child in Pennsylvania.”

She came to Antwon Rose’s defense

After an East Pittsburgh police officer fatally shot Antwon Rose during a 2018 traffic stop, Fettermen revealed that the “very goofy” 17-year-old volunteered at Free Store 15104 and appeared in one of her husband’s campaign commercials. She also spoke at the teen’s funeral.

“He looked you in the eyes and gave anyone speaking to him total attention and respect,” she said in her tribute. “He would look at you with his big sweet smile, and you would feel, deep in your heart, that this was someone who would make the world better.”

“Antwon’s death shakes my heart, it rattles my faith that things will ever get better or that injustices will ever end. Slowly, too slowly, things will get brighter, even though they’re now so dark,” she said.

She does little things, too

In addition to tackling major issues like hunger and inequality, she knows smaller improvements can make big differences in a community, as demonstrated by her Braddock Bench Building project, which created places to sit at public bus stops — using repurposed materials from homes slated for demolition, of course.
One of Braddock's signs encouraged folks to write more love letters, which Fetterman enjoys doing.

She also sought to brighten Braddock’s primary thoroughfare with uplifting signs, such as “Eat More Vegetables,” “Believe in Yourself,” “More Hugs Needed,” “Follow Your Dreams,” “Be Kind Always” and “Hug a Tree.”

“The signs you see along the streets are always so negative — ‘Don’t park here,’ ‘Don’t loiter there,'” she told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We wanted to counter those with signs spreading cheer and kindness, signs with uplifting messages.”

The Fettermans spent $1,000 of their own money on the signs, the paper reported.

Inclusion is a major thrust of her work

For Good PGH, which Fetterman co-founded, drives numerous initiatives in the Braddock community.
Under the group’s umbrella, the Helping Out Our People coalition, made up of families in the Woodland Hills School District who lost a child to gun violence, mentors young people in hopes of “disrupting the disease of violence.”
Tackling blight is one of Fetterman's many initaitives.
The Foster Good program provides foster kids with unique suitcases rehabilitated by artists, Green Initiatives works to counter Braddock’s blight, Girl Code Woodland Hills introduces high school juniors to businesswomen in greater Pittsburgh, the Hollander Project serves as an incubator for “women-powered businesses” and Hello Hijab makes tiny Muslim headscarves for Barbies and other dolls to promote inclusion and fight stigmas.
Last year, Rodef Shalom, a Jewish congregation, made Fetterman the first woman to receive its 2020 Pursuer of Peace award, citing For Good PGH’s work.

She’s an unapologetic advocate for immigrants

The Fettermans submitted a joint op-ed to several newspapers in August, recounting how Gisele “and her family lived in constant fear that they would be discovered and lose their shot at the American Dream.”

“No child should have to live with that kind of stress,” they wrote. “They deserve to feel secure in the knowledge that they can do normal things like go to school and play sports without living in constant fear that they will lose their family.”

In a 2019 editorial for the Tribune-Review, Gisele Fetterman, a Dreamer herself, wrote that she’ll always be grateful for her mother’s courage and how she took jobs cleaning houses and checking coats to support her family.

“She was routinely paid less than she was supposed to be, if she got paid at all, and she was even assaulted while at work,” Fetterman wrote. “She never complained — she just did what she had to do for her children.

The Brazilian immigrant also recalled how, at 8 years old, she broke her nose playing kickball and her family couldn’t afford medical care, but stories from her native Rio convinced her just how lucky she was to escape the violence.

“When I look in the mirror and I see my broken nose,” she wrote, “I am reminded of how much worse it could have been, and how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to grow up in the U.S.”

Today, she tears up when she hears the National Anthem and gets “super excited to vote,” and she geeked out upon being called for jury duty, she said.

“I wasn’t chosen for a jury, probably because I was so visibly excited to be there that the lawyers thought I was crazy, but for me, that was the sign that I truly belonged, and that I could come out of the shadows,” she wrote.

CNN’s John Berman contributed to this report.

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