One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid groups are still delivering money and services to the most vulnerable in their communities. The solidarity movement kept its momentum by adapting after it became clear this pandemic was more of a prolonged emergency than a short break in normal life.
Radical strategies for building trust and community have influenced the work of nonprofits and more traditional organizing efforts. And while organizers express optimism over their communities’ continued participation in mutual aid efforts, the groups have begun to develop bigger plans.
Jasmine Araujo is an organizer with Southern Solidarity in New Orleans. In July 2020, Araujo said the start of the pandemic felt like years ago. Today, the mutual aid group is still delivering food, medical supplies, and hygiene products to the unhoused while sourcing specific requests and funding from the community.
“We distribute food. We distribute clothes, shoes, any miscellaneous items people ask for, bug spray, wheelchairs. We write that down,” she told Shadowproof.
Araujo and her fellow organizers believe solidarity with the city’s unhoused population looks like asking what people need instead of delivering charity.
Among the group’s 50 members, there are undocumented, unhoused, trans, and formerly incarcerated people. The composition of the group reflects broader goals of centering oppressed people in their work. Southern Solidarity considers themselves an anti-imperialist Black liberation group.
The group has delivered over 250 meals a day, every day, since the pandemic caused shutdowns around the country last year.
Last October, a week before the mayor declared a state of emergency because of Hurricane Zeta, the police posted a notice to clear an encampment with many unhoused people. It threatened that a sweep would begin in 24 hours, which they knew could result in a loss of their shelter and personal belongings.
Where unhoused people were meant to shelter during the state of emergency was unclear.
Southern Solidarity organizers have helped move tents and shelters ahead of sweeps and have seen the police in action. According to Araujo, “[Police] are throwing out bedding of unhoused people. They love doing that at 4 am. They will clear entire camps of all their stuff. It is incredibly cruel.”
Organizers say the sweeps continued into the new year.
Southern Solidarity makes it clear that the local and federal governments failed the city’s residents and continue to do so through a lack of social services. “We’re doing the work we’re doing because of austerity measures,” said Araujo.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, slashed money for social service departments in an effort to remedy the state budget crisis shortly after his election in 2016. The state’s maximum unemployment benefit is $247 a week, before taxes.
Araujo recently brought Southern Solidarity’s work to New York City’s Lower East Side, where she grew up. She says she will use the same strategy of building community and listening to those in need in the New York chapter.
Not all mutual groups felt able to maintain a consistent level of activity over the past year.
The COVID-19 Mutual Aid group in Lexington, Kentucky made a decision to stop taking new need requests. According to a statement from the group, they were able to distribute close to $15,000. The amount of money and services they coordinated reflects both the group’s tireless work during a dangerous pandemic and the federal government’s failures.
Still, like many mutual aid networks, they maintain a Facebook group where individuals can post their needs or offer help. They also maintain a Google Doc, a favorite tool among mutual aid groups, where organizers left a simple statement: “Removing red tape to access resources makes us a much easier alternative than current governmental and nonprofit structures. Mutual aid is not the same as charity.”
Virginia’s Shenandoah Socialist Collective had considered creating a mutual aid network prior to the state’s shutdown in March 2020.
“We had been wanting [a mutual aid network] to materialize for a long time. Then COVID happened, and it felt like it was suddenly something that could no longer wait,” said Haley Springer, a central committee member of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective and one of the founders of Shenandoah Mutual Aid.
Like others, the group started delivering groceries, picking up medications, and helping vulnerable people stay home to stay safe. Shenandoah Mutual Aid is still cooking and distributing food, but as the pandemic dragged on, the group wanted to reflect on best organizing practices. Ultimately, the 25-or-so members decided to pivot toward the most vulnerable in their community: incarcerated and houseless people.
Living houseless in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains requires long underwear, wool socks, and other winter gear. Moreover, unhoused people do not have access to bathrooms in coffee shops, libraries, or restaurants, which used to provide an “informal network that people have relied on to meet the human need of having a sanitary and private place to go to the bathroom,” Springer explained.
Shenandoah Mutual Aid raised $5,000 and organized with unhoused people in the area to try and get a portable toilet and washing station downtown. The deal is not done, but Springer is hopeful. Importantly, winning a portable toilet is not an end point for the collective.
“Our goal is not to just do this indefinitely but to really try and organize these folks the point where they can draw concessions from our municipal government to have their basic needs met, just the way anybody else who lives in the city is entitled to,” Springer said.
“We’re not trying to be a charity group. We’re trying to engage people in a struggle to build a better world.”
It appears that some of the mutual aid strategies employed by radical, unstructured groups have influenced the work of nonprofits.
The MS Gulf Coast Mutual Aid Network is a program of the non-profit Mississippi Rising Coalition. In addition to working on prison reform and education initiatives, the organization had wanted to establish a mutual aid network for Southern Mississippi before the pandemic.
When businesses shut down, the Mississippi Rising Coalition moved quickly to start distributing food and money for medications, utilities, and rent.
Matt Lawrence is a board member at the Mississippi Rising Coalition, working on improving food access. Lawrence said the network that came about because of the pandemic provided an “opportunity to transition from building a network of mutual aid into building a network of long-term food sustainability.”
Food security has been a major issue for the area for years. According to research by the foodbank network Feeding America, almost 20 percent of people in the state are considered “food insecure,” meaning their lack of resources affects their ability to eat regular meals.
Currently, the mutual aid network is harvesting crops from a local farmers’ land. They keep a portion of the crops in exchange for labor. Some of the produce includes okra, sweet potatoes, mustard greens, natural greens, peppers, and squash.
Lawrence and the network have plans for community farming, too. In addition to local farmers donating land or meat, Lawrence wants to see small backyard gardens become more common in Hattiesburg.
There are plots of land in the area that will hopefully be used for community-owned farming, where Hattiesburg residents “would get a dividend from [extra produce sold]” in “community-owned gardens, community-owned greenhouses,” according to Lawrence.
Due to the group’s nonprofit status, the network can receive funds through grants and larger tax-deductible donations. Shenandoah Mutual Aid and Southern Solidarity, on the other hand, rely on smaller individual contributions.
The Biden administration’s relief package promises an additional $1,400 in direct payments to Americans. The meager sum seems unlikely to disrupt the looming wave of possible evictions or record unemployment.
Mutual aid groups are engaged in projects that will deepen community ties and help residents mobilize for better conditions, especially for those made the most vulnerable in society.