Mutual aid rider in the Bronx

Adi Talwar

Seen here on the first Thursday of April, Corona Couriers Volunteer, graduate student Amy Obermeyer on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, loading her bike with groceries for a client. This was Amy’s third delivery of the day, she was planning on making three more deliveries before heading home to Astoria. Amy has been volunteering with Corona Couriers for about two weeks.

An RN in Queens and her husband fell sick with the virus, then worried how they would obtain food and snacks for their eleven-year-old daughter.

A formerly incarcerated man and advocate struggled to afford caring for his kids; his jobs were all on hold and their mother had been hospitalized.

A prisoner had no access to hand sanitizer, and instead rubbed his hands with bleach.

These are only a few of the countless stories of hardship from the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, but the good news is, in each of these cases, there were people listening. A bunch of Astorians ensured food was dropped off for the eleven-year-old; A group of advocates sent funds to the father; a criminal justice nonprofit is mailing packages with soap and other necessities.

Over the past few weeks, advocacy groups, veteran volunteers, and everyday residents across the five boroughs have stepped up to form groups and projects that assist vulnerable New Yorkers. People are going shopping with strangers’ grocery lists in hand, dropping bags off in front of closed apartment doors. They are delivering home-cooked meals and medication, offering phone-based legal support and mental health counseling, raising money for the income insecure, and sending cash. There are bilingual Bronxites offering Spanish-speaking families support with remote learning. There are Brooklynites offering pet care and passwords for their internet subscriptions. “Mutual aid” is the term circulating on social media to describe this work, which is happening across the country and beyond it.

New Yorkers have always risen to the occasion during times of crisis—from the local heroes who gave their lives to rescue 9/11 survivors, to the communities that came together to assist residents trapped by Hurricane Sandy. Yet the term mutual aid—which has long been used and put into practice by disabled people, prison abolitionists, anarchists and others—is a term that seeks to capture people’s interdependence and to distinguish it from charity work. It recognizes that no one can predict who will next get sick or become subjects to the pandemic’s impacts. It also captures the reality that in some cases, it is people within marginalized communities organizing within their network to assist each other, and to do it fast—without bureaucratic application processes and without forcing people to beg.

“[This is] community coming together, saying, ‘how can we support each other during this time?’…We’re not relying on big donors or big money,” says Melissa Tanis, one of the organizers of the Financial Solidarity for Formerly Incarcerated People and Their Families Mutual Aid Project. The “community” to which she referred was a network of mostly criminal justice advocates, many of whom themselves were formerly incarcerated or have experienced the incarceration of a family member. By Monday, the project had raised about $13,000 to distribute to families in aid of up to $250, including the father described above.

Unlike prior disasters, when the worst impacts were usually concentrated in certain locations, COVID-19’s geographic pervasiveness means that in many neighborhoods across the city, there are new groups coalescing to address local needs. Some social justice organizations have diverted all their energy to helping their base survive the pandemic, working across neighborhoods or even boroughs. Mutual Aid NYC, a newly formed network launched to support and connect the various groups, had been in contact with 76 mutual aid groups as of Tuesday.

Those who’ve become involved in the effort come with different histories and perspectives. Some are drawn simply by an organic desire to help neighbors or coworkers. Some groups, especially those dedicated to justice for Black people, disabled people, LGTBQ+ people, migrants and other marginalized communities, turn toward mutual aid as a matter of survival, and with the recognition that, in times of disaster, their communities are always hit worst. One organizer noted that pre-existing mutual aid behaviors already exist in communities with language barriers or that don’t feel they can rely on government. There’s a sentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles.

Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society. Indeed, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among other progressive politicians, has been lending support to the movement; on March 18, she held a conference call to train listeners on building a “‘mutual aid’ network.”

Many participants who spoke to City Limits also pointed to the limits of mutual aid and said bolder state action was crucial to protect the city’s most vulnerable residents from the ongoing crisis. Some are involved in both mutual aid and advocacy for policy change, like the cancellation of rent in New York State and the freeing of prisoners.

“Mutual aid is an immediate solution to issues—it’s not supposed to absolve the state from their responsibility,” says Asamia Diaby, NYC chapter co-chair of Black Youth Project 100. “Also, as organizers and directly impacted people and young people, [we] have thousands of other responsibilities.”

Burgeoning across the city

In just the past couple weeks, dozens of Google spreadsheets, Slack channels and Signal conversations have popped up to coordinate relief efforts. Corona Couriers is one of the new groups: founded by a home-from-work librarian and as of last weekend consisting of almost 300 volunteers who are mainly cyclists, it makes deliveries across the city, often partnering with other groups that are focused on raising funds or know people who need assistance. The Astoria Mutual Aid Network is another, with about 440 people signed up to volunteer as of last weekend.

“We’re trying to build the plane as we’re flying it,” says Maryam Shariat Mudrick, an out-of-work event planner who founded The Astoria Mutual Aid Network with her husband. The group is focused on meeting needs in the Astoria community, making train rides unnecessary. “We’re not asking people to walk great geographic areas—we’re not asking them to go too far outside of what they feel comfortable with.”

The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) has encouraged its members to support mutual aid groups in their neighborhoods and is among the multiple forces building out the citywide network. (Full disclosure, the reporter is a member of the chapter.) Three organizations—Black Youth Project 100, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Decrim NY—collaborated to launch the NYC Black Folk Mutual Aid Fund, and is also launching a delivery service as well as trying to manufacture hard-to-find items, like hand-sanitizer.

“COVID-19 is going to impact everyone but it’s going to disproportionately impact our community,” says Diaby. “BYP100 isn’t a social service organization…but we know that in this moment, they need direct services….We felt we had no choice but to participate in this.”

NYC Shut It Down, a group birthed during the Black Lives Matter movement, is building on its experience running a Sunday street corner cookout program for food insecure families in the Bronx and East Harlem. With the arrival of COVID-19, it began making home-cooked meals and delivering them door-to-door to households across four boroughs. Within five days, the group served about 207 households including 750 individuals, prepping three to five meals per person, or close to 3,000 meals total, along with groceries. This was accomplished by a group of about five to ten kitchen volunteers, another dozen drivers and runners, and then another four or five members of Cosmos AFA, an anti-fascist football club, though others have offered to volunteer. Thanks to a connection through World Central kitchen, they’re now operating out of a Fedcap Rehabilitation kitchen space. The group is also delivering to people who need groceries without meal prep, and hopes to build out other initiatives.

“[It’s about] building the world that we want, rather than demanding it from the state—rather than fighting for it in a more conventional sense…it’s bigger than that. We’re trying to build the world that we want to see,” says June, the member whose kitchen became the launch pad and who asked that their last name not be used. June adds that the work, “speaks to the kind of care that most of these grassroots organizations have for the communities that they’re working with.”

Housing justice groups like the Crown Heights Tenants Union and CAAAV also have their own mutual aid efforts. Equality for Flatbush and The Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network launched the #BrooklynShowsLove Mutual Aid Project, which includes five prongs, of which the first is to establish a “phone tree” network, with volunteers reaching out to the Brooklyn-wide base to assess people’s needs, and asking community members to build phone or texting networks with those on their block, in their building, or in their places of worship.

Other aspects of the project include an emergency fund to support low income Flatbush, East Flatbush and Crown Heights residents impacted by the pandemic with cash grants of $150 each (no verification documents required), the distribution of “community care kits” of supplies and groceries, the compiling of information into a resource guide, and fighting for systemic change.

The group is not just delivering funds or groceries, but also connecting residents with mental health professionals and lawyers who can assist with other problems, from police harassment to a landlord who refuses to come fix a building’s heat during quarantine. As of Sunday, hotlines have been set up in Spanish, French, Creole, and Mandarin, with documents translated into these languages as well as Farsi, Hebrew, and Bengali.

“We want people who want to volunteer with us that understand: you’re not just phone banking. You’re talking to Grandma,” says Equality For Flatbush organizer Imani Henry. “You’re talking to leaders in the movement! …[Come] if you are down with family. This is not charity.”

Another new group formed by restaurant workers, the Service Workers Coalition, has launched a fund to support those impacted by the closure of restaurants. At the time of interview, they’d given out close to 200 unique stipends, with aid of up to $50 a week, and were also coordinating with another group, the Covid19 Messengers, to make deliveries.

“Everyone who works in restaurants is just so deeply invested in the work that you do together that you become so intimate with each other…We were so naturally drawn to the care of this fund,” says co-founder Kelly Sullivan. She noted that she has never been belonged to any kind of political advocacy group and that it’s been challenging to field the many questions the coalition has received from struggling restaurant workers seeking answers about their legal rights and future. “It feels like in some ways you are abandoning people, even if you don’t have the answers to their questions.”

The efforts so far have demonstrated a widespread desperation for monetary relief. On March 24, #BrooklynShowsLove announced that after receiving 500 requests for its emergency fund in four days, it had to temporary close that fund to new applicants while it raised the $70,000 needed to ensure everyone who applied received help (by March 27, more than 600 had requested funds). The NYC Black Folk Mutual Aid Project had raised about $35,000 by Monday but needed $93,628 for 605 black New Yorkers. Abolition Action, an affiliate of NYC-DSA Socialist Feminists, along with the NYC-DSA chapter itself have together raised over $70,000—but this still less than half of the $200,000 in requests for funds that the groups have received so far.

Sandy, but not Sandy

Among those offering guidance and assistance to the current mutual aid networks are veterans of the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort.

As has been documented, following Hurricane Sandy many elderly and disabled individuals were trapped in high-rises, often without heat, water, and electricity. The crisis required untrained volunteers to step in to organize massive relief efforts, which included knocking on doors, delivering supplies and coordinating emergency medical evacuations.

“First #Sandy Lesson, lots of ppl’s social networks will get disrupted even if things seem ok now. Elderly & disabled folks are the most likely to need support as it becomes more difficult for family members & caregivers to get to them,” tweeted Adrien Weibgen, who ran a relief effort in Coney Island after Sandy, on March 14.

In 2013, a federal court found the city had violated the rights of disabled residents by failing to plan adequately for their safety during times of emergency.

Sandy volunteers have shared materials—like volunteer intake forms developed and refined during the Sandy relief efforts—to assist others with building COVID-19 mutual aid projects. They and other organizers also recognized that, different from Sandy, the pandemic would be widespread, ongoing and require a different level of coordination. In mid-March, a group of organizers, technical experts and organizations came together to quickly launch Mutual Aid NYC, a network with a website meant to increase coordination and resource-sharing across the city.

The site currently helps to connect volunteers and people in need of assistance with groups doing mutual aid work in their area. Soon, it will also facilitate connections between groups so that if, say, one group has a lot of volunteers and another has a lot of requests—an issue we also discovered in our reporting—they can work together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Mutual Aid NYC’s founders also intend to support groups in building capacity, improve their network’s and website’s accessibility, provide support to individual volunteers, and identify geographic gaps in the network.



Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

Another difference from Sandy work, of course, are today’s social distancing requirements. The threat of viral spread makes it difficult to contact strangers and to perform the actual work of mutual aid. Many groups use a combination of fliers, social media and word of mouth to inform people about their efforts, but those efforts may still fail to reach everyone confined to their homes without internet access. In addition, groups are aware that if they fail to maintain strict social distancing protocols, their volunteerism could end up doing more harm than good.

The mutual aid groups we interviewed spoke to the safety protocols they are implementing to prevent the spread of the virus. Equality for Flatbush has a medic on its team that instructs other volunteers how to sanitize supplies and groceries before delivery. Corona Couriers requires volunteers to use masks—especially homemade reusable masks, so as to save personal protective gear for healthcare providers—as well as gloves, helmets and sanitizer, and urges volunteers to frequently sanitize their phone, bike, and hands during their deliveries. For money transfers, the group uses electronic means, or checks in plastic bags.

NYC Shut It Down is trying to keep food preparers six feet apart from each other, a difficult task. They let grocery donations sit for some time before redistributing them. They’ve also adopted a model of asking people to volunteer for a few days, then take a two week break to minimize the potential for virus spread, but are still assessing whether they’ve done enough.

“As the growth of this virus becomes exponential, or is already exponential, and as we see these numbers rise … what worked two weeks ago will not work today,” says June. “We have the potential to actually harm a lot of people, especially with things like door to door delivery, [and] we are very seriously considering whether we can continue to do that.”

A critique of city and state

It’s not like mutual aid networks are the only services available to New Yorkers struggling during the pandemic, or the only agencies mobilizing citizen relief efforts.

A spokesperson for the NYC Department of Social Services described a range of resources and services the city is providing to help New Yorkers during the crisis, such as allowing people to apply for cash assistance, food stamps, and rent grants online (and renew continuing benefits), helping homeless families that have already identified permanent housing to complete their move-in process, automatically renewing city rental assistance for eligible New Yorkers, assisting people with their cases over the phone, and more. It’s now also possible to order for home delivery using food stamps, and one can still call 311 to find a local pantry or kitchen. The spokesperson also reminded New Yorkers to visit the New York State of Health Marketplace to see if they qualify for free or low-cost health insurance.

“We’ve taken extraordinary steps to change how we provide benefits, making it easier for clients to access and stay connected to them, while also eliminating all adverse case actions during this period so that they need not worry in these unprecedented time,” said Isaac McGinn, the spokesperson.

The NYC Department of Emergency Management (OEM) also has a range of relevant programs, including the Community Preparedness program, which helps local organizations build capacity within their community to prepare and respond to emergencies, the Volunteer Coordination Taskforce, which helps match new volunteers with projects, and the Help Now NYC website. There’s also the Community Emergency Response Team—a group of people trained to be ready for emergencies and who are currently responding to COVID-19 by assisting in food distribution programs, canvassing senior centers, and tracking and distributing sanitary supplies for childcare and early childhood centers. New York Cares, the lead agency mobilizing volunteers during citywide emergencies, reported it has received interest in volunteering from 7,500 individuals since mid-March, while over 250 organizations have filled out the intake form.

A number of long-established social service organizations are involved in these efforts. For instance, City Harvest, the food rescue organization, and Citymeals on Wheels, which brings meals to seniors, have committed to continuing their services and meet swelling demand. City Harvest is working to shore up food programs that remain open and operate Mobile Markets, while Citymeals on Wheels has ramped up to serve an additional 22,000 elderly who usually get lunch at senior centers—preparing the same number of emergency meals they normally provide in an entire year just within a matter of weeks.

Many of these agencies, in their correspondence with City Limits, also welcomed the service of new groups and volunteers. New York Cares sent a friendly reminder to follow city safety protocols, and invited groups to sign up on the New York Cares website if they wish to receive volunteers, as well as check out its guide for managing volunteers. Iskra Killgore, OEM’s director of community engagement and language access, said the agency hopes to engage with some of the new groups when time allows. In fact, partnerships are already taking place: Sasha Verma of Corona Couriers says their group has responded to calls from established nonprofits asking them to assist with fulfilling deliveries for clients.

But are city and state agencies doing enough? Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, NY, calls it a mixed bag. She says the city is doing somewhat better than during Hurricane Sandy to meet the needs of the disabled, chronically ill, and elderly, but that there’s still not enough inclusive planning and public officials willing to take actions early enough to protect vulnerable people, and still underestimations of the needs of the elderly and disabled. “It really is an all-hands-on-deck situation, again,” she said. referring to the need for a large citizen relief effort. (OEM’s Killgore says the city has worked for years to ensure its operations are taking into consideration the needs of people with disabilities.)

Many mutual aid participants we interviewed also faulted the city and state for failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable communities long before the pandemic. The Parole Preparation Project, which is running a mutual aid program for prisoners, pointed to the conditions at New York’s prisons—the lack of access to basic needs like showers or clean laundry, now exacerbated by a period of crisis. CAAAV pointed to decades of disinvestment in public housing, resulting in no heat at several buildings of Queensbridge Houses in the midst of quarantine, and the governor’s inaction on demands to cancel rent.

“Over [the] past ten years, we have been closing and cutting funding to hospitals all over the state—and cutting public resources, and cutting public spending, which is just so that we never have to tax the rich at all … We didn’t get here on accident,” says Alexandra Fennell of the Neighborhood Support Network at Mutual Aid NYC. She is hopeful, however, that what might come from the burgeoning of mutual aid networks may not only be immediate assistance today, but the growth of a movement for change.

“Potentially, all these groups and individuals through Mutual Aid NYC and other emerging efforts can build power, and build relationships, and build networks to build a more just future.”