Mutual Aid: Connecting, Empowering, and Protecting Communities Through Solidarity

COVID BELatina Latinx Mutual Aid Hub
Photo collage by Tatiana Mena with images by Scott Olson, Cindy Ord, and Adi Talwar

As unemployment rates rise and essential services become harder to access both economically and physically, mutual aid groups around the world continue to reaffirm their roles as agents of change, survival, and sustainability. Through a collective understanding that the systems under which we currently live aren’t enough to meet the needs of our communities, these networks make use of their own resources in order to mitigate the effects of this. 

COVID-19 has exposed systemic and social inequities related to race, class, and access that have existed long before this outbreak. However, now more than ever, it’s clear that middle and low-income communities have been the most affected as unemployment rates reach historic increments and the U.S. economy appears to head towards the worst recession since 2008. For vulnerable families, the difficulties that come from enduring economic declines and risking exposure to the virus can translate into spikes in poverty, missed meals, and reduced access to essential services beyond the pandemic. This is especially true among communities of color

The Center for American Progress has expressed that many of the public policies that were already in place limited workers of color to jobs with scarce benefits, low wages, and reduced protections. In the midst of the current conditions, many of these workers have been laid off due to public health guidance and budget cut measures threatening businesses’ livelihood. Similarly, these groups are rapidly becoming the most infected according to the Center for Disease Control and Infection. This is why mutual aid has become a prevalent solution for these communities in the middle of a dire and widespread emergency.

Many of the most impactful mutual aid initiatives came to fruition as a result of the crisis and have proved to be the strongest sources of aid within this pandemic. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, FEMA and local officials encouraged citizens to take matters into their own hands as the demand for supplies and aid became much more than what they were prepared to deliver. As a result, groups like Puerto Rico Rise Up were born in order to fulfill the needs the government was unable to meet. 

Across the Island, potable water was hard to come by, food rotted in people’s refrigerators as the electrical grid remained down, medical services were impossible to access, and supermarkets struggled to stay afloat. A combination of female doctors from the Puerto Rican diaspora and community leaders on the ground worked together to identify the specific needs of isolated communities in order to effectively mobilize supplies. What started as a few individuals that strived to send help to loved ones evolved into the non-profit organization that Puerto Rico Rise Up has become today. 

They still operate as a mutual aid group that forms alliances and serves as a support system to as many communities and individuals as they can reach. During this time, they’ve taken on the responsibility of providing supplies to healthcare workers who are struggling to get proper protective equipment, and are providing nutritious groceries to families that can’t buy them safely nor afford it. Having an established foundation prior to the pandemic allowed them to act and support wherever they’ve been needed quickly.

“By coordinating community-led interventions, we’re not only mitigating crises but we’re also cultivating fellowship and resilience within the communities we aim to help,” Dr. Karen Caballo, the organization’s CEO, said in an interview. “I’ve had the opportunity of seeing community leaders act with immense solidarity in their communities even as they work through their personal tribulations. This exchange has led to them operating in a more equitable and independent way.”

Mutual Aid in the Epicenter of COVID

While some mutual aid initiatives like Puerto Rico Rise Up became more active as a result of the outbreak, many were formed because of it. 

New York City has been one of the epicenters of COVID-19 and has had the most significant disparities in the amount of deaths and cases from borough to borough. According to an article published by TIME, “As of April 3, the highest case counts […] are concentrated in parts of the Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx boroughs, while mostly white and upper-class neighborhoods in Manhattan have relatively fewer cases.” As a result of this, neighbor-based collectives were created in order to help each other through this difficult time.

Thanks to crowdsourced donations and volunteerism, groups such as Bushwick Mutual Aid, Mayday, BedStuy Strong, North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, and South Brooklyn Mutual Aid have worked to provide no-contact groceries, supplies, and protective gear to the most vulnerable in their respective communities. In an article for ABC News, the head of South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, Whitney Hu, expressed the collective “sprang into action not out of a desire to save but out of necessity for [their] community to stay safe.”

Among the many inspiring aspects of these networks is the willingness of its members to provide relief on a volunteer basis through a horizontal approach that doesn’t assume necessities but rather inquires. This is why it’s exciting to see this alternative method gain attention in governmental spheres from politicians such as Julia Salazar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have spoken on the benefits of it and have joined efforts with mutual aid groups across New York City. Imagine what the future of our societal systems could look like if these initiatives were supported by government policies. 

How You Can Support Mutual Aid Initiatives

So, how can you take part in this? It’s likely that within your community, neighbors are already mobilizing supplies and services to others. Seeing as they depend on donations and volunteering, you can donate your time or money in order to help them accomplish their missions. Resources like Mutual Aid Hub and COVID-19 Mutual Aid can help you identify groups near you that may need a lending hand. Alternatively, take it upon yourself to check up on family members, and neighbors that may need help during this time.

Although the pandemic has impacted every person around the globe one way or another, it’s important to think about the reasons lower-income families and people of color have been hit the hardest. Those who have struggled with economic and social marginalization, rampant displacement, and systemic resource deprivation have lived this reality long before the outbreak. Mutual aid efforts are a powerful way to start addressing and dismantling these dynamics. By encouraging people to support one another and engage in transformative acts of care, it becomes easier to take strides towards equitable relationships rather than profitable margins and exchanges. Using readily available resources and making calls to action can strengthen our communities, build resilience, and provide the tools needed to sustain their futures.