The United States is currently experiencing one of its most intense COVID-19 surges since the pandemic began earlier this year. California, for example, recently ordered 5,000 body bags while ordering refrigerated trucks to be on standby. Despite the slow rollout of a vaccine, we are seeing more and more positive cases, more hospitalizations, and unemployment claims that are rising by their largest amount since last spring. And with only $600 being offered through Congress’s stimulus plan, the future is looking pretty bleak.
Amid all of this, there is a broad movement of grassroots organizations throughout the country that are taking their community’s well-being into their own hands. Mutual aid organizations have been working to provide food, supplies and services to the most vulnerable populations throughout the country.
Mutual aid is an idea and practice that emphasizes working with communities in a horizontal and solidaristic way. And although federal, state and local authorities are playing a modest role in assisting certain groups during these tumultuous times, there are many gaps in service that mutual aid groups have been filling. Undocumented folks, houseless folks and others who are disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, including disabled and incarcerated people, are not getting the assistance that they need.
“When COVID started, we pretty immediately began getting calls from undocumented folks who were just in an absolute panic because they were laid off from their jobs at their hotels and restaurants,” Autumn Gonzalez of NorCal Resist told Truthout. “They soon found out they weren’t eligible for unemployment and had no safety net — most of these families live paycheck to paycheck.”
Based in Sacramento, California, NorCal Resist is a group of community members who host educational events, organize actions and maintain a variety of resources and programs that provide support to those in need. The group runs a number of programs, including immigrant-focused “know your rights” trainings, deportation defense, asylum workshops, community fix-its (which are intended to help community members with basic household repairs and maintenance) along with brake light repair events.
“The meaning behind the brake light repair events is to keep folks from having unwanted interactions with law enforcement, which can lead to being arrested and being transferred to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention,” Gonzalez told Truthout. “Or for Black folks, it’s always a danger that you’re pulled over for a taillight and next thing you know you have a gun pointed at you.”
When the pandemic began, NorCal Resist launched an undocumented family emergency aid fund, asking community members to donate their stimulus checks to be redistributed to undocumented families who had received no aid throughout the course of the pandemic.
“We’ve distributed over half a million dollars so far — it’s been a really, really important program,” Gonzalez said. “The money is not big money, obviously; we’re a small organization of community members, but it just means a lot to people on an emotional level to know that even though the state has decided not to assist them in this crisis, their neighbors are helping them.”
NorCal Resist is just one of many groups across California practicing this kind of community-driven mutual aid. To the south in the Bay Area, organizations like South Bay Mutual Aid, East Oakland Collective, SF Mutual Aid, North Oakland Mutual Aid and East Oakland Burrito Roll are just a few of the mutual aid groups focusing their efforts on distributing food and supplies to communities in need.
“Since COVID hit, we’ve been working with World Central Kitchen and delivering a bunch of meals for them,” Liveya Kira of East Oakland Burrito Roll told Truthout. “We’re doing drive-thru events where we have volunteers sign up to come and distribute — they show up and we pack their cars full of hot meals and also things like dog food and personal protective equipment (PPE), and then drop off those items to [unhoused community] camps.”
Inspired by The Burrito Project, a group of friends who meet to share food with houseless people in Los Angeles, East Oakland Burrito Roll focuses its efforts on providing food to unsheltered communities in East Oakland, which, along with the entire Bay Area, has seen a sharp increase in homelessness in the last few years. This crisis is only getting worse under COVID as unemployment and evictions continue to plague the city.
“Before COVID, we would gather and make our own food, we’d make burritos specifically, hence the name, along with handing out fresh fruit,” Kira said. “It would be a big group cook activity, we’d have music blasting and fun party lights and burrito costumes.”
During COVID, things have changed quite a bit for the group as they try their best to follow social distancing guidelines — which means no more cookout parties. While they are still receiving and distributing food donations and preparing meals in smaller kitchen settings, they are now also providing PPE and other supplies to curbside communities in East Oakland. They are also distributing Narcan, which is an opioid reversal lifesaving drug that’s an important part of harm reduction — a set of practical strategies and interventions that are put in place for people to stay safe while using drugs and trading sex. Opioid overdoses have risen during the COVID pandemic.
Kira says East Oakland Burrito Roll recently partnered with the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County to get Narcan out into the community. “We’ve done a couple of socially distanced, in-person harm-reduction trainings for whoever wants to come, but we’re really just kind of dipping our toe into that and just starting out,” Kira says. “We’re pretty much just trying to offer direct solutions to the struggling people in our community rather than waiting for the City of Oakland or somebody else to solve the problem. We’re trying to empower ourselves and do simple small actions to melt the cold-heartedness that our capitalist society tends to encourage and also just show people that, hey, you can make a difference.”
Derrick Soo is currently living unhoused in East Oakland, and has been a recipient of the mutual aid that organization’s like Kira’s have been providing. He founded a homeless encampment in 2014. “We appreciate the regular drop offs here. Kira at the East Oakland Burrito Roll brings so much food and everything from the Alameda County food banks, which really helps us because there’s a lot of us here that don’t have an income,” Soo told Truthout. “We love her and that’s what helps us continue on, even though we have very little means — what she brings every week to us is really important and affords an opportunity for folks at this encampment to get food for themselves.”
West Oakland Punks With Lunch is a mutual aid group that focuses predominantly on harm reduction, providing syringe access services, Narcan trainings, tabling at community events where they provide safer drug use supplies, fentanyl drug testing and safe sex supplies. They also provide food, PPE and basic necessities at their needle exchanges. It’s all part of a greater grassroots effort to ensure that everyone in the community is as safe and healthy as possible, despite everything going on with the pandemic and the economic recession.
About an hour south of Oakland, a group called South Bay Mutual Aid has been working with the Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America to do similar mutual aid work. Starting as a simple Signal app group, the project has grown to around 50 steady volunteers who have distributed countless grocery deliveries and supplies to those in need, including tens of thousands of cloth, disposable and KN95 masks.
“At the beginning, it was a little bit less organized, more just people using Signal [an encrypted communication app] and talking. We had a Google sheet I believe, and then that converted into Airtable,” Leah Jay of South Bay Mutual Aid told Truthout. (Airtable is a cloud collaboration service that allows users to create and share relational databases.) “But the management of Airtable has allowed there to be a greater load — the number of people in the system at one point has increased by like a power of 10.”
By now, South Bay Mutual Aid has built a very sophisticated system of tracking people who make requests and matching them up with volunteers who purchase food and other supplies to distribute. The volunteers are reimbursed by South Bay Mutual Aid who themselves are funded through donations largely coming from the Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America.
The group also runs a “free store,” which is a way for people to share things. Items which are donated are listed on their store website, binned, inventoried and stored in a specific location with a specific item number. They’re then brought to City Hall where the group sets up a weekly staging point for people to pick up the items.
“The next step is that we’re actually going to set up the store at our distribution point,” Eric* of South Bay Mutual Aid told Truthout. “This distribution point is where we distribute masks and hand sanitizer. We’re planning on having a monitor set up so people can browse a laptop which is linked to a battery pack. That way they can see what’s available in our store and then they can order for the next time.”
The whole model has been streamlined so that people who are donating and volunteers can participate with as few barriers as possible.
“It’s cool because I’m finding ways to do decentralized planning and logistics, and I think that that’s going to be super important in the future as a lot of institutions are just not going to be there to meet people’s needs,” Nick*, who heads the operational side of things at South Bay Mutual Aid, told Truthout. “I think that the decentralized nature of it is a strength and it allows for an enormous amount of flexibility.”
One of the tenets of mutual aid is horizontality. These groups generally operate in a loose way, rejecting hierarchical structures and operating collectively. This is one thing that makes them different from formal, top-down nonprofits and charity groups. Horizontality and decentralization are what make mutual aid groups so effective at responding to community needs in an organic, flexible and timely way.
“South Bay Mutual Aid has changed and pivoted since its genesis, and it will continue to pivot and change and evolve,” Leah told Truthout. “That wouldn’t be possible for an organization that was more centralized and hierarchical. Volunteers’ roles can change on a dime — and they themselves have the ability to come up with their own ideas to be flexible and respond to the conditions.”
In the midst of the pandemic, mutual aid networks are flourishing all over the country, from California to New York, south Florida to Vermont. With everything from food distribution to resource libraries, toolkits and other online resources, these tools can be utilized by people looking to create their own mutual aid network in their communities and provide aid to those in need.
By genuinely understanding and responding to their community’s needs and filling in the many gaps left open by local, state and federal authorities, mutual aid organizations are making a huge difference in many people’s lives. As we continue to see policymakers fail us in the face of economic, climate and viral disasters, these groups will be essential in alleviating some of the harm and making sure that the most vulnerable populations in our communities receive at least a modest amount of essential resources, care and understanding.
*Eric and Nick of South Bay Mutual Aid declined to provide their last names.