Mutual aid organizations are forming across the country to fill in the gaps for their communities affected by COVID-19

By Kelly West

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Only days after social distancing protocols fell into place across the US, a few friends in Medford, Massachusetts, decided to start a revolution they reached out to their neighbors. 

“We saw businesses shutting down and people being asked to stay home, and we were like, this is going to be a problem for people who live paycheck to paycheck or are housebound,” says Anna Kaplan, an epidemiologist who helped launch the Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville network (MAMAS), which helps connect neighbors and provide a communication network for people in need. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, and people’s lives are affected in increasingly challenging ways, mutual aid organizations are popping up all over the country as a way to meet the needs of their communities. The idea is simple neighbors helping neighbors but it speaks more broadly to the widening gaps in a social safety net that’s meant to protect everyone, but especially the vulnerable.

At MAMAS, for example, one part of the initiative involves creating neighborhood pods, where one neighbor reaches out to collect phone numbers of other neighbors so they can check on each other or provide help if needed.  The group is also collecting requests for food or other resources, in an effort to meet the urgent needs within the network.

This Google map shows all the areas where volunteers have organized neighborhood pods in the Medford and Somerville network.

“It’s just really amazing how many people are opening their homes to people who might lose their housing, or people who are donating money to help people in the service industry make rent now that they’ve lost their jobs,” says Kaplan. “We’ve had a lot of people reach out with needs, but we know there are a lot more people who have needs.”

Kaplan says the group is concerned about reaching people who are particularly isolated or without internet access, so they created a hotline: 339-545-1315

“We want to make sure we’re reaching the most vulnerable people, people who are not maybe on the Internet the way you and I are, who I’m sure are out there and struggling and need groceries and are housebound, or older folks who are isolated to begin with.”

Geographic isolation is a concern for the Lane County Mutual Aid Network, which started in Eugene, Oregon, but expanded to cover the entire county, stretching from very remote areas of Willamette National Forest to the Pacific coast. 

“[This county has] a lot of people who are just really, really isolated up in this national forest, and if something happened to them, they would have nowhere to go and no one to turn to,” says Raye Hendrix, a doctoral student at University of Oregon. Hendrix and a few friends who had experience organizing for their graduate student union started a Facebook page to provide people with information about local resources, and to connect people in need. Within days, the brand new group had 5,000 members. 

I think this is a moment where people are realizing that a lot of our institutions and structures were not ready for this moment. We have to fight for each other and our communities. And that’s what I think is happening people are fighting for each other.

In Oakland, Paige Wheeler Fleury saw a similar level of interest from her community. She and other working moms started Oakland at Risk Match, collecting names of people in need and those willing to volunteer, and matching them with one another. Within hours of launching the site, Fleury said they had 150 volunteers signed up, and by the end of the week, more than 800. As she manually matched volunteers to people in their neighborhoods, she saw new connections forming. 

“In one case, [I matched a volunteer] with someone who’s 300 feet from the other person, but never met them,” Fleury says. “I had a senior yesterday match with somebody in the same building, and they’ve both lived there for years and never met.”

She said she matched one volunteer, an international student, with a senior who lived five blocks away from him. When the student got there, he saw that his match lived in high-density senior housing. Seeing the potential need, the student offered to leave fliers under everyone’s door and volunteer for anyone in the building who needed help. Fleury says she hopes one thing remains once this crisis has passed — that people feel they can ask for help if they need it.

“I did a delivery yesterday to a 93-year-old woman whose daughter died last month, and she had no one. She said all of her friends and family have died,” Fleury says. “Had a social services person not recognized her need and enrolled her on the site, I don’t know what this woman would have done.”

My hope is that after this is over, these connections don’t fall apart. This desire to connect human beings and have a positive impact doesn’t go away.

The concept of mutual aid, at least in recent history, has roots in leftist philosophy. Many notable examples in recent years have developed in the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, when the government failed to provide necessary services for those affected. Many mutual aid organizations see the work they’re doing as a form of activism. 

“Maybe not in quite the same way as marching in the streets would be considered activism, but activism, I think, is anything that subverts the status quo, and what we’re subverting with this kind of mutual aid network is the idea that you can’t rely on each other,” says Hendrix, who feels that mutual aid networks are inherently political, even if they don’t explicitly present themselves as such.

But Fleury draws a distinction here. “I don’t see it as political, but I still think it’s activism,” she says. “Activism is trying to affect a positive change, hopefully, in your community. And my hope is that after this is over, these connections don’t fall apart. That this desire to connect human beings and have a positive impact doesn’t go away.”

As organizations that serve vulnerable populations are being pushed beyond their capacity, and the government response is slow to stop the tidal wave of need in the country, more and more people are looking at how they can help their neighbors in this critical time.

“I think this is a moment where people are realizing that a lot of our institutions and structures were not ready for this moment,” Kaplan says. “We have to fight for each other and our communities. And that’s what I think is happening people are fighting for each other.”