In New York City, the spread of the novel coronavirus has closely tracked the geography of segregation. Though its long-term consequences for public and economic health remain unknown, its immediate threat to the city’s most vulnerable became clear within days. Thousands found themselves suddenly out of work, sick, or housebound, and unable to make rent, buy groceries, or pay medical bills. In the face of skyrocketing need, as well as the striking inadequacy of the governmental response, New Yorkers have come together to hold one another up and, above all, keep one another fed. Dozens of so-called “mutual aid” networks have proliferated throughout the city’s neighborhoods since mid-March. Part mobile food pantry, part virtual block party, and part political education collective, a mutual aid network allows socially-distanced neighbors to pool human and economic resources, plan actions, and forge bonds.
Declaring “solidarity, not charity,” collaborators have found one another through Slack and Facebook groups, phone trees, and flyers taped to front doors. They’ve navigated practical questions as well as existential ones, charting routes between grocery drop-offs and choosing software to log requests even as they confront the power dynamics of giving and receiving help in a deeply unequal city. And in the last two weeks, as the frame of the crisis has widened to include the violence suffered by Black and brown neighbors at the hands of the police, care within the newly organized “beloved community” has evolved as well. Members of mutual aid networks have been out in force, delivering PPE, food, and water to the protests’ front lines, manning jail support stations, and shuttling curfew-breakers home.
Scott Heins and Cat Zhang were both early organizers of Crown Heights Mutual Aid, and now function as administrators and stewards of the group’s long-term vision — though both are quick to emphasize its horizontal, leaderless structure. Moné Makkawi is one of a small army of shoppers, drivers, and bicyclists putting food, medicine, and other essentials in the hands — or on the stoops — of their neighbors-in-need. To date, the network has completed more than 1700 grocery deliveries to families throughout Crown Heights, as well as adjacent neighborhoods like Flatlands, Canarsie, and East New York. Over the course of a few days in early May, I spoke with Scott, Cat, and Moné about the rapidly-evolving landscape of care, the importance of staying local, and the challenge of being in it for the long haul. – OS
Learn more about New York’s mutual aid networks here.
All photographs by Scott Heins.
Moné Makkawi (MM): Hi, Gabrielle? I’m leaving everything on the porch right now, okay? 1906, right? Okay. Do you want me to put everything on the chair for you? No problem. Do you want me to wait out here until you can come? I’ll wait for your daughter then I’ll go, okay? Okay. My pleasure, no problem. And you have my number. I’ve got everything. Well, I wasn’t able to get any boxed wipes, but I brought you some disinfectant. Not wipes, there were no wipes, but I brought you disinfectant spray. Of course. How often? You can call anytime. Whenever you need. But the turnaround might take a little bit of time depending on . . . It might take a couple days sometimes for me to come back out, if that’s alright, but shoot me a text and give me a call. So this particular delivery is through Crown Heights Mutual Aid, and we have a donor pool, but we also . . . Hi, are you Gabrielle’s daughter? I’m talking to your mother. No problem. Yeah, you call me back, whenever . . .
Cat Zhang (CZ): So, someone is in need, they e-mail or call, we have an intake volunteer take down what groceries they want, they put it in AirTable, they put it in Slack, it gets posted in the channel called Community Needs, and ideally a volunteer picks it up, they buy the groceries, they deliver the groceries in a safe way. We have a sheet that tells people how to disinfect your groceries. Then they post the receipt in the community reimbursement channel and people Venmo them, so that they are not covering the cost of groceries. I’m not sure if this is the case with other mutual aid groups, but with Crown Heights Mutual Aid, there’s definitely two parts of it. One being Facebook, which was kind of theorized as this long-term partnership with existing community orgs. Just things that don’t have to be handled immediately. And Slack was all of the rapid response. Groceries, and things like that.
Scott Heins (SH): As with any organizing group, the number of people who are regularly active is going to be a much smaller percentage of your total membership. So while we have about 1200 people that are technically members (they have log-in credentials on the Slack), I would say our population of active members varies anywhere from 250 to 400 people per day. And of those active members, then I’d say a smaller subset of that group is the main group of folks who are involved in doing either intake calls, fielding requests or actual delivery runs. And then the third thing, which is part of the Slack, is opening up your wallet and donating to cover the cost of these grocery runs.
MM: The evening before, I try to map out a route, and see, maybe, what are some fringe deliveries that need to be done? And kind of map a loop around Crown Heights. And I’ll call the first person, maybe the first two, and be like, “I’ll be there in an hour or so, an hour or two hours.” And then I just head out. I bike there. I usually park by their house and then walk to the nearest grocery store, just because my bike is a little bit older and it doesn’t have a rack or anything like that. It can be a bit time consuming, but I have a lot of time, like a lot of us do, so I don’t mind it at all.
I put everything down on the porch first, then I step away, then I ring the doorbell and I call, so they feel comfortable. Sometimes I try and . . . With elderly folks especially, I’ll say, “Try and wash everything if you can.” Just because, you never know. One thing that was really stressing me out for a while was this nagging anxiety that I was spreading the virus. Obviously, I try and be as careful as possible. I put my gloves in a separate bag, and when I do that, I sanitize my hands before I put them on, and I wash my stuff. But it’s like this terrible fear. I used to have nightmares about it.
CZ: A lot of people, myself included, feel like it would just be a waste if we gathered up so much manpower and energy and time and whatever, and we didn’t do anything to try to make sure that the systems that leave people vulnerable aren’t altered in some way.
SH: Within the context of Crown Heights Mutual Aid, there is a constant discussion about: How do we reckon with the fact that there is a disproportionate amount of gentrifiers —and, yes, white, digitally-native gentrifiers — in the group, and the group of folks who are making the requests, that are often receiving the aid, are predominantly not that group? That has happened not just as a consequence of what tech was used and not just as a consequence of who was involved in the first few days of the organizing, but I think it’s a consequence of, “Where is surplus time energy and money allotted and siloed in this neighborhood?” Wealth redistribution is great, but there’s also a long-standing central tenet of mutual aid that it isn’t a class of donors and beneficiaries: it’s one group of everybody helping each other. Everyone has something to give, everyone has something that they need. There are thousands more people in Crown Heights who are able to give, and I think would be willing to give, if we could just find them and get a hold of them. Really focusing on a block to block, building by building, neighborhood-style network of aid and care and trust and support is where I think the real potential in this organization lies long-term.
CZ: We still have this huge spreadsheet of all the community orgs that we know of. The first was service providers, which were senior centers, homeless shelters, food banks, all that stuff. Then we have community organizations, like the Crown Heights Tenants Union and Jewish community councils; we have medical facilities, religious groups, restaurants, everything. Especially with the service providers, we would assign people to call each and every one of them and to ask, “Hey, what do you need?” But this was kind of a problem, because then we had called up 50 food banks and we weren’t really sure if we could actually match that need, because a lot of our rescues were being funneled towards doing rapid response work.
MM: A lot of people aren’t very specific in their list. I used to be stressed about it. I would call every person and go through the list. But then it became kind of impossible to do that with a bunch of different people every day. Sometimes people don’t have the time to do it over the phone. So now I am just guessing sometimes. I try to get people things that I would like. Now the list just says, “Cheese.” I’m not sure what that means. Do you want cheddar cheese? Do you like white cheese, mozzarella, swiss, cheddar? Mild, sharp? I try to think, “Okay, if it’s a family of five, that probably means they have kids.” Or, it would probably be better to get something that’s maybe more palatable for everyone. I like extra sharp cheddar cheese, but maybe a kid wouldn’t like that. It’s a bunch of little negotiations I have with myself.
Usually I try and let them know when I deliver, “Oh, I wasn’t able to find this.” It’s less of an issue now, honestly, that the grocery stores have reached this stasis, but before, everything was gone. And depending on the neighborhood, sometimes it was really slim pickings. And obviously folks asked a lot for Lysol and cleaning supplies and toilet paper, but that stuff, for a while, it was nowhere. Nowhere. Only in the bodegas.
Initially, the stress of the outbreak was more in your face. There was a lot of tension in grocery stores, for a number of reasons. Folks are worried are getting sick or worried about paying or worried about the space that they’re in. People would fight over cutting, people would fight over receipts, that things were not adding up. People would fight about people being in their space, and all these things are really understandable. A lot of our efforts are based in Black and brown communities, and these are underserved communities. It makes sense that all these things are a culmination of decades of neglect for different communities. They’re being impacted in different ways.
SH: We’ve done anything from just bringing masks and gloves to people that need them. We showed up in a big way for the Crown Heights Tenants Union today. I think it’s not something that people might be thinking of as mutual aid when they think about it in the context of the coronavirus. There’s been a lot of stories and a lot of news coverage about plucky neighborhood groups popping up to bring people groceries, and “Oh, look at this, they have a cool tech system that allows them to do it.” It was a really great thing that our members did, helping to make banners and then show up in person outside of buildings that had tenants brave enough to unfurl banners saying things like “cancel rent” and “rent strike.” So that kind of work, I think, is vital to the greater cause of mutual aid.
CZ: Especially because not everyone in Crown Heights Mutual Aid is involved in rapid response delivery —not everyone has the able body to do so — it’s great to have different projects and people thinking on both the short-term and the long-term scale. We have a tenants’ rights channel that’s organizing rent strikes. I think we have a channel about politics and legislative-related actions. Obviously, we have partnerships that work on food justice. I think there’s been some discussion on police brutality and the disproportionate policing of Black and brown communities.
MM: There are moments when you can feel like someone’s trying to suss you out and suss out your intentions. Which is totally valid, and I’m glad that that happens. I think from the information we get, we have a general idea of where people might be at sometimes. Some folks are really comfortable with sharing where they’re at. Someone I’m going to today, she’s been texting me and she’s like, “I’m a single mother, I have two kids. So I’m going to need critical support.” Sometimes people are really honest about that. Obviously, it depends on the person, but maybe this situation encourages people to be that way? Maybe folks feel like they have to be a little bit more honest — not that anyone’s ever not been honest — but stating their needs as plainly as possible so there’s no misunderstanding. I think people feel like, if not now, then when are they going to be able to say these things? There are moments when there’s a little bit of tension. Not tension in a bad way, but that kind of vulnerable air; people share with me what’s going on with them. I visit folks sometimes and they’re like, “Yeah, my husband’s in the hospital. He has corona.” “I’m unemployed.”
SH: The most upsetting thing overall is the sheer volume of need. Even on our best delivery day, when we had the most deliveries that we’ve ever had, we’re probably still falling 250 calls behind on that day. The only thing we really have in terms of power is the fact that Crown Heights Mutual Aid has become a meeting place for a few hundred people who give a damn. We don’t have a whole bunch of money, we don’t have the greatest batch of resumés, we don’t have great real estate, we don’t have any sort of political influence. We just have a large amount of people in a concentrated area who give a fuck about what’s going on. We’re about to reach our 1,000 groceries delivered point. We’ll either hit it today or tomorrow morning. If Crown Heights Mutual Aid all of a sudden fell apart and everyone quit and everybody went back to staying at home watching Netflix tomorrow, I think it would still be something you could qualify as a success. A lot of people came together, gave whatever sort of surplus they had, to help people who had a need and it was a thing that happened and it never really had to happen. People just decided and have been deciding to step up and keep stepping up.
CZ: I think a lot of this mutual aid stuff has been just having faith that other people will pick up the slack if you were burned out or if you were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the thing. It’s been a crazy exercise in kind of building a government from the ground up. There’s a lot of talk about process, horizontal structures, transparency. As a person I always wanted to be friends with my neighbors on a very basic, interpersonal level, and it’s very cool to be able to talk to people in my neighborhood and feel like people actually care.
MM: Having these recurring deliveries feels more like somewhat of a relationship. They can trust me, they know it’s not some one-off thing, they’re not going to be forgotten or left out on their own to fend for themselves if they don’t have the capacity to do that. Yeah . . . We need crackers and cream of wheat . . .