In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Semoy Williams and her mother Unis Phillips didn’t hunker down. Instead, the pair made daily grocery shopping trips for food insecure or immunocompromised neighbors in their community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Sometimes, they made close to a dozen trips a day.
Semoy Williams described her pandemic routine in a June 2020 interview for a Brooklyn Public Library oral history project. “The new normal,” she said, “is pretty much doing as much deliveries as I can.”
That new normal is also known as “mutual aid,” which is when a community collectively provides for one another, often through food deliveries and crowdfunding, but in many other ways as well. Bed-Stuy Strong, the group that Semoy Williams and Unis Phillips joined, is one of more than 800 local networks that formed during the COVID-19 crisis.
What is mutual aid?
As opposed to one-sided or top-down charity, mutual aid emphasizes solidarity. Members from all walks of life participate by giving aid, receiving aid, or giving and receiving aid.
Bed-Stuy Strong’s founder Sarah Mathews told NBCLX that, to her, mutual aid “involves not just caring for each other through crisis but also critiquing and pushing against the conditions that have helped create or deepen that crisis.” For her group, that means a political reading book club and writing letters to incarcerated neighbors.
Even though mutual aid work typically gains most visibility during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it’s rooted in social movements that address everyday needs while dissecting the root causes of those needs.
Dr. Tyesha Maddox, a historian at Fordham University, researches mutual aid organizations of the early 20th century. She notes that mutual aid most commonly arises in minority and immigrant groups with needs that are unmet or unrecognized by the government.
“And so they rely on each other in order to fill those needs.”
How does mutual aid work?
The groups that Dr. Maddox studies in Harlem were organized by country of origin when they first sprang up about a century ago. Today they’re based on neighborhood. When mutual aid groups were formed in 2020 to help people through the pandemic, members often found one other through a combination of physical flyers and online platforms like Slack.
Bed-Stuy Strong was among those using new technology to organize.
Early on in the pandemic, Semoy Williams saw a message posted by a new member named Season in the Bed-Stuy Strong Slack channel. Season had just gotten a car and was looking to help transport groceries. Williams reached out, and they became a delivery duo.
Similarly, neighbors experiencing hunger could call a designated phone line, and the Bed-Stuy Strong member they spoke to would create a ticket on Slack for others to claim and fulfill.
Online connections have moved offline as well. In the past year, Bed-Stuy Strong has organized events like block parties and community vigils for those lost to COVID-19.
“Whereas the older groups were already a community,” says Dr. Maddox, “newer groups begin to establish a community in doing the work of mutual aid.”
Mutual aid as a concept, if not as a term, has been around forever. It basically describes what families do, which is perhaps why it became so appealing to individuals across the country who were isolated from loved ones.
Williams said the work gave her a sense of purpose amidst the uncertainty of 2020. Now, previously unknown buildings and faces in her neighborhood have become more than recognizable.
“It’s like they’re family.”
How can mutual aid maintain momentum beyond the current crisis?
As someone who pores through the photos and meeting minutes early mutual aid groups left behind, Dr. Maddox is highly invested in preserving the work that’s happening in her city right now. She’s working with Mutual Aid NYC, a collective of scholars and community members supporting mutual aid efforts throughout the five boroughs, to put together a free online archive that will launch in late fall. The Organizing Resource Library is meant both for future historians and for today’s organizers (and organizers-to-be), who can find best practices and templates.
One main challenge for these groups, over a year in, is avoiding burnout. Dr. Maddox says that mutual aid networks can maximize their efforts by partnering with existing groups that have roots in the community. They can also maintain momentum by staying flexible and taking on emerging needs, like vaccine access during a pandemic and AC distribution during heat waves.
In June 2021, Bed-Stuy Strong organizers decided to put a pause on home grocery delivery, in order to “create space for a more sustainable and participatory long-term model for [their] food provision efforts,” according to the website. In the coming weeks, they will hold an all-members meeting to discuss how the group will approach mutual aid in the future.
In order to keep moving forward, new members will need to join the ranks and share the work, so that long-standing members like Williams can take breaks.
To find a mutual aid network near you, visit Mutual Aid Hub’s map. To learn how to start a group in your community, read this toolkit created by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the organizer Mariame Kaba at the beginning of the pandemic.