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Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

The mutual-aid networks that have defined the COVID-19 pandemic are looking to the long term.

Maryam Shariat Mudrick and her husband, Ross, formed the Astoria Mutual Aid Network in March by passing out thousands of flyers to let their neighbors know they were there to help with groceries, transportation, and deliveries. In early June, some members of the aid network were passing out flyers again, but this time it was at a Queens protest against racism and police brutality, and the flyers included information on what to do if you get tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed and how to contact the National Lawyers Guild.

“In addition to ensuring that people have what they need at their most basic level, we need to ensure that people don’t just ignore everything else when the health threat is gone,” Mudrick says about the Astoria Mutual Aid Network’s organizing around the protest. “I think before this moment, the rest of the community might not have been ready to talk about what else needs to happen in our neighborhood.”

The mass uncertainty surrounding a virus scientists know little about, record-shattering unemployment, and insufficient government response has made the lack of an adequate social safety net abundantly clear. Over the past few months, mutual-aid networks stepped in. Neighbors volunteered their time and money and recognized that supporting each other was a matter of survival. Now that reopening is under way, organizers want to look beyond emergency rapid response and toward deeper change. They want to remake neighborhoods.

Mudrick describes the health crisis as “a funnel” that helped people with privilege, herself included, understand the deep-seated inequities that made mutual aid necessary in the first place. Now, the Astoria Mutual Aid Network (AMAN) — for which around 1,000 people have volunteered to date — is exploring sustained action. At this moment, that means more political involvement, a departure from the network’s initial messaging that it was nonpolitical and nonpartisan, a strategy that Mudrick used to reach as many people in need as possible.

From the network’s outset, there has been a small contingent that’s supported the Close Rikers movement and phone-banked with Freedom for All. Since the protests in New York began in late May, the Astoria Mutual Aid Network has been figuring out how to best support the people involved. In addition to passing out legal information, the network launched “The People’s Bodega,” a roving cache of supplies (water, snacks, PPE, hand sanitizer), to support protesters. Earlier this month, it created a Black Lives Matter channel in its Slack.

“There was feedback about ‘Why is this group political all of a sudden?’” Mudrick says. “The conversations happening in our community the last few days are about trying to help people understand that, with mutual aid, even getting groceries is a political endeavor.”

For Dannelly Rodriguez, a lifelong Astoria resident and an organizer with the Justice for All Coalition, continuing this political education is critical.

“It’s first important to recognize what mutual aid is and what it’s not,” Rodriguez says. “We don’t want this to be charity, and it can be perceived as charity for nine out of ten people involved. It’s a political process through which communities that have been ignored and deprived deliberately empower themselves with the resources they have to take care of one another.”

Communities have practiced mutual aid — working cooperatively to meet the needs in a community — across cultures and throughout history, even if they haven’t used the term to describe their work. Because of exclusion from full participation in mainstream systems, these groups — often comprised of Black people, indigenous people, people of color, recent immigrants, workers in informal economies, individuals with disabilities, unhoused people, or queer communities — have had to create their own networks as a matter of survival.

“This idea of a shared connection has made them last,” says Tyesha Maddox, a historian of the African diaspora and assistant professor of African-American studies at Fordham University who studies mutual-aid groups and benevolent societies in New York City’s Caribbean communities. Many of these groups formed between 1890 and 1940, and some are still active today. “They have a common bond outside of being in the same neighborhood. Even if you look at some of the groups I studied that are still lasting, many people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore.”

Take the Antigua & Barbuda Progressive Society, which formed in Harlem in the 1930s. The group still convenes today in a building the founders bought in 1934, even though many of the members no longer live in the area.

Maddox is now researching the current wave of mutual-aid groups and connecting them with the history of immigrant networks that started around the time of the 1918 Spanish-flu pandemic. While these societies arose in different circumstances, she believes they might hold some takeaways for the current moment.

But the new neighborhood-based mutual-aid networks have a different dynamic compared with kinship-based ones — and underlying tensions around gentrification can make building trust even more difficult.

“The basis of geography is an inhibitor to settling on shared goals, because if geography is the only commonality, you’re not necessarily coming to the problem with the same vulnerability and values,” says Caroline DeLuca, an organizer who works with Mutual Aid NYC, a network that helps connect grassroots neighborhood groups. “That’s also not guaranteed from a kinship situation, but there is some basis there. There is some shared experience.”

Recognizing the patterns around gentrification and how they manifest in mutual-aid networks caused Rodriguez to start his own network during the COVID-19 crisis. He solicited funding and provided food to his mother’s apartment building.

“I knew there is a disconnect between my mother’s Astoria and the Astoria in the aid networks,” Rodriguez says. “I had to take it upon myself to build the network in her building, which is right across from Astoria Houses, because I didn’t see the status quo — meaning the community groups and the politicians that currently exist in Astoria — reaching there.”

During past crises, like Hurricane Sandy and 9/11, aid networks emerged with an understanding that New Yorkers come together to help New Yorkers. COVID-19 is similar in that regard, but there are differences here. More people higher on the economic ladder lost their jobs. Young, otherwise healthy people became seriously ill. During COVID-19, it was acknowledged that racism made the impacts of the pandemic worse for Black and brown populations. For all these reasons, the response has been different during this crisis.

Mudrick believes this confluence has created momentum for lasting change beyond crisis response. “Younger folks are generally open and doing more work around privilege, power, and anti-capitalization efforts, and if you compound that with access to tech, and compound that with how a virus like COVID affects young, able-bodied people differently than everyone else, you compound that with persistent brutality against Black communities, you’ve created a pressure cooker,” she says.

The definition of what it means to help is changing, too.

Mutual Aid NYC hosts weekly calls for organizers from the neighborhood groups that focus on skill-sharing and relationship building. A recent call was centered on the broader meaning of community care.

“Protecting our communities is not just reshuffling resources — it’s also about addressing the structural foundations about why some communities are more vulnerable than others, and why they’re susceptible to violence or deprivation,” Lucas Shapiro, an organizer at Mayday Space, said during the call, which included discussions about police abolition, repealing 50-a, and calling City Council members and demanding budget justice.

This inequity across New York City is something that’s deeply understood in communities experiencing it, and it’s talked about politically — as in Mayor de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” campaign — but often goes unheard or is misunderstood by people outside of those communities. It’s come to a head in the recent protests against police brutality and discussions of the ways in which racism is upheld and enforced by city policies that overfund law enforcement and starve social services, like health care and housing — issues that clearly intersect with COVID-19’s rent strike and mutual-aid movements. Participation in mutual-aid networks has led to a fuller realization of how deep the problems of economic and social inequality run.

Organizers who have been working in the realms of housing, social, and economic justice hope this engagement transfers to political action. Having the ear of mutual-aid networks is a start.

“One of the things that’s so exciting about what mutual aid is looking like right now is the fact that, in a very natural and organic way, it’s becoming politicized in the best sense of the word,” says Leo Ferguson, an organizer at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. “That gives me a lot of hope of bringing people into a movement for real change. That said, the wholesale radical change that it will take to transform our city — a city in which Black and brown people were dying of COVID at twice the rate of everyone else, and in which the police feel shameless about using brutal force against peaceful protesters — requires a huge amount of work and buy-in.”

To Ferguson, the act of participating in a mutual-aid network reflects a different type of kinship: a shared sense of ownership over the city.

“That same sense of ownership has been negative,” Ferguson says. “It’s why folks with some wealth privilege — many of whom are moving to New York City as gentrifiers — feel emboldened to call the police on their neighbors. The question is: Can we take the lessons of this crisis ... and turn them into a sense of ownership over the city that is about mutual care and an understanding that what makes me feel safe is what might make someone else unsafe, so I am committed to work with my neighbor to find a way we all feel safe?”

This gets to the heart of mutual aid’s “solidarity, not charity” mission. It’s about a reciprocal relationship, one that recognizes people’s interdependence rather than relying on the uneven dynamics of a donor-beneficiary system.

DeLuca believes a successful long-term version of mutual aid would involve demanding policy changes like more tenant protections; grassroots autonomous resource-building like land trusts; establishing community funds for when someone gets hurt; and providing food through community gardens and co-ops. They point to Equality for Flatbush — a grassroots neighborhood group that’s been organizing against gentrification, displacement, and police brutality and fighting for affordable housing for years — as an example of a neighborhood group that has sustained the philosophy of mutual aid.

Newer groups are also creating systems that lend themselves to the type of relationship-building needed to sustain the solidarity mission. Not Me UES — a mutual-aid network for Harlem and the Upper East Side — makes sure that it’s the same person helping with services for individuals who receive assistance multiple times.

Breaking the pattern of charity is also about rethinking the way existing groups, institutions, and politicians operate. According to Rodriguez, it’s not about just providing food — it’s access to funding and giving democratic decision-making power to those providing and receiving resources, particularly the most marginalized communities.

“Will the mutual-aid network decide where the resources go, or is it the people who are most oppressed who decide which resources [are needed] and where these resources are going?” he asks. “We’re in a state where racism is prevalent in our housing, education, workplaces, health care, and politics. If we don’t recognize that, we’re doomed to repeat the same failures as the past.”

Conversations have begun between the AMAN and the Justice for All Coalition on how the group can better address some of the long-standing inequities in the neighborhood.

To Rodriguez, that looks like having more direct input from Astoria’s New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) tenants, Section 8 tenants, and Black and brown residents on the resources they need and how the network can get the resources to them. “A large part of the political status quo is ‘Here are resources.’ Then the resources are provided, but there’s no input from NYCHA,” Rodriguez says. “Like when Cuomo drops gallons of hand sanitizer in Queensbridge. What are we supposed to do with that? Undoing the ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ complex starts by ensuring that public-housing tenants and Section 8 tenants are surveyed and are part of the process.”

Building connections with existing neighborhood institutions has been an ongoing project for newer mutual-aid networks and is becoming more urgent. Mudrick is working toward a moment when the Astoria Mutual Aid Network becomes redundant.

“My hope is that, when we get to a point where we’re not providing what’s basically around-the-clock emergency assistance, we’ve ignited something within the folks in our network who are willing to put the work back into their communities,” she says.

But many organizations that have been doing this long-standing work in Astoria were already at capacity before the COVID crisis and cannot suddenly absorb and organize well-meaning people who just show up at their doorstep. It’s taken many conversations to figure out the right way to become involved.

One instance in which Mudrick has made a longer-term connection between her network and a neighborhood organization is with Hour Children, a nonprofit that works with women and their children who have been impacted by incarceration.

The AMAN, which has provided funds for Hour Children’s food pantry, has members interested in backyard gardening who would like to share their knowledge and pay for the supplies. Meanwhile, with social distancing still in place indefinitely, the summer activities for kids at Hour Children aren’t as robust as they normally are. The two groups are now developing an urban-gardening summer program.

“Hopefully, everyone that starts to get involved in the program will learn more about Hour Children,” Mudrick says. “Instead of worrying about what Astoria Mutual Aid is doing, they’ll focus on what Hour Children is doing. If they walk away from the aid network and we never hear from them again, great.”

Mudrick acknowledges that people who do not want to become involved with sustained work will also leave. A few people — mostly older and who were vocal in the AMAN’s forums about opposing progressive ideology — left because they didn’t think the group should be involved in more than providing food. Some people have become markedly less active with the network.

“If you look at the dynamics of needs and support, it’s clear it’s not an equal distribution of burden,” she says. “While we can’t say we are not political — that’s clearly not the case — we try not to be partisan. That gets to be tricky. As an organization, we try not to be partisan, but our people might be. Over time, we will lose people who are not willing to engage in the realities of racial inequity and white supremacy. People who are not willing to confront themselves will walk away.”