Evolving in COVID Crisis, NYC Mutual Aid Groups Head Into 2021 With Tablets, Toys — and Diapers

Evolving in COVID Crisis, NYC Mutual Aid Groups Head Into 2021 With Tablets, Toys — and Diapers

Rachel Holliday Smith and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY

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Volunteers at El Mercado de Invierno del Pueblo sort through clothes donations at the free holiday present store in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Dec. 22, 2020.
Volunteers at El Mercado de Invierno del Pueblo sort through clothes donations at the free store in Sunset Park, Dec. 22, 2020. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

When the Astoria Mutual Aid Network began in March, volunteers focused on making sure homebound or down-on-their-luck neighbors had groceries.

Getting food to people still represents the bulk of the group’s duties, said Maryam Mudrick, a former event planner who co-founded the organization with her partner. But requests for help have shifted. For example, the group has recently fielded queries from young mothers struggling to buy an essential: diapers.

“We get the call a lot,” she said. “Diapers are f—ing expensive.”

To cope with the demand, the group has used cash donations to buy diapers in bulk, and is working to open a permanent “diaper bank,” Mudrick said — a type of facility found in each borough except Queens and Staten Island.

It’s just one of the ways the mutual aid group is adapting nine-plus months into the COVID-19 crisis, and how members are thinking about carrying on into 2021.

The Astoria group is among dozens of mutual aid organizations that sprang up last year in New York and are still operating, some morphing into mini-relief powerhouses offering diverse services to neighbors in need.

What Charity Looks Like

Operating out of a Sunset Park warehouse, South Brooklyn Mutual Aid’s more than 900 volunteers have delivered over 30,000 grocery boxes to hungry neighbors from Park Slope to Bensonhurst.

They’ve also distributed backpacks and school supplies to children in the area and are organizing a toy drive for the community — enough to provide gifts for the holiday season to about 300 families, according to organizer Whitney Hu.

“We’ve been able to push back on what people think charity looks like. It’s not about survival, it’s about love and solidarity,” said Hu, who recently suspended her bid for a City Council seat to continue mutual aid work.

Kevin LaCherra has helped lead a mutual aid group in northern Brooklyn, Dec. 22, 2020.

In Queens, Astoria Mutual Aid volunteers have expanded or created a number of services in response to requests that come in to their help line.

The group assists with the management of the Astoria Food Pantry on Steinway Street and 28th Avenue. Margaret Horning, a volunteer profiled by THE CITY in May, has since helped get a free store up and running. The group recently ran a coat-and-toy drive, and is working to make the diaper bank a reality.

Across the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, North Brooklyn Mutual Aid has pivoted to services beyond food, too.

The group — which serves Greenpoint and Williamsburg — hosted a series of community initiatives in the summer, including cleanup brigades in McGolrick Park, and trash and compost pick-ups.

On a recent Sunday, it hosted a snow removal effort starting on Russell Street days after a winter storm dumped nearly a foot on the city. 

Earlier in December, the group announced it would team with its local community education council to provide tablets and other electronic devices for remote-learning students. The group regularly posts updates of its events on Instagram.

The volunteers are following in the footsteps of locals who organized during a past crisis: During the 1970s, The People’s Firehouse in Williamsburg successfully stopped the closure of a local firehouse. Today, the organization operates as the nonprofit North Brooklyn Community Center.

“We stand on the shoulders of all the community leaders that came before us,” said Kevin LaCherra, a coordinator of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid. “We’re a community, you know, that has always stepped up in times when the local government abandoned us.”

‘A Political Act’

Still, covering the needs has been tough.

The Astoria group has cut back to stay alive long term. For instance, members made the hard choice to stop paying for transportation to health care appointments, which they did for those who couldn’t afford a cab in the beginning of the pandemic.

“We were spending thousands of dollars a month,” Mudrick said. “The word definitely got out and we were getting calls from all over Queens … People were asking, ‘Is this the taxi service?’”

The group also limited its coverage area to Long Island City and Astoria. Previously, members answered requests all over the borough, helping people as far away as Flushing or the Rockaways. 

“Thankfully, over time, other groups have started to grow and take greater hold and be able to support their neighbors more consistently,” she said.

Those include Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid, Rockaway Mutual Aid & Support Network, the Queens Mutual Aid Network and aid for Flushing locals run through the MinKwon Center, among dozens of mutual networks operating all over the city. 

Mutual Aid NYC keeps an online directory and map of who’s doing what and where. The group also runs a hotline — (646) 437-8080 — that connects New Yorkers with help in their neighborhood.

When South Brooklyn Mutual Aid launched in March, they connected quarantined families with neighbors who could go on grocery and errand runs for them. The delivery was free, but the cost of goods and groceries was not, although some volunteers would offer to foot the bill.

Whitney Hu (left) and a SBKMA volunteer pick up 900 cardboard boxes from a hardware store, Dec. 22, 2020.

Weeks later, the group had to pivot. Many volunteers, including Hu, found more and more families were unable to pay for their food. Some offered to pay back the cost in installments, she said.

“There was no way we were going to have mothers stuck at home with young children setting up repayment plans,” Hu said. 

The group now purchases groceries and other goods in bulk and distributes them to families within its network, for free.

Volunteers distribute “items not covered by food stamps,” Hu said, such as baby formula, diapers and household supplies. The group, Hu said, makes sure their grocery bundles are “culturally appropriate,” and supplements grains and canned food with fresh fruit and vegetables.

The group also regularly hosts drives for clothes, homeware and school supplies. 

‘Buy-Nothing’ Stores

Members hosted a pre-Christmas “buy-nothing” toy store at the office of local Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D–Brooklyn), complete with a gift-wrapping station in the back, where families could select toys to give their children. There’s also an online store.

Other mutual aid groups have adopted “buy-nothing” models as well: North Brooklyn Mutual Aid created several mobile pop-up stores, including one permanent location in P.S.18, where people can pick out free clothes, toys and other goods.

The group is running several programs under its umbrella, coordinating dozens of trash pickups, community cleanups and know-your-rights events.

It even created an oral history project — North Brooklyn Narratives — to document life in the neighborhood during the COVID-19 era.

“Mutual aid is very much a political act, and it’s always existed” said Natalie Green, a coordinator for North Brooklyn Mutual Aid. “So, in a lot of ways this isn’t something new, but it can be reactive and community-building. It’s a special thing.”

LaCherra noted that the network was created out of a sense of abandonment from local government.

“Since March, we’ve stood side by side with our neighbors to put these structures into place in a way that’s been more effective and faster than anything the mayor or the city have done so far,” he said. “It shouldn’t have to be this way, but this is the way that it is.”

‘Can’t Forget What You’ve Seen’

Back in Sunset Park, as in the early days of the pandemic, the bulk of South Brooklyn Mutual Aid’s funds come from small-dollar donations, sponsorships from local businesses and modest fundraisers. One recent example: a volunteer generated $600 by selling tote bags made from rice and potato bags.

“For the most part, it’s been people opening up their pockets, or donating clothes, toys, things they don’t need anymore,” Hu said. “We’re really lucky. We’ve been propelled by a lot of community love and people learning to use their voice.”

Volunteers with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid pour flour into bags at their Brooklyn Army Terminal warehouse space. Aug. 22, 2020.

Mudrick said her organization in Astoria has run on the same type of resources: money from volunteers, donations, partnerships with businesses and, occasionally, a small grant. She estimated that over the course of nine months the group has raised about $140,000, spending it as it comes.

The group has drawn 1,500 volunteers and counting. While the pace of sign-ups has slowed a bit since the spring, those who step up are usually more committed.

“We definitely have more people who want to engage on a regular basis,” she said.

For her, the work has brought a mindset shift — and deep satisfaction.

“As tired as I am, and exhausted … I think I would be a much less happy person at the end of the past nine months if a mutual aid didn’t exist,” Mudrick said.

Now the group is bracing to deal with the “extremely long-lasting” economic effects of COVID-19, she said.

And even if the virus disappears, she can’t imagine a world where the group is no longer necessary. 

“Once you’ve seen beyond the veil, like, you can’t forget what you’ve seen, right?” she said. “So, knowing my neighbors much more closely — [like] my neighbors who live in NYCHA housing — I can’t just flip a switch and pretend like I don’t know the tremendous injustice that they’ve experienced.”

Hu doesn’t know exactly what her mutual aid group will look like this time next year — perhaps a food coop, with a focus on child care aid, she said. But she’s confident the fundamentals of mutual support will remain.

“The fights are going to look different, but I think the infrastructure of neighbors helping each other — and not waiting for the government to step in in times of crisis — will continue,” she said.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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