These New York Neighbors Are Building Their Own Safety Net
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These New York Neighbors Are Building Their Own Safety Net

Invisible Hands volunteer delivers groceries to neighbors in need (Photo courtesy Liam Elkind/Invisible Hands)

Thirteen months ago, when event planner Maryam Mudrick realized she wouldn’t be working anytime soon, the Queens-based busybody channeled her organizational prowess elsewhere: making sure her Astoria neighbors could get their groceries.

Like other COVID response efforts, Mudrick’s started small: one sunny Saturday, she and her husband, Ross, posted flyers around their block, inviting any neighbors who needed groceries to call Ross’ personal cell. Then, they took to Instagram, and translated the flyer to other languages. Other neighbors soon started posting flyers, too, and some added other offers, like to pick up a prescription, or give a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or lend a friendly ear to anyone feeling lonely.

A few weeks later, the Mudrick husband-and-wife duo “operationalized” those small gestures into the now two-thousand-plus-strong Astoria Mutual Aid Network (AMAN), a community best described by its simple slogan: “Neighbors give help. Neighbors get help.” What was once a pop-up grocery-delivery-service has become a wraparound community safety net to make sure everyone in Astoria has access to food, friendship, clothes, toys, tablets, translations, hygiene supplies, and other essential needs.

The Astoria story is far from an anomaly; over a year into a pandemic that’s revealed the deep food insecurity, health vulnerabilities, chronic isolation millions of Americans regularly face, the mutual aid experiments that emerged last March have more often than not become neighborhood mainstays. The scrappy shared Google sheet that was once South Brooklyn Mutual Aid has now evolved into a full-fledged website. Groups in North Brooklyn, East Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy , Clinton Hill Fort Greene and more have done the same, and now, a crowdsourced database, One Million Experiments, exists to document all of the “community-based safety strategies” that have emerged around the nation.

“A community like ours works to support efforts where there are none,” Mudrick says. For instance, when fellow phone dispatchers repeatedly heard that their neighbors in Queens needed diapers and Mudrick didn’t have a resource to forward them, AMAN intervened. “Diapers are expensive as hell— nobody should have to choose between food and diapers, so for now, we keep a big stack of diapers in our storage unit,” she says of their interim diaper bank.

To finance that effort, AMAN has fundraised nearly $200,000 and sells merchandise to directly fund the community’s needs. But despite the money dynamic, Mudrick insists that mutual aid is about “solidarity, not charity” — a concept which, she’s realized, has appeared in other parts of her life. “I come from an immigrant family, and mutual aid takes a lot of forms in non-American societies and immigrant cultures,” Mudrick says, pointing to the ways her Iranian mom and “aunties” would take care of one another when she and her cousins were growing up. “When I was 25, I had cancer, and I realize now that all of the people who showed up for me and my family during that time was a form of mutual aid,” she says.

For Seattle professor and organizer Dean Spade, who published a book on mutual aid last October, that sort of ‘showing up’ has been key for building power. Spade explains how “courts, legislation, and charismatic figures” tend to get the credit for social change in mainstream media and historical narratives, but the real work of providing “direct support to people in crisis” comes from “ordinary people doing ordinary stuff together,” otherwise known as mutual aid.

“Government and disaster relief comes in times of uprising and crisis, but then it gets revoked or shrunk soon after,” Spade says, referencing the post-Hurricane-Maria-support as an example. He also says state-sponsored mechanisms often have “eligibility criteria” that exclude certain kinds of vulnerable or stigmatized people, like people with criminal records, or who lack immigration status. Because of that intensive process, “the very people most in need don’t get help,” he says.

Instead, to address issues of scale, Spade encourages people to expand and replicate existing mutual aid projects; that includes making projects easy for new people to join, and encouraging community organizers to share resources, templates, and lessons with one another. In Astoria, for instance, AMAN partners with the Astoria Food Pantry, another mutual aid project launched in March 2020, and the Connected Chef, an existing fresh produce nonprofit. For anyone out of the immediate Astoria network, AMAN points people seeking support to Mutual Aid NYC — a multi-racial network of networks connecting neighbors with everything from childcare to housing.

Still, because of their limited budget, AMAN has had to stop offering certain services, like fully-reimbursed private care rides to medical appointments (“It was not uncommon that a roundtrip ride was $150 bucks,” Mudrick says). And then, there’s the personal burnout that sometimes comes with running mutual aid, which is what Mudrick experienced in December. “I was so emotionally frayed, I wasn’t sleeping, and I just said ‘I can’t continue to carry everything,’” she remembers.

To help, she says she’s grateful “a number of people took the invitation to step up” and assume some of her leadership responsibilities. And what’s been key from the beginning, Mudrick says, is instilling a sense of personal ownership among the community. “If you’re hanging a flyer in your neighborhood, it means that you’re fully participating — that you’ll be there if a member of our team calls to do a food delivery in your neighborhood.”

That sense of shared community ownership has been crucial, too, for Simone Policano and Liam Elkind — the family-friend-duo who started Invisible Hands, a volunteer-run grocery delivery system now serving over 500 zipcodes in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Though the pair notes there has been some dropoff in volunteer interest, Elkind says they’ve recruited 15,000 community members to help since launching last March. And Policano says they have no plans to stop their work addressing the “systemic inequalities that COVID unveiled but by no means created.”

“We never intended for this to happen, but you can’t learn how broken everything is and then just unlearn that,” she says, referencing the nonprofit’s shift to address food insecurity in addition to food delivery. “Seeing just how desperate these food deserts are, it changes you.”

Elkind says he’s reminded of the “interpersonal connections” community members make along the way in #jobwelldone, a Slack channel the Invisible Hands team uses. “All of these people would have never met were it not for the pandemic, which is a weird thing to say given all the isolation that’s taken place this year,” says Elkind, who’s taken a gap year from university to run Invisible Hands, salary-free, full-time.

True to the philosophy of mutual aid, those on the receiving end of Invisible Hands deliveries often give something in return. “There’s this author, Alexander, who wrote a book about the meaning of life, and he gives it to all the volunteers who come by,” Elkind says. “And he was so excited that people were liking his book that he offered to teach a Zoom class — and so we discussed for like an hour-and-a-half, ‘why are we here?’ ‘what is our purpose?’

For Maryam Mudrick, despite the moments of exhaustion, she says learning about and engaging in mutual aid has given her not only “a sense of purpose” and a “stronger social fabric,” but also, a home — a feeling, she says, is rare for people in her generation.

“If you had asked me in January 2020, ‘Are you gonna live in Astoria forever?’, I probably would have been like ‘Eh, I could live anywhere,” she says. “But now if you ask me, I’d say I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.

Julia Hotz is the Communities Manager at Solutions Journalism Network, where she helps journalists and journalism entrepreneurs around the world advance solutions journalism. She co-hosts Google’s Tell Me Something Good — a daily newscast about what’s working to tackle today’s biggest issues — and has written for The New York Times, VICE, Fast Company, and more. 

Tags: new york citycovid-19queensmutual aid

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