A Conversation with Kensington-Windsor Terrace Mutual Aid
This week, we’re excited to bring you an interview with Aamnah Khan of Kensington-Windsor Terrace Mutual Aid in Brooklyn. She talked to us about strategic fundraising, the cash grants that her group offers, and spreading the word to members of her community in more than 12 different languages. She also shared some moments of joy and burnout, and described the way the group’s work has shifted as the pandemic continues.
Aamnah Khan | Photo by Anna Rathkopf
Mutual Aid NYC: How did you get involved with Kensington-Windsor Terrace Mutual Aid?
Aamnah Khan: I knew there was a Facebook group that was created by Jerah Kirby, and this was before the official lockdown in New York. I was interested in this concept of mutual aid. I knew there was a history that arose from the Black Panthers. I wanted to see what that would look like in terms of neighbors taking care of each other. As we started doing introductions on a Facebook post, I was reached out to by Quito Ziegler, who is also affiliated with MANYC. They saw that I was doing work with Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and that got me the recognition to help facilitate the first meeting.
MANYC: How many people are you serving?
AK: I think we just surpassed having reached out to about 500 folks. We get about 25-30 requests per day. The volume has increased since we first started—when it was only a few per week.
MANYC: What kind of requests are you receiving?
AK: Mainly groceries. One thing that we do a bit differently—because we rely on existing community-based infrastructure, and we try to exhaust all our resources—is that we have the capacity to give out cash grants as well. Or we reimburse folks who can’t pay for their deliveries. We’ve also started to have conversations about a rent strike. As Mariame Kabe notes, mutual aid is solidarity, not charity. And so we want to definitely not have a paternalistic approach. So we’re asking people to organize in their own buildings, and asking if they want more information about a rent strike. And we’re also developing materials on that with DRUM.
MANYC: Where are most of the requests in your communities coming from?
AK: I would say the majority are coming from the Bangladeshi community and the Latinx community. Kensington is a predominantly Bangladeshi community, but it’s pretty diverse. We’re hoping as we continue to build up our resource bank and library that we can then do more research on what other ethnic groups exist here. For instance, there are a lot of folks from the Russian community who are undocumented. We were originally focused on Kensington—which, for context, has limited access to wifi, low/average median household income and it’s among the most playground-deprived areas of NYC. It has a high intake of domestic violence cases. To address these inequities, we quickly realized it made sense to combine our efforts with more affluent neighborhoods like Windsor Terrace, to share and redistribute the abundant resources.
MANYC: How are you approaching language barriers?
AK: We were able to successfully flier in over 12 languages when we first started, to spread the word. We have interpreters on our intake team. So I should say that not only do we shop and deliver groceries, we translate, we fundraise, we recruit volunteers, we develop our website, we contact partner orgs, we hopefully organize for a rent strike, and we provide more psycho-social-emotional support.
MANYC: How have things changed for the group as the pandemic has shifted?
AK: I would say our volunteers are more committed now than ever. We were kind of unique in that we were able to focus on building out our structure early on, whereas other groups were already swamped with requests by then and had to close out and start fulfilling them. We didn’t have that situation because we were still trying to focus on outreach and because of that, we could slowly develop our infrastructure and integrate our Slack to Airtable and automate the process—have an intake and dispatch team, and assess which partner would be appropriate on the backend. We are actually moving toward bulk-buying now. Originally we were doing a lot of itemized requests along with the partner organization requests. As the requests started to increase, we began to shift to an increasingly recurring ask, which was halal meat. And from there, we were able to have our first round of distributing halal meat, which we did the week before last.
MANYC: Do you get recurring requests for community members?
AK: Yes, but we ask that they make the request again. Some neighborhoods don’t have mutual aid groups, or don’t have the same resources, and we want to acknowledge that they’re underserved, and because of that we have gone as far as Ozone Park in Queens and to the end of Brooklyn, to Gravesend. So we don’t limit ourselves to just our neighborhood. As the volume is increasing, we are starting to prioritize. There’s an ongoing conversation in our fundraising group: Do we continue to give out cash grants to individuals within our neighborhood if they’ve already received one, or do we give it to folks who haven’t received any? That’s a conversation we’re still having.
MANYC: The grants are to cover groceries?
AK: That’s separate. So you can ask for groceries to be reimbursed up to $80, or you can request a cash grant to cover utilities, or whatever the case may be. The cash grants are $150. As of right now, the cash grant is a one-time thing. But as we’re continuing to fundraise to hit our goal of $50K, we hope to be able to give them again.
MANYC: How much have you raised to date?
AK: We have multiple fundraising methods: we have Zelle, we have Venmo. I don’t know how much is in our Venmo, but in our MightyCause, we have $32,000.
MANYC: How long did it take to raise that amount?
AK: It was pretty quick. Within 6 weeks, we had reached our goal of $25K. And now we’re hoping to double that. At some point our average donation was $100 or something. Somebody was kind enough to make masks and sell them in the park, and I think we got over $1K from that one individual.
MANYC: Even as the city warms up to reopening, you’re still getting 25+ requests a day, is that right?
AK: I know folks are about to get their EBT card, which gives them – what – $400 for groceries? There’s this question of when the pandemic will be over, but for who? Mom-and-pop shops will be out of business; folks will have lost loved ones or know someone who has lost loved ones. It’s because we haven’t taken care of our most vulnerable, and especially the workers, that there’s a risk of food scarcity. Where are we going to get the money for that? If we have trillions of dollars to bail out companies … you know? It’s in moments like these we realize our government has failed us at many levels.
MANYC: Is Kensington-Windsor Terrace Mutual Aid doing any advocacy work aside from a rent strike?
AK: We realize that not providing direct services is not an option, but we are trying to think about social action too, and, you know, while the Black Panthers had mutual aid networks, many of our mutual aid networks have sprung out of this moment of crisis. But even though we’re acting out of a moment of crisis, we understand that’s not the only way to be. We are thinking about organizing rent strikes, signing petitions for rent and mortgage fees, housing for the homeless, cash assistance for those excluded from unemployment insurance and federal stimulus. Especially essential workers, or undocumented people who aren’t getting that stimulus check, or whatever the case may be. One thing I’m very proud of: at a local level we’ve been participating in Black Lives Matter protests. During the curfew, we downloaded Signal and when there was a protest in Sunset Park, we made sure to take care of each other. We are thinking about privilege and anti-blackness. We are thinking about accountability. We’re working with Mutual Aid NYC, and we’re building out our resource library. We are figuring out which ethnic groups aren’t getting the attention they deserve, or are just not on the map, not on the radar. We’re doing that with Mutual Aid NYC. In terms of accountability in the group, I will say that the group is predominantly white. We have this motto: if you need help, ask; if you have something to give, give. So you match volunteers with capacity with the most vulnerable populations in need, but that doesn’t mean the two are mutually exclusive, so volunteers who have fulfilled requests can also make some of their own—I think that’s really important to recognize. Even the people we are serving can volunteer their time in some other capacity.
MANYC: If the group becomes somewhat permanent, will you need to become an official entity, pursue 501c3 status or something like that?
AK: If you look back to the Black Panthers, arguably they are always unofficial. This is a personal thing, but I do feel if we were to do something like that we might fall into that trap of focusing so much on the direct service that we forget about the organizing. And then it becomes charity instead of solidarity—the nonprofit industrial complex. Rather than doing that, I’d rather tap into what already exists. What has been helpful is that we do serve as a liaison. Many folks don’t know that these groups exist, or what mutual aid even means. Even though for immigrants they exist back in their home country. But we just don’t have a name to it.
Aamnah Khan | Photo by Anna Rathkopf
MANYC: Can you tell me about any of the more challenging moments you’ve experienced in this work?
AK: Originally my frustration was feeling as though my neighbors didn’t have the same sense of urgency from the get-go. I think some of them originally wanted to focus on just doing. Having each volunteer fulfill every request individually. But my frustration was that we already had this community infrastructure and we weren’t tapping into that. And I knew that at some point, just seeing what had happened with other mutual aid groups that were prone to burnout and ultimately not able to fulfill requests—having to freeze at some point. I had witnessed so many essential workers, cab drivers, disproportionately testing positive for COVID and dying. At first I didn’t understand the banging of pots because on my side of town, I just didn’t see it, it was a ghost town. I was curious to see a breakdown of the demographics of the neighborhoods that participate in that. I think the biggest struggle at first was having a sense of urgency, and then shifting from what often feels like a charity approach, or direct service-oriented approach, to social action and solidarity. And what I said earlier about language access: I’m so glad and grateful that we made sure to think about that from the beginning, you know, having 12 languages. I’m very very proud. I feel like a proud parent. There’s a lot of work still to be done there, I think at an intergenerational level.. There is this digital divide. People who don’t have digital literacy, or who don’t want to share their needs online, or just a language barrier in itself. There is this concept in DRUM of “mass-protagonism”—making sure that people are the makers of their own stories and that they get to dictate what they need, what the community needs are.
MANYC: You mentioned avoiding burnout—can you speak to how your mutual aid group has avoided burnout, and avoided running out of cash?
AK: A couple of things: let’s say someone comes up with a request and they’re in an area where we see that there’s an existing mutual aid group. When I say that we exhaust our resources, I don’t mean just in our own neighborhood, I mean seeing whatever is present in their neighborhoods as well. We’ve been very fortunate in having folks who are still willing to sustain our work. You heard that example of the mask-making. I think more than ever people are committed to the cause. One thing that has been very helpful is to delegate tasks and rotate. Originally I was the one frequently facilitating those meetings, and you can imagine how I felt at the time.. But then over time we evolved, having committees, and making sure that it was self-sustaining, and it didn’t just depend on one person because that’s very harmful. It risks us losing this institutional memory with that person. Making sure that if someone was to be onboarded, making sure they were flexible, and that they understand it’s not intimidating—that they can do this work with whatever documents are present. The work speaks for itself. And asking people to be transparent and honest with us about what their commitments are. And it’s totally ok if volunteers need to take a step back, take a break. We get it, it’s a pandemic. We are very understanding. I will say, I’m so impressed by everyone’s level of commitment. I do feel that it speaks to the love in our neighborhood. The level of effort and dedication. We understand that this is a fight for the long-term.
MANYC: Can you share any moments of joy you’ve experienced in this work?
AK: Oh man, so many. This is why I’m so committed because every time I get out of our call I’m always smiling. I would say meeting some folks in person, some of our volunteers. And seeing our conversations shift to organizing, and bulk-buying. It shows me what true ally-ship looks like, and we’re not stopping anytime soon. We have a Slack channel called “Shoutout and thanks” with screenshots from folks thanking us for the impact that it’s had on them, and it’s so uplifting. Something I really appreciate about our group is that we try to have a “no questions asked” policy unless it’s something we really need clarification on. But we’re able to preserve that dignity for folks, and not ask invasive questions. Folks have brought up these concerns before, saying: I would rather be hungry than be humiliated.
Members of Kensington-Windsor Terrace Mutual Aid at a Black Lives Matter protest.
MANYC: The organizations you’re partnering with—can you say more about those?
AK: We partner with existing organizations in the community. So that could look like a local Bangldeshi society. That could look like a nonprofit. Or an ethnic org already doing the work, or an individual who has fundraising for undocumented people unable to get stimulus checks. Or somebody who’s willing to offer their services as a housing rights attorney. Or a counselor.
MANYC: And presumably those organizations are helping you to reach their networks?
AK: Exactly. We serve as a liaison, a messenger to let people know that these orgs exist and to make sure that we’re fulfilling some of those requests through them, so that we’re exhausting those resources. And then whatever they can’t fulfill, we’ll help to fulfill.
MANYC: Are there any aspects of mutual aid or the impact of the COVID pandemic that you feel have not been covered by the media, and that you think should be?
AK: I like that question a lot because I had another interview where I felt that how we were talking about the opportunity was not being accurately represented. We were basically having conversations about the community without the community. And it also could have been because I felt like I was the only person of color in that room and it felt like an “us-them” dichotomy. One thing I think the media doesn’t show is how the government has failed us. And the investment and ownership in our neighborhoods. Representing people as subjects, not objects. We’re not waiting around for people to save us. And then how do we get people to take up the fight? Our safety and security is tied to each other. And though the government is not doing enough, we also can’t be in isolation. We need to build communities and solidarity among each other. One thing I forgot to mention: We’re also having conversations about absentee ballots, and participatory budgeting, and how do we get folks to vote on how our money is spent? We’re tired of hearing stories of suffering and we need to continue to practice mass-protagonism. We don’t know what will happen after this pandemic is over, but we do know we need to do things differently now, and to agitate folks and to really understand the underlying issues, and the systemic issues and seeing how this pandemic has exposed inequities.
MANYC: So you see it as part of your work to encourage people to have a voice in local politics?
AK: Definitely. To put pressure on politicians. We got a lot of folks to contact our local officials to repeal 50-A. We recognize that everything that’s happening is all connected. But yes, definitely to be more civically engaged, politically engaged. To also have that community organizing aspect, and to think about social action. This is a fight for the long term.
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