MANYC Newsletter

Youth Doing Mutual Aid: NourishNYC

Day after day, NYC youth of color have been marching in the streets with friends and neighbors for Black lives, transforming their social media presence to center social justice with hashtags and creative infographics, while tirelessly organizing COVID-19 relief efforts across NYC. Today, Mutual Aid NYC brings you the story of one of those youths and the founder of NourishNYC, 22-year-old Tania Maree. As the first feature in our series “Youth Doing Mutual Aid,” the story of NourishNYC highlights the tenacity and powerful capacity of youth-led mutual aid organizations on the frontlines that continue to radically transform the world.

Tania Maree at the NourichNYC depot | photographed by a NourishNYC team member

May 28th—It was on day three of the energized Black Lives Matter protests when Tania Maree decided they would no longer watch protesters march down the street while listening to revolutionary music from their apartment window. Instead, they would march alongside them through Union Square, despite Tania Maree being a severe asthmatic who had recovered in February from what they were sure were COVID-19 symptoms. What they thought would be a calm demonstration turned out to be one where they, along with thousands of protestors, were met by dozens of police officers who barricaded the streets. 

Eager to do more after five hours of protesting and 17 miles of walking, Tania Maree found themself back home where they decided to start an emergency match campaign through Twitter and Instagram to provide snacks and PPE to protestors. They anticipated it would garner about $1,000 maximum, in spite of their connections to affluent networks. But, the next day, they woke up to more than $20,000 in their Venmo account. 

“I texted my best friend and I was like, ‘I think I founded an organization …’I was like, ‘What will be easy for people to send money to?’ Then came NourishNYC. I think the easy name on it tells you what you’re doing and where we’re doing it.” Tania Maree said. 

The following day, Tania Maree participated in a protest at Barclays Center, providing aid to injured activists when they were assaulted by the police with pepper spray. “That made my asthma a lot worse because it got into my lungs … [That] affected my actual capacity to carry things, it’s affecting my stamina,” Tania Maree revealed.

But they did not let this traumatic incident hold them back.

In just a few days, Tania Maree would put their plans to run their skincare business and take bass guitar lessons on hold to fully operate a mutual aid network that would support various demonstrations from the steps of the Brooklyn Museum to the picnic tables of Bryant Park. 

Sunday through Thursday, NourishNYC serves New Yorkers mainly in lower Manhattan, but will not hesitate to travel anywhere when called to do so. 

Tania Maree’s close friends Ashaki and Christine manage finances and fulfill other administrative needs. As depot manager, Omari oversees daily operations by scheduling volunteer shifts, coordinating supply drop-offs and pick-ups, and researching demonstrations in need of support. Reiki and Puma help maintain the depot by managing and organizing supplies. 

NourishNYC team (from left to right) Reki, Puma, and Omari posed with supply kits | photographed by Tania Maree

Together, Tania Maree and the team make supply kits of gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, water, and snacks. In the past month alone, the team distributed more than 4,000 kits. At the end of the day, the team also distributes “homie packs” to people facing homelessness, primarily in the West Village. When not Zip-Loc’ing and distributing bags, they coordinate ride pick-ups for protestors in need. Tania Maree’s innate need to give, coupled with the continued influx of donations, also prompted NourishNYC to set up cash grants for community organizers and protestors.

“Anybody who asks for supplies receives it. That’s the rule. If you come to me and you’re hungry, I will either give you money or I will teach you in some way. If you need $20 so you can eat or you can do whatever the hell it is: You got to buy some tampons? Here’s $20,” Tania Maree said. 

This quick-to-act essence of NourishNYC would continue after the organization was tagged multiple times on JusticeForGeorgeNYC’s Instagram post calling for community support at City Hall. In response, Tania Maree immediately went to City Hall Park to talk with VocalNY organizers on the ground, where they committed to supplying meals every day for the remainder of the encampment. 

The following day, Tania Maree organized alongside an organizer named Lucy with The Saint Supper Collective; the two immediately bonded over their shared Haitian heritage, enriching Tania Maree’s connection to the community. Lucy and other organizers established a food system that “was super-safe, organized, and efficient for people to get meals.” Together, they handed out Chipotle burritos to campers and bike protestors who made pit stops at the park, in need of fuel for the remainder of their ride. Over the course of the encampment, and in collaboration with Black-owned restaurants, volunteers, and various food pantries like Rethink Food, NourishNYC distributed more than 7,000 hot meals.

“Just seeing so many people super-passionate and jumping in and being in a community, that was really nice. It was nice because I don’t have a huge team. And—I think, especially after my experience at Barclays—I felt safe. And that’s not something I feel very often when I’m on the ground. I’m literally 5’2 and I’m a Black person.” 

Two NourishNYC and Saint Supper Collective Volunteers distributing hot meals at city hall | photographed by Tania Maree

Doing this work has also enabled Tania Maree to better understand the importance of mutual aid while realizing it stems from what Indigenous and Black communities have always practiced. “That’s what the community is: to take care of each other. It’s a mutual effort, like when someone doesn’t have something that you have to share. And I believe in karma and that karmic energy will return to you. Fuck this idea of scarcity, like the resources aren’t fucking scarce. They are there and there are people willing to give it, it’s just about how you tap into it,” Tania Maree said.

While this work has connected Tania Maree to the community more deeply and brought forth moments of internal growth, it has also brought about great challenges. “I think the “giving” thing is something I’ve been trying to figure out and navigate on a personal level. Putting so much into something that I care about […] but realizing that I don’t necessarily give that energy to myself in all the ways that I should,” Tania Maree said. 

“I’m often in a position where people assume that this is an organization with a pre-existing structure and that’s simply not the case. It’s day by day, realizing, ‘Okay, we don’t like how this goes, so we’re going to do this instead.’ Okay, this need is not needed anymore, so how do we meet the need we are now identifying? How am I going to outreach to the community and interact with people who identify what needs are?” 

While navigating this is still a work in progress, Tania Maree has found ways to establish balance by setting aside time to volunteer at Mil Mundos Books. “It’s important to me that I honor the commitment I made to that team by continuing to pull some weight-maintaining that bookstore and making sure that it’s something that lives on. It’s an active anti-gentrification project, so that’s as much a form of protesting as Nourish is, and they go hand in hand. So I’ve decided I’m taking Fridays through Sundays not completely off but mostly [off]. Fridays and Saturdays are my days.”  

Tania Maree with Puma and Reiki volunteering at Mil Mundos Bookstore for Essex Market | photo via NourishNYC

Doing so has alleviated stress from the early jam-packed days of Nourish where they worked 20+ hour shifts every day and slept 2-3 hours per night. 

To fully unwind from running social media and operating various outreach chat channels they set aside time for dinner dates with their friends, socially-distanced style. Recently, they felt joy and ease while eating birria burritos in the rain with their friend Vivian, another organizer with the Saint Supper Collective. 

The future of NourishNYC is bright. 

The organization plans to continue working with The Saint Supper Collective in a way that “is sustainable for everybody’s mental, emotional, and physical health,” while collaborating with other mutual aid groups. They also plan on securing partnerships for mental health and wellness resources. “I feel like [those resources] deserve a dedicated section on the website because not everyone is necessarily trying to engage with everything else. Black people deserve to just engage in their wellness without having to further engage in the violence of what’s going on in order to get help. I feel like being Black in and of itself and continuing to choose to live every day is a form of protest. So I’ve made a $20,000 commitment for that,” Tania Maree said. 

What started as a young person putting in a few dollars towards helping neighbors safely protest and eat a meal has blossomed into a personal mutual aid collective of passionate youth who work tirelessly to serve the NYC community, shifting our culture towards one that practices care and mutual support. 

Ways to Get Involved + Calls to Action

  • Check out the NourishNYC linktree to learn various ways you can help volunteer with them at upcoming actions. 
  • The Saint Supper Collective is committed to supplying meals at Abolition Plaza and various other actions in collaboration with NourishNYC. Read their code and sign up to volunteer.
  • Sign up to become a member with Mil Mundos Books and attend their book fair on August 2.
  • Bushwick Ayuda Mutua distributes mutual aid services out of Mil Mundos Books and currently has outstanding requests for a number of household items. Check out their Instagram post to help them distribute the requested supplies to Bushwick neighbors in need by tagging friends and reposting to spread the word. As they are also looking to provide air conditioning units to beat the heat for neighbors in need, share this post to support.
  • Follow @NYCHousingActions on Instagram to join the fight to #CancelRent and #EndEvictions. You can also message them on Signal (text “Hello” to 1-217-954-9057) if you are experiencing a housing crisis and will connect you with resources for support.
MANYC Newsletter

Mutual Aid in New York District 31

A conversation with Chris Nickell, who has helped to jump-start mutual aid efforts from Marble Hill to Chelsea

Chris Nickell has known about mutual aid since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Mutual aid efforts were essential to the recovery of communities in PR, where Nickell’s spouse has family. Now, as Deputy Chief of Staff for New York Senator Robert Jackson — who represents western Manhattan from Marble Hill and Inwood down to Chelsea — Nickell has been at the forefront of jump-starting mutual aid networks across the district. We spoke to Chris back on May 27 about expanding the capacity of organizations like Community League of the Heights (CLOTH), which runs a food pantry serving thousands of people, the challenges of reaching individuals who may not want to ask for help, and the tension inherent to participating in a largely anarchist network as a staff member of an elected political official.

Mutual Aid NYC (MANYC): How has the coronavirus impacted your work? 

Chris Nickell: Tremendously. We started working remotely on March 16th and that was a really difficult shift for us because so much of our work is face-to-face interaction with constituents who have a variety of issues. We help support them in navigating through city and state bureaucracy, connecting them to community-based organizations, etcetera. I tell friends and family that the amount of human misery that represents a proportion of our job has skyrocketed. The one thing that has decreased slightly is housing emergencies, but that’s only because people have their hands full with other emergencies that people need support with. So that’s been tough.

MANYC: What role have you played in getting mutual aid efforts off the ground? 

CN: It has evolved a lot. At first, there weren’t other games in town yet, so we were rolling on our own. We set up a Google form where people could sign up to be pod leaders, they could sign up to be volunteers, they could sign up if they had certain needs that they wanted to be able to connect with a neighbor to help fulfill. We grew from that to where now we have about 220 pod leaders in all the different neighborhoods that he represents from Marble Hill down to Chelsea. That’s exciting, that’s infrastructure that we’ve helped jumpstart directly.

Every two or three weeks we try to have a Google Meet for all of the pod leaders in a given neighborhood. That’s the second part that we’ve been really excited about which is: other mutual aid groups are working with us in a federated model where, say, there are three or four different groups in North Washington Heights, [and] the Upper Heights. Our check-in calls include all of those groups so that anybody who wants to avail themselves of the opportunity to talk to other pod leaders in their neighborhood can do so, regardless of whether they came in the door through our infrastructure or not. And so we’re really trying to distribute the access to infrastructure and resources that we have through that model of neighborhood pod leaders.

“There’s a tension between the basic principles of mutual aid being quite anarchist, and the fact that an elected official is helping to jumpstart these efforts.”

MANYC: Is the goal for the network to ultimately run itself as much as possible, and for you to be as little involved as possible?

CN: We’ve had a lot of conversations about that because there’s a tension between the basic principles of mutual aid being quite anarchist, and the fact that an elected official is helping to jumpstart these efforts. So we’ve been really careful about the way we talk about it. We never say these are our mutual aid efforts. We say we are jumpstarting these mutual aid efforts in the community, helping to set up the infrastructure for the ecosystem to flourish. So we’re very intentional about the way we talk about it.

I think the goal would ultimately be that we would be able to step back and let it run itself, but because of the nature of this pandemic there are a lot of reasons why I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. The mutual aid that we all knew and loved before this pandemic was based in a Walmart parking lot after a hurricane or a fire or an earthquake. And you would set up these big boards and everyone would be co-present in figuring out what to do together in physical proximity. But of course now we can’t do that. A lot of the connecting work — both people to people, and people to organizations — is something that our office is a unique position to help facilitate because we’re paid staff, and so, we do have the capacity within our workflows (although sometimes it’s difficult to find it!) to be dedicating staff resources to these efforts.

The other thing is — and this gets to the third phase of what we’re doing — is we’ve entered into a partnership with MANYC, because one of the things that we bring to the table, certainly in the northern Manhattan ecosystem of mutual aid, is that, as an elected public official’s office, we have deep connections with a lot of community-based organizations (CBOs) who are offering services and support right now. So we’re able to rely on those relationships that pre-exist the crisis to help establish a two-way street between the CBOs and pod leaders. We’re able to help triangulate.

The partnership with MANYC — we’re helping to create the group’s first database, that is going to be fairly comprehensive. Right now, we have an Airtable of over 300 groups that includes churches, other houses of worship, schools of all stripes, CBOs, arts organizations, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) tenant associations, housing groups. All things under the sun that we are aware of. I won’t say it’s exhaustive, but I will say that it’s comprehensive. And we bring that to the table because it’s part of our job anyway as an elected office.

So we’re trying to really set a model for how these kinds of collaborations can look. Because we know that this mutual aid effort is also going to be needed for the foreseeable future. Nobody in their right mind is expecting economic recovery in six months. So we’re in it for the long haul and for that reason, we don’t want to pull out before, say, that resource library is fully built out. So I anticipate that we’re still in a waxing phase of our office jumpstarting this ecosystem. I do anticipate that it will wane once a lot of the group infrastructure is in place. But I don’t anticipate that it will go away completely. There are always going to be ways that our office can plug in to assist in giving impulse to and support in a given area.

“The CLOTH food pantry has, depending how you look at it, quintupled the amount of time they’re open and tripled the volume that they’re putting out.”

MANYC: What are the biggest needs across all your neighborhoods? How are the mutual aid groups answering those needs?

CN: One of the biggest needs is food, and it’s pretty grave. One of the first success stories that came out of the mutual aid efforts that we’ve been working with is that back in late March the executive director of a comprehensive wraparound CBO called Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) — we got in touch with her to check in and see how things were going and she mentioned that she was looking to double the food pantry capacity of CLOTH. Her name is Yvonne Stennett. I said: That’s great. And she said: Well yea, but I don’t know who’s going to staff it. I said: well we have 50 pod leaders in Washington Heights south of the lower Heights, so why don’t we connect you?

Since then, there have been a steady stream of volunteers — both the pod leaders themselves and the people in their pods who they’ve connected with. And the food pantry I think now has, depending how you look at it, it’s quintupled the amount of time they’re open and it’s tripled the volume that they’re putting out. We’re really keen on not reinventing the wheel, and figuring out how to plug people in where they can be most used and most needed.

MANYC: Among all the CBOs, organizations, and individuals you’re working with, what has the familiarity with the idea of mutual aid been like? Are you also playing an educational role in informing people about what mutual aid means?

CN: We very much are, and I wish we could do more. I think ultimately, in the fullest expression of mutual aid, it’s also profoundly anti-racist and decolonial because of the Indigenous origins of the practice. And we haven’t made the space or the time yet to really drill down into those deep discussions around it. But certainly when we approach groups about putting their information into the database and updating us with the resources they’re offering and any needs they have, support requests they have, we are certainly doing education work — more so about the nuts and bolts of how this works. They’re already really open to this idea of the two-way street because they have needs for support from the community and they also are offering a lot to empower pod leaders to help support people in the pod. So it’s not so much about the principles of mutual aid. It’s more: “This exists, here’s how it works, and will you join?”

“That was really hard because it showed me how high the barrier to requesting help can be for some people.”

MANYC: Can you share some of the more challenging moments you’ve had during this crisis? And any moments of joy or fulfillment?

CN: There have been two really challenging moments. A month and a half ago I was out on a walk in the park and the death toll was really on the uptick and I thought to myself: I really need to be prepared because I’d started to hear of people two steps removed from me passing.. Community board members. Community leaders. I thought, I really need to prepare for someone I know directly. Later that morning I got on Twitter and saw that the housing analyst Tom Waters had passed away. He was a close acquaintance in the process of becoming a friend. And certainly somebody I looked up to a lot in terms of the analyses that he did for the Community Service Society. His work was just stunning. And I had worked with him closely on a housing working group downtown for about six months by that point. So that was really hard.

One of the hardest things with the mutual aid for me… We had been aware from the beginning that a lot of the way we had set up the infrastructure, because of its digital nature, was going to attract a crowd that was more highly professionalized and skewed whiter than a lot of the constituents whom we represent. And that bore out in the initial conversations that we had. And it’s something we’ve been trying to mitigate and really wrestle with. The fallout from that was really clear to me… I have a background in housing organizing and one of the last campaigns I worked on before I joined the senator’s office was the campaign against the Inwood rezoning. I live in Inwood and I have a lot of tenant association friends who are in buildings that are majority Spanish-dominant. And I checked up on them during this crisis and made sure that they know our office is here, that I’m personally here.

So it was really hard for me to get a text from one of my tenant leader friends who I had been in touch with about a week earlier – everything [had been] fine, [but] in the intervening time she had contracted COVID and had completely run out of food. So my learning of her need was this urgent plea of: I am literally out of food. That was really hard because it showed me how high the barrier to requesting help can be for some people. I keep a kind of prepper-stocked kitchen because I cook a lot. (You look at my kitchen and I think I’d be a disaster prepper but then you look at the rest of my apartment and think: no way!) So I was able to throw a bunch of shit together and take her two full bags of food without really missing any of it. And I got that to her and she was grateful, and it worked out — but that whole episode was super-jarring because it was a personalization of all the struggles that mutual aid efforts are facing right now. Just that barrier of asking for help.

I think a moment of joy is any time that I’ve been able to connect with people around these efforts. In the beginning I did a lot of biking around to drop off fliers that people could put in their buildings, and connecting with people in that way was really beautiful. I’ll often pass materials out my first floor window to other folks in Inwood who come by and meet with us. And then the online connections with the pod leaders every few weeks or so have just been really rewarding because they’re points of contact and those are so important right now — it sounds really corny, but those are moments of joy!

We reached out to Chris to request a more recent update on their neighborhoods. They wrote back with this:

“The murder of George Floyd and the uprisings in response shifted our focus toward police brutality and systemic racism, importantly. Some of the pods in the network we’ve jumpstarted are still quite active, but others have struggled to gain traction on mutual aid with everything that’s going on. Our focus on mutual aid in the next couple months will be to reinvigorate the pod leader structure and build up their capacity to connect people with needs to people and organizations who can offer support. The economic fallout from the crisis will only grow more dire with Pandemic Unemployment Compensation slated to end on July 31 and with the eviction moratoria expiring, so we need every tool in our toolboxes to support one another.”

Donate to the CLOTH food pantry.

Explore MANYC’s resource library.

Ways to Get Involved + Calls to Action

Because of massive job losses from COVID-19, many across New York State are still struggling to pay their rent. Although the eviction moratorium has been extended to August 6, that is not enough. New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assembly member Karines Reyes have introduced Emergency Housing Stability and Tenant Displacement Prevention Act (Senate Bill S8667), which would prevent all eviction and foreclosure filings for commercial and residential tenants until a year after any part of Governor Cuomo’s statewide disaster emergency is still in place. The bill also draws a connection between housing inequities and racial inequality; minority communities have been hardest hit by COVID-19 and therefore are at greatest risk for housing instability. We urge you to call or email your New York State Senator and Assemblymember to voice your support for S8667.

Join Communities United for Police Reform member organizations Arab American Association of New York, Brooklyn Movement Center, FIERCE and Justice Committee this Thursday, July 23 at 6:30 p.m. for a free, open to the public Cop Watch training. Register now.

Equality For Flatbush is continuing its efforts to protest the illegal eviction of tenants of #1214Dean. The group is asking folks not to join them in person unless they have been integrally involved in this work, stayed overnight, or have played a supportive role in organizing. Their next steps are to legally and politically hold Gennaro Brooks-Church (718-506-6449) and Loretta Gendville (347-244-3016). If you are able to support the tenants financially, please Venmo them at @DeanSt1214.