A conversation with Kelvin Taitt, who co-founded the group while battling coronavirus symptoms.
Until the pandemic hit New York in March, Kelvin Taitt was a wedding MC and event planner living in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He was also involved in local neighborhood associations, serving food at homeless shelters and organizing community events. But then everything changed — Taitt came down with the coronavirus and, even as he was battling symptoms, he set about co-founding a mutual aid group for Ocean Hill and Brownsville, neighborhoods that lack representation in local government. We spoke to Kelvin about building an organization from scratch, creating jobs via mutual aid, and silver linings in bleak times.
This is an edited excerpt of an oral history conducted by Robert Soden, an organizer of Morningside Mutual Aid in Manhattan.
Photos by Sandrine Ettienne.
Robert Soden (RS): How did you get involved with mutual aid work?
Kelvin Taitt (KT): I was approached by some of the neighbors from our neighborhood association about forming a mutual aid group to help those in need of food and groceries. So we got together and we started raising money. We started going to the grocery store, buying groceries for our neighbors delivering it to them, and just spreading the word through a Whatsapp group chat, and then started building an operation and infrastructure. That is what we have now: our residents and our neighbors can go online, request groceries through a form, and select what they want through our inventory. And then the groceries are delivered to them at the end of the week.
RS: So the mutual aid work that you’re a part of really grew out of some existing community networks that were already doing things in the neighborhood?
KT: Yes and no. We have a neighborhood association. We’re a very tight-knit group, and we communicate very often. One of our neighbors was contacted by someone that she met on a forum as she was searching for ways to help. I was actually sick at the time — recovering from COVID — when she reached out to me. A lot of the work that I was doing in setting up our efforts for mutual aid was from home, as we were just trying to figure out what this was — what are we going to do? How can we help our neighbors? You know, what is our part in all of this to support and be a resource to our community? And that seemed like the best way to do it, the best thing to do was groceries, and forming a mutual aid group.
We don’t have a New York City Councilmember. So our resources are almost non-existent.
RS: Prior to COVID, what were some of the concerns in the neighborhood? What were the kinds of issues that the neighborhood association was working on?
KT: We were working with the homeless shelters in our area, because there are two of them in our community through the Camba network. We had some events planned to bring everyone outside of their homes and to celebrate and be around each other, which we had to cancel. We serve food for our neighbors in the area that are food-insecure, or neighbors that are in the homeless shelter. So we do that a couple of times a year from the neighborhood association.
RS: Who in the neighborhood is impacted the hardest by the pandemic?
KT: I think that everyone has had their fair share, honestly. I mean, our neighborhood is primarily black and brown. We don’t have a New York City councilmember. So our resources are almost non-existent. We have no elected official to ask for help. There was only one person left in our councilmember’s office after he left his position. There wasn’t really much that the one remaining person could do without a superior.
RS: What’s been the hardest part of the work so far?
KT: Getting food and money. My co founder and I — we split up the duties to where she focused on the infrastructure, and the back end, and the intake, and I focus on the frontlines in the warehouse and getting the food. Trying to get those resources while not being a 501c3 organization has been a challenge. We don’t qualify for anything from the food banks or City Harvest or the city itself. So we receive whatever handouts we’re able to get. We create relationships wherever we can find them to get low-cost produce. That really has been the challenge. We were able to connect with some local food pantries, and they were allowing us to fill up our cars and our SUVs with whatever we could, to feed our neighbors.
Some of our neighbors that are still extremely affected by COVID rely on us every week to be able to feed their families.
RS: How has the work changed since March?
KT: We got started fairly late compared to some of the other groups. We actually started around April 3 and didn’t really get going until about April 13. When we started doing our first set of deliveries, I was sick. I had COVID. I really wanted to do my part, although I couldn’t physically do anything. We were supported by Crown Heights Mutual Aid for a little while before we were self-sufficient. As we were growing, we didn’t have money. We were just starting our fundraising. Crown Heights Mutual Aid was getting requests from Brownsville and from Ocean Hill that they couldn’t handle. However, their fundraising was very successful. So they gave us about $10,000 towards all of the residents in Ocean Hill and Brownsville that were on their list.
RS: Have you seen the needs of the community change over time?
KT: Some of our neighbors that are still extremely affected by COVID rely on us every week to be able to feed their families. We’ve definitely seen a slight decrease in the amount of requests that we’re getting. Naturally, people are going back to work. They’re working, they’re making money again, they’re able to buy groceries and feed their families. They’re becoming more food secure. We’ve set up a system so that if the need begins to rise again, we’re able to respond faster. Everything is already in place, which is the great thing.
If you take a step back from all of the craziness outside, and all of the tragedy across the globe, you can see some of the beautiful things that have happened.
RS: This all seems really different than your typical nonprofit model, or your typical charity model.
KT: The city has given us little to no resources. And we have created systems in our own communities that operate faster than the city’s resources. That is an amazing thing. That is, in my opinion, how our communities should be run. The people that live in the communities should be involved in the allocation of resources for the community. We should be the ones making the decisions about the resources the community gets. Our communities can take care of themselves. By the time the city gets to us, we’re at the end of the first uptick of COVID. And now it’s coming around to the second uptick, and we still don’t have any support.
I’ve been able to hire over two dozen people from my community and give them jobs. It’s feeding back into the community. There’s such a great silver lining that is coming from COVID-19 that I don’t think many people realize. And if you take a step back from all of the craziness outside, and all of the tragedy across the globe, you can see some of the beautiful things that have happened. The relationships that have formed, the bonds that have formed, the way that we are responding differently than we have ever done before.
RS: How are you staying motivated?
KT: Honestly, I just I have a spirit of: I want to make sure that the people are securing what they need. If you have a need, I think there’s enough in this world for us all to have our needs filled. And if I can be a part of changing that in just the smallest way, that’s what drives me. I like to see people happy; I love to see smiling faces. There’s so much joy that can be had and people want to help and they want to be there.
NY’s eviction moratorium is now extended until October 1, but we’re still demanding to #CancelRent and for an #EvictionFreeNY. Join Housing Justice for All and Right to Counsel NYC on August 20 at 4 p.m. at 42nd street and 5th avenue for a huge march on the billionaire landlords who are trying to evict tens of thousands of New Yorkers from their homes. Meet at 41st Street and 5th Avenue with signs and PPE!
Sign this petition calling for the immediate firing of NYPD Officers Long & Saha for brutalizing a homeless New Yorker.
Join the Bed Stuy Clothes Swap on Saturday, August 15 from 3-6 p.m. at Restoration Plaza BLM (Brooklyn). Unswapped clothes will be donated to a local shelter in Bed Stuy. Instagram: bedstuy_clothesswap.
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.
How a local fashion designer transformed their resources into a PPE task force.
This week, Mutual Aid NYC is pleased to share the story of local Brooklyn designer, Anthony Galante, who transformed his business into a massive COVID-19 relief effort. Anthony’s story is a great example of how people can tap into available resources to make vital contributions to mutual aid efforts.
New York-Presbyterian’s pediatric intensive care unit wearing face masks from Operation COVID-19 Garment Revival.
Back in April, Anthony Galante was “sitting on his couch, watching too much CNN and feeling really depressed,” when he realized he needed to do something to help. A fashion designer based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Anthony was inspired by designers like Christian Siriano, who were starting to pivot their efforts to create masks. With some time on his hands and a team of freelance sewers with whom he frequently collaborates, Anthony realized he could do the same. And with that, Operation COVID-19 Garment Revival was born.
Since fabric suppliers were closed, Anthony put out a call for donations for breathable cotton garments he could upcycle into face masks and gowns. Anthony launched a GoFundMe, which has raised over $27,000 to date, to fund a local coalition of out-of-work sewers to produce and donate over 13,000 pieces of non-medical PPE, like face masks, isolation gowns, and scrub caps. They supply hospitals, health care centers, and nursing homes in New York, Chicago, Texas and rural Virginia, as well as non-profits — like the Bronx chapter of the Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs — who work with our most vulnerable communities. Their fundraising goal is now $30,000.
Anthony spoke to the challenges of online fundraising at a time when so many are stretched thin. “We’re all trying to best navigate this new world,” Anthony said.
Staff members from the Bronx chapter of Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs (NAICA), which works to prevent homelessness, provide housing intervention, and other community services, wearing masks donated by Operation COVID-19 Garment Revival.
“One of the joys has been connecting with a diverse group of individuals and helping get them the resources they need as quickly as possible,” said Anthony.
ER frontliners at NYC Health and Hospitals/Harlem wearing face masks and scrubs donated by Operation COVID 19 Garment Revival.
Anthony plans to keep Operation COVID-19 Garment Revival going as long as there’s still a need for PPE due to the government’s inadequate COVID-19 relief efforts. “We’ll continue to donate to organizations that serve our vulnerable communities, as long as we have the financial resources to press forward,” Anthony said. “Anything I can do to help a little bit.”
Tatiana Hill is a dynamic organizer who has been at the forefront of the movement for Black lives, most notably leading the NYC city hall encampment alongside her fellow organizers at Vocal-NY. She has long been engaged in grassroots organizing and mutual aid work. At the Communications Workers of America Union (CWA), Tatiana was able to combat workplace violence and become a leader for Brooklyn’s working class community. She later co-organized the first workers’ union at Verizon Wireless with her friend Bianca, seeking to create an equitable and just workplace. We spoke to Tatiana on July 11th about her organizing journey, the city hall encampment, her expansive work with Vocal-NY, and the multifaceted challenges of organizing amid COVID-19 while being a Black woman directly impacted by the prison industrial complex.
Mutual Aid NYC (MANYC): What drew you to organizing and specifically Vocal-NY?
Tatiana Hill: When I sought CWA out, I actually started working for them because I was so into it, and because I was a leader, naturally, and I was not afraid to use my voice. I think that’s what brought me to organizing in general — I am a person who’s very comfortable with being outspoken but also wanting fair treatment for people around me who don’t speak up for themselves, people who don’t have a voice.
What happened with Vocal was I was personally impacted by the mass incarceration system. My partner was locked up, and everything was uprooted. So I came back to New York. This is where my family’s from, where I grew up. And when I came back here, I reached out to people who my friend Bianca told me about at Vocal. She knows people that were here, and she loves the work that they do. And she told me I probably would like it as well. So I said, “Okay, I’ll try it out,” and I looked them up.
They do work on directly-impacted folks in mass incarceration — which was obviously something I was passionate about — and homelessness, which myself and many other people I know like me growing up have experienced in some way or the other, even if we don’t call it that. Vocal also does work on HIV and AIDS, which is also something a lot of people close to me have experienced and just poor people — Black people in general — are more directly impacted by than anyone else.
I was amazed by their work, and I wanted to be a part of it, I loved it. So I went for the job, and I got it, and they loved me too; they liked my background, they liked my personality. I fit in with them as a family, as a team. I already had a lot of the ideals that they teach and project, but I also learned a lot too. I learned about harm reduction; that was a new thing for me. And now I’m very well read on it and understand the principles of it, but originally, I didn’t know like a lot of folks. It’s a new phenomenon. So I’ve grown and learned so much in this position.
MANYC: Do you feel that learning about harm reduction gave you the language to understand how to de-escalate certain situations?
TH: Absolutely. So the way we have these four unions, my work is in mass incarceration. I work with people who have been in prison, in jail or who are currently in it. Sometimes they even write to me. I’m big on language, like how we label folks, how we speak to them, the type of presence we give them in our spaces as a community, because they are the community […] We want to respect them as human beings and people who are just like us. We’re all one incident away from any of these things being our reality.
I speak of that often when I speak to the groups that I work with, when I do teach-ins and political education. Because sometimes even in those groups, there’s stigma around the others. And that’s a big part of the population that we work with at Vocal are those with stigma. And that covers heavily on these folks, and it is a reason why we as a world and an American nation, we don’t talk about these things openly. We don’t seek the help that we need. We don’t have conversations with people who are going through very similar things as us because there’s stigma. And the stigma exists within us individually. We have to work to remove it, so that we can work through these issues as a community.
MANYC: Roughly how many people would you say Vocal-NY currently serves?
TH: Our membership is around 4,000, I believe. It comes and goes. People go through things in life. Some of our members are very active, some are not. Some of them are leaders, which are the most active members. But our database, we have like 4,000-plus people that we can reach.
We believe housing is a human right. This country does not.
MANYC: Can you tell me about the food pantry and medical services that Vocal provides?
TH: So at Vocal’s office, we don’t have a food pantry, per se, but we do offer meals every day. We have a drop-in center. That’s where our harm reduction education happens. That’s where we have a syringe exchange program as well. At the center, we offer food—lunch, during the day, and we have coffee, other drinks, that kind of thing. People do make donations, and we give them out to our participants. That drop-in center is for people who use drugs, so they do sign in, they get a membership card. So that way if they’re stopped by police and they have a syringe on them, they have a membership card and then they can come in for meals, use the bathroom, that kind of thing.
At Occupy City Hall, we did have a food pantry and food services. So what happened was organically we had people who wanted to volunteer. People brought tons of food on a daily basis. They brought cooked food, they brought canned food, they brought pizza, deliveries. We had breakfast being delivered every day, lunch and dinner — constantly. At times there was a surplus, you know we had snacks, anything you could think of. There was a pantry we called the bodega which was really cool. Anything you would maybe buy at a store you could find. You had bug repellent, sunscreen, plenty of sanitizer, PPE, we had masks. We had feminine hygiene products, we had a bookstore at one point, we had a charging station.
When I say the community came together and provided for one another, they stepped up in a huge way. Any and everything needed, we made lists daily of what was needed and people brought it immediately.
Mutual Aid stations set up by organizers at City Hall | Photograph by Via Wohl
MANYC: Were there any challenges that arose at the encampment?
TH: Yes, in any space like this, there are challenges, especially when you’re looking at a space where we’re saying we don’t need police. We’re going to learn how to work as a community and live together. There are people that are angry and frustrated that came into these spaces. There are people who have never organized before, who have never protested until George Floyd, so some are young. Some don’t understand the history of organizing and how protests work. They also have some misguided frustration. So there were some interactions.
We had a de-escalation team, which was really powerful. We talked to people when they were arguing. We were saying, “We don’t need police, guys, you have to learn how to interact. You don’t have to understand each other or like each other. But let’s respect each other.” Respect is the bottom line. There’s no need to get to physical violence, there’s no need to verbally assault one another. We have so much space, let’s spread it out, cool off and learn how to talk. We had a lot of circles in groups where we talked to each other, even with other organizers who didn’t agree with our method of organizing that space.
Even for me as an organizer, I was learning how to deal with things in a more positive way, in a more interactive way. No community, no space is perfect. When people don’t have resources, when they don’t have a way to live, survive, eat and be well, they do resort to crimes of survival, and they also resort to interpersonal violence, because they are frustrated, they are stressed out when you cannot know what’s coming next on your plate for your family.
We believe housing is a human right. This country does not. We have 90,000 homeless people [in NYC], and some of them were in the encampment and we provided for them. Some of them are mentally unwell, they need stability, they need sustainable housing with services that pertain to their needs. This country has abandoned them and that has caused a ripple effect in our communities. They could be well if they had treatment, if they had medications, if they had therapy sessions, if they have food and a roof over their head.
We have a 36x rate of COVID spread in prisons and jails than in nursing homes.
MANYC: To circle back to COVID, how would you say things have changed for Vocal as a result? Are there any distribution challenges that you all are currently facing?
TH: We have had challenges. Initially it was about keeping our center open, how many people could come in. Our drop-in center, as I mentioned, provides a syringe exchange program. They offer kits for people to use drugs safely. We offer testing for Hepatitis C. We connect them with people who test for HIV. So that was hard at first. But we’ve made an awesome system and some of the members, mostly staff, volunteer and go to different neighborhoods with the highest drug use like Brownsville, East New York, South Bronx, and they hand out kits. So we found a workaround through this.
We also normally have meetings once a month and twice a month for leaders. We do them on Zoom now. So we’ve found a way, at first it was a little tricky. It just took some time. Now we’ve utilized social media and technology a lot, and a lot of our members are older so that’s been a challenge. But we’ve gotten there and we’ve done Twitter tutorials, we’ve done Zoom tutorials. So it’s really been working out.
I do, unfortunately, feel like we’ve distanced ourselves from some of our members who we can’t reach, a lot of the homeless population and drug users. They don’t always have a phone. They like to come in and see us in person and they love interactions with human beings. I work with guys in a homeless shelter. I do teachings there. A lot of them I haven’t heard from this whole time because they don’t have a phone. So it’s unfortunate in that sense, but it’s also highlighted the need for community and how we can help folks more with the type of things that they need on a regular basis, the type of connection that we can forge to check in with people and make sure they are okay and have what they need.
MANYC: What can we expect from Vocal in the coming weeks?
TH: One of our big campaigns that I was doing before the George Floyd protests started was called Free Them All. We have a 36x rate of having COVID spread in prisons and jails than in nursing homes. Our nursing homes aren’t the worst places, it’s actually jails and prisons. So Melinda Katz, the Queens District Attorney, promised to get these high-risk folks out with health issues and those who are elderly. She hasn’t done that. So we’re holding her accountable for that as well as wrongful convictions.
The civil rights union, the union that I work with, we have worked on a bill for wrongful convictions. There’s a man named Robert Majors, he spent over 20 years in prison. There was evidence that has not been presented yet to prove him innocent, and they’ve withheld that evidence for years. So now, we are demanding that Melinda Katz free him. He’s proven innocent, but now they’re trying to make him go back to court, to go through that system again. So we’re holding her accountable for those things.
I feel like these people could be my boyfriend, my dad, my uncle, my neighbor. It hurts me to see that my people, Black people, are suffering the most.
MANYC: This work is super hard. How do you deal with burnout and things like that?
TH: I’m very big on self care. I also consider myself to be an empath. I take on these emotions that I deal with with my community and my crew members. I cry a lot, even at work. My coworkers know it, I cry. When I deal with people who have these stories about being arrested, being imprisoned, I can connect with them. I feel like these people could be my boyfriend, my dad, my uncle, my neighbor. It hurts me to see that my people, Black people, are suffering the most. But I deal with it by doing self-care things, like I’ll take a day off sometimes.
Vocal is awesome with offering personal days and mental wellness days because they know this work is heavy. It’s very heavy on your spirit. But I pray often, and I feel like I’m doing the right thing. And I’m bringing joy, I’m bringing knowledge, I work with compassion when I do my work. And people always tell me, “Oh, my gosh, you know, I appreciate you, I thank you. You’re a voice for us who cannot speak.” So even when it gets tough, those are the moments that kind of reinvent my strength in this work.
Homelessness, incarceration are real to me. It’s not something I’m just like, “Oh, I could look at that, and then go home to my little cozy place,” like no. I am in a space where these things could very much impact me again […] And even incarceration; I’m calling a person who’s incarcerated every day. I’m not far removed where I could just disassociate. But, for the most part, all these people who I help reassure me that I’m doing the right thing and that I’m in the right space. And this was where I was meant to be, and doing what I’m meant to do.
MANYC: Being a Black woman, we are empaths like you said. We are the backbone, so can you speak about being a Black woman in this movement? Because there’s so much that we’re fighting on top of these immediate issues.
TH: Since I was young, I’ve seen all of the Black women around me fight for their families, fight for their community, fight for their world. Slavery has been on the backs of us as Black women. We always held our families down and bore the brunt of abuse.
They always say the Black woman is the lowest on the totem pole, the most disrespected. But I feel we are also the life of this earth. We have the gene that creates every single look you can have in this world. We are the strongest and sometimes I hate that we have to say ‘strong’ as a compliment for us. It’s frustrating, but we are that. I am that. You are that, my mother, my grandmother, I’ve seen the embodiment of what strength is through Black women.
And I never put down my Black brothers but I do respect and idolize our women because we deal with the most with a smile on our face. We raise these children when the system rips away the fathers. We rise and shine above every and anything. And we still have so much strength and power and love. Our life strength comes from nurturing.
I think Black women are the epitome of beauty, strength and resilience. We have to tell each other, we have to reassure each other and pick each other up and tell each other we’re beautiful […] A lot of this community that we want to build and look like, we got to unlearn a lot of what we have been learning for centuries. These are all things that we internalize and we have to push it out of us and cleanse our spirits and heal and keep putting one another on a pedestal.
That’s part of what this work is for me is telling each other: “You’re not a convict, you’re not a felon, you are a human being. You’re in a system that has purposely put you in this place that you’re at with 1,000 hurdles in front of you to trap you.”
Since I was young, I’ve seen all of the Black women around me fight for their families, fight for their community, fight for their world.
MANYC: Do you have any words of encouragement for younger activists?
TH: I would just say follow your passion and do what you feel is right. And also be open and listen. Don’t judge people who are in different walks of life than you, understand all these issues are intersectional. As Black people, especially Black women, we face a lot of different levels of these oppressions. Especially folks who are queer as well; they have another added layer.
So I just feel in this space, I’m always learning; I think that’s a good thing to do. Always feel open to learning. Don’t think you know everything, because you don’t know anything. And learn from your elders, learn from your ancestors, read from previous social justice workers. Read about previous social justice movements, they’ve taught me a lot too in my studies, and I’m always — literally always — reading a book every week. I watch YouTube videos from other leaders and people who speak on these issues. I love history. That’s my favorite part of this work.
Community is important, reaching out to people, making connections. I love meeting other Black women in this work. I need to learn from other women around me and talk about my experiences. It makes me better. And it makes me feel good to have community, have advice and wisdom from women who’ve been around. I’ve met several women who also have incarcerated partners and I am so grateful because, in the beginning, I thought that I was going to lose it. I was going through so much financially, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — it’s a lot, and more than people know.
I just did a podcast talking about the impact of incarceration on the family and the home. You go through so much that people can’t relate to until they go through it themselves. So it’s really nice to find other women who experience what you have and who can relate to you in your life.
MANYC: Can you describe a moment of joy you have experienced while organizing recently?
TH: I’ve been going to a lot of protests for George Floyd. Several of those protests have been in front of Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center. That facility is actually where my partner is incarcerated. So it was really hard for me to come to terms with going in front of a prison where my person is. I’m like, madly in love with him. We had a very happy life before he was arrested and imprisoned.
So it’s hard, but after one of those protests, I got a message from a private random account — a person who’s in there. They’d said, you know, “My wife is out you know she’s free. She told me about your work. I heard about you and I was so happy to hear you, a young sister, is representing us. We don’t have a voice. We’re always silenced. You know, they put us in lockdown. They put us in solitary to silence us. When you guys protest, they lock us down for days.”
And my boyfriend told me the same thing. I already knew it. And I was worried that what we’re doing is damaging them. You always think you’re representing folks and that’s why we like to represent with directly impacted people themselves because you don’t want to speak with somebody in a space thinking that you’re doing the right thing. Vocal is led by our leaders and members. The people make the decisions. They speak. So the guy, he was like, “I thank you so much. I’m so happy to hear y’all out there protesting, we hear you and we thank you.”
That made me cry, like a happy cry. And to hear from a person in prison right now, during COVID, and going through this, thanking me for the work, I’m like, “yeah, this is it.” That reassured me.
After the city’s budget was passed on July 1st, the mission of City Hall park evolved into providing mutual aid to anyone who arrives, rallying and supporting Black Lives Matter protesters, and holding the space as a police-free zone. The effort, now called “Abolition Park,” is heading into its fourth week and it needs your help.
Whether it’s virtual volunteering to help organize food donations; doing research on local service to support social workers at the camp; conducting outreach; showing up at the park by doing a shift with one of the operations groups managing supplies; serving food or offering health services – volunteer to support Abolition Park. The fight for safer communities, justice, and a new world requires long-term solidarity and mutual support.
Urgent Community Update:
Governor Cuomo recently announced the COVID relief rent program to provide eligible households with a one-time rental subsidy. Apply now and spread the word to support neighbors who have been struggling to pay rent as a result of COVID-19.
More Ways to Get Involved + Calls to Action
Visit Vocal-NY’s website to learn how to contribute to their drop-in center and learn more about their other services.
Register for Vocal’s 2020 gala, a gathering to commemorate people who have donated and participated in Vocal’s work throughout the year. The gala is an opportunity to meet Tatiana and other Vocal organizers, learn about the organization’s work, and join their fight for justice.
Check out the Free Black Radicals Twitter page, a newly formed coalition of Black grassroots organizers Tatiana co-created out of the City Hall encampment who attest to the needs of the community through mutual aid.
Text WALK to 50409 to demand New York legislators in Albany repeal the #WalkingWhileTrans Ban bill.
Watch notable prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore break down the prison industrial complex.
Join Housing Justice For All to stop evictions and defend communities. Call governor Cuomo and NYC judges to take action now.
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.”
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.
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.
New York’s moratorium on evictions remains in effect until at least July 7. But when that moratorium lifts, we may see a volume of evictions and foreclosures that far exceeds those seen in the wake of the Great Recession. (Housing rights organizations have estimated that without the extension of the moratorium, there would have been approximately 60,00 cases filed in New York City’s housing courts.) This extension is not nearly enough. We are advocating for a rent strike alongside so many other organizations, like Vocal New York. Check out what they’ve been up to here. “Housing is a human right and housing stability is fundamental to that equation,” says Marcela Mitaynes.
We join mutual aid groups and organizations around the city in calling for a universal evictions moratorium. The city must:
Cancel rent payments for the duration of the 2020 COVID-19 crisis.
Expand the right to counsel to cover everyone and make sure renters facing eviction have access to adequate information.
Pass good cause eviction, which would mandate landlords to show “just cause” for not renewing leases.
Slow down the number of eviction cases held in housing courts as a health and safety measure.
Ensure landlords are accountable when they do not provide adequate living conditions.
Make necessary health, safety, and accessibility upgrades to eviction courts.
We demand that at least $1 billion be cut from NYPD’s budget due tomorrow and that money be reinvested for services, programs, and infrastructures that directly benefit Black, Latinx and other communities of color most affected by COVID-19.
The New York City budget is due in one week and VOCAL-NY has been organizing an Occupy City Hall movement until the budget is decided on and released. Read more about the demands for NYC Budget Justice here:
More Ways to Get Involved:
Four Directions Mutual Aid needs your help! They serve indigenous communities on Sewanhackey/Long Island. Please share and support their GoFundMe!
This week, we are looking at the history of mutual aid to understand how we got to where we are today, as well as how to exist and thrive together in and beyond COVID-19. For many, this is the first time engaging in “mutual aid” efforts, but oppressed communities have relied on mutual aid for decades.
Mutual aid continues to be an essential part of the fight for Black liberation.
Regan de Loggans, queer indigenous community organizer and agitator with the Indigenous Kinship Collective, writes,“Mutual Aid is a unifying term, putting a name to the practice that most of us (BIPOC) folx have been acting on all our lives.”
Here’s how Regan de Loggans breaks it down in their mutual aid zine, which you can access here:
Mutual aid is simple…
Mutual aid is anti-capitalist. It breaks “the binary of the ‘haves and have nots’ with the intention to re-allocate for equitable access to resources, education, and needs.” It puts control back in the hands of community members and “demands reciprocity and resource exchange.”
Mutual aid is a non-Western tradition. It is “Indigenous lifeways and sovereignty; it is Black thrivance and power.” It is a practice that most people of color have been following for a long time, and predates colonialism and capitalism. People of color were (and still are) criminalized and strategically targeted for practicing mutual aid; in our current use of the practice, we must not erase that history. The co-option of mutual aid without accountability amounts to racism.
Mutual aid is about making a LONG-TERM commitment to the community. The reallocation of resources is important, de Loggans writes, but it “cannot be temporary. It must be carried into the world beyond times of panic, emergency, or pandemic.”
Mutual aid is about solidarity, not charity. It is based on the premise that everyone in society has something to contribute, and should have equal agency regardless of their abilities or financial assets. “We ask for folx to skill-share as part of the practice,” de Loggans writes. “But we do not demand of them to contribute if they cannot in the moment, or force any ideologies of ‘owing’ someone or something. This is how we break ageist, ableist, labor hierarchy. No matter the age, no matter the ability, no matter the education, people can contribute.”
We at Mutual Aid NYC understand that aid must come with accountability. We are grateful to organizers like de Loggans who continue to pave the way. And, as a group based in NYC, we recognize that the city is built on stolen Lenape land.
Just this week, New York State lawmakers voted to repeal 50-A, the privacy law that kept police disciplinary records sealed from the public for 44 years. This is a huge step forward in protecting Black communities from police brutality, and would not have happened without protests and activism of all kinds. It’s not the only win: Mayor de Blasio has committed to channeling money from the NYPD budget to youth and social services, and chokeholds have been criminalized. None of this is enough, but it shows that we have the attention of lawmakers and we must keep showing up.
Urge politicians to defund the NYPD. The NYPD budget has grown for 20 years, regardless of broader budget fluctuations. Our communities need more significant cuts than the 5% that the Comptroller and City Councilperson have suggested. This is funding badly needed by education, housing, and social services.
Our work at Mutual Aid NYC is guided by a set of principles. Today, we share them with you — and ask you to help us stay true to these values.
Our responsibility as a community is to ensure that all people have what they need to thrive and we believe that all people have something to contribute. Mutual aid means long-term solidarity with our community, not a momentary act of charity.
We share power, we do not hoard it. We value all voices and are transparent and collaborative in how we relate to each other, make decisions, and operate.
We partner, we do not dominate. We amplify and adapt to the needs of communities. Our work is based on what the folks doing mutual aid need right now.
We build in public. We use open-source tools and methods when possible, and aim to de-weaponize and democratize technology through our work. We try to utilize and contribute to existing open source projects and open data resources.
We do not share information in ways that we know will harm. We will never share information with law enforcement, especially ICE or the NYPD.
We are anti-racist. We actively work to undo systemic inequities in ourselves, existing structures, and the new structures we support.
We prioritize people over profit. We recognize the inherent worth of all human beings, no matter their class background or economic output.
We meet people where they are. We recognize that unequal access to information creates systemic barriers. We are committed to providing equal access to resources, tools, and information so that people of all languages, backgrounds, and abilities can make use of and contribute to our work.
We commit to being accountable for the impact of our actions while assuming good intent. We recognize that at times we will fall short and ask our community to support us by holding us accountable.
At Mutual Aid NYC, we acknowledge that mutual aid isn’t new. Marginalized communities have relied on mutual aid for centuries, and we seek to honor that legacy. In that spirit, next week’s newsletter will explore how communities of color have cultivated mutual aid practices throughout history.
Want to join the team at Mutual Aid NYC? We are looking for:
UX Designers / Front End Engineers / General IT support / Airtable Expertise
Please fill out this form to help us build our website and expand our technical capacity.
To begin training to join our multilingual hotline, sign up using this form.
To translate resources for established organizations and mutual aid groups, sign up here.
Graphic Designers / Illustrators / Artists
To join the visual media team, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your skills, interests, and availability.
Social Media Experts
To help share information about what mutual aid groups are doing around New York City, complete this form and select “social media” as the answer to the question, “Do you have any of the following essential skills/expertise needed right now?”
Community Operations Support
Our diverse volunteer network needs folks who have experience building collaboration and communication systems, using tools like Slack, email listservs, Notion, and other common internal collaboration tools with an eye toward accessibility and inclusion. To get involved, email George.
To research and add new information to our library of resources available to communities most impacted by COVID-19, or train new volunteers in this task, email email@example.com.
Share your mutual aid stories
We want to share your stories in this newsletter through brief interviews with interested groups and individuals. We hope that by reading stories about on-the-ground work, community members will learn more about your resources and how to access them.
If you’re interested in being interviewed, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your phone number and availability. We’ll connect you with an interviewer within a week. We can provide confidentiality upon request.