MANYC Newsletter

Mutual Aid in Ocean Hill and Brownsville

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. 

Visit the Ocean Hill Brownsville Mutual Aid website 

Donate to Ocean Hill Brownsville Mutual Aid 

Ways to Get Involved + Calls to Action 

  • 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!
  • Urge your State Senator and Assembly Member to vote yes on Senate Bill S8865, which would reduce/cancel rent for businesses like gyms, bars and venues that have had to stay closed throughout the pandemic.
  • 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.
  • Astoria: Donate books for the free Astoria Book Fair, taking place on Saturday, August 30 1-4 p.m. on 31st Avenue between 34th & 35th Street.
  • South Brooklyn Mutual Aid is still seeking donations of air conditioners for seniors and persons-in-need. Fill out this form to donate.
  • Donate to Abolition Park’s No Cop Pop-Up in Brownsville, Brooklyn (8/15) and Jamaica, Queens (8/16), where AP will be taking political action and mutual aid to underserved Black communities.

In solidarity,

Mutual Aid NYC

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.