In mid-March, Beacon resident Dara Silverman began to see Facebook posts from her elderly neighbors, wondering how they would access food in the post-pandemic landscape of shelter-in-place orders, social distancing, and, of course, heightened risk of contagion. Drawing on her experience as a community organizer—Silverman is an independent consultant to social-justice organizations—she decided to tackle the problem head on. Silverman started a Facebook messenger thread that connected seniors in need with nearby volunteers, who could do grocery runs, pick up prescriptions, or just offer the comfort of a phone call to folks otherwise cut off from their community. The thread soon evolved into a Facebook group, Mutual Aid Beacon, which grew rapidly.
“We quickly grew to over 300 volunteers and 500 people,” says Silverman. The group is now serving food, providing emotional support, and doing prescription pickups for about 475 people a week.
MAB is just one of at least a dozen mutual-aid groups in the Hudson Valley that are working to meet the medical, economic, and social challenges presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although these groups may differ in the specifics of their work, they are all attempts by everyday people to support their neighbors through extraordinary circumstances.
The organizing model embraced by MAB is not unique to itself or even to the Hudson Valley. Silverman points to the work of Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville, in Massachusetts, as providing her blueprint. The idea is relatively simple: On one hand, you have people with needs; on the other, you have people who can fulfill those needs. The job of MAB is to connect the two sides of the equation—asking a volunteer with a car to deliver groceries to someone who’s homebound, or someone with proper protective equipment to pick up prescriptions for an immunocompromised neighbor, or someone with time on their hands to call another person, distraught in their isolation. The model takes this concept one step further, organizing the people making requests and the people fulfilling those requests by neighborhoods so as to foster relationships between neighbors and also reduce inefficiencies (e.g. driving crosstown with supplies, when a next-door neighbor could have more easily walked them over), but the essence remains the same: the free exchange of goods and services—not for profit, but for the common welfare. Where funds are necessary, the costs are met by donations.
“People have been really financially generous with us, giving through our Venmo account,” explains Silverman. “That’s allowed us to buy groceries and pick up prescriptions and do the different things that we’re being asked to do right now.”
Mutual aid groups similar to MAB serve Kingston, Olive-Shandaken-Woodstock, Newburgh, Red Hook, Troy, Columbia County, the Capital District, and the Catskills. They are loosely affiliated through the Hudson Valley Mutual Aid Network, which was also formed on Facebook in response to the pandemic. Rather than directly providing services, HVMAN primarily connects already existing mutual-aid groups with one another to share best practices and resources, as well as encouraging the formation of new mutual aid groups through guidance, references, and other support.
“It has served as an incubator for groups to connect and learn from one another,” says Alex Pearl, a facilitator with HVMAN, “while meeting one-off needs as they arise in places without mutual-aid groups—delivering food and support to residents in temporary housing like motels, calling to check-in, fundraising for the regional food bank, etc.”
While projects like MAB and HVMAN have quickly come together to address the challenges wrought by the pandemic, the Hudson Valley is also home to older mutual-aid groups, such as local chapters of Food Not Bombs, an international network of free food distribution programs. FNB was founded in Boston in 1980 and has active local chapters in Albany, New Paltz, and Newburgh, some of which have been in operation for 20 years. FNB chapters typically serve vegetarian or vegan meals made from surplus food that restaurants or grocers would otherwise throw out. Unlike soup kitchens, they often set up in publicly accessible spaces, like parks, and are vociferous about the connections between food insecurity and politics. (Food Not Bombs’s name comes from its founders’ desire to highlight that, if the US military’s budget were redirected to feed people, hunger could be eliminated overnight.) Indeed, many FNB volunteers see mutual aid in and of itself as being a political response to apolitical charities, seeking to empower—rather than just serve—their communities.
“One of the taglines of Food Not Bombs is, ‘Solidarity, Not Charity,’” says Nickleson Cook, a volunteer with Albany FNB. “We always encourage anyone to come help and aim to minimize the distinction between our volunteers and the community members we serve.”
Far from solely being rhetoric, this focus on empowering community members is realized in mutual-aid groups new and old. Silverman, of Mutual Aid Beacon, describes one Beacon resident with a heart condition who first approached MAB for rides to his doctor’s appointments, but who now helps coordinate the production and distribution of surgical masks made by local volunteers. Similarly, Nate Liebert first came to New Paltz FNB to eat, but now cooks too. Liebert regularly patronized the local FNB for years while studying music at SUNY New Paltz, then got involved in its meal prep at Huguenot Street Farm’s kitchen a few months ago. He sees mutual aid’s insistence on blurring the lines between server and served as not only distinguishing it from charity, but providing a unique source of insight as well.
“A charity is a bigger organization that comes in and helps out people ‘at the bottom,’” says Liebert. “But in that sense, there’s a disconnect between the party providing aid and the party that needs the aid. What we’re doing is working directly with the people that need aid—and a lot of us ourselves need aid, so we know what people need. We’re more in connection with the needs of our communities than charities can be.”
That isn’t to say that mutual-aid groups don’t face hurdles, especially in the newfound context of COVID-19. Food Not Bombs chapters, which pre-date the pandemic, have had to rethink their operations completely. New Paltz FNB has stopped publicly serving food, instead opting to drop off meals to their regular patrons and collecting requests from new folks via social media. Albany FNB has similarly ceased serving hot meals, but is instead distributing pre-packed groceries and sanitary products from its former dining location. Groups formed during the pandemic, like Mutual Aid of Beacon and Hudson Valley Mutual Aid Network, are experiencing their own challenges, such as creating the infrastructure necessary to efficiently do their work in the moment and orienting newcomers who may be unfamiliar with mutual aid altogether. Building an organization that is open to all comes with its own difficulties.
“The biggest challenges we experience are issues of race and class,” says Shadia Fayne Wood, an organizer with Kingston Resilience, a coalition of social-justice organizations in the city, including Kingston NY Mutual Aid. “The very different experiences that people from different backgrounds often have create a cultural chasm that we all must learn to navigate.”
Part of that cultural chasm can be the difference between those newly in need and those who’ve experienced it for much longer. But rather than being a weakness, this diversity can be a source of strength, too, allowing mutual-aid groups to understand that the pandemic may only be revealing chronic crises. In its 40-year history, Food Not Bombs has consistently drawn attention to the longstanding issue of food insecurity—one in 10 families in the United States were food insecure prior to COVID-19, according to the US Department of Agriculture—but even new mutual-aid groups acknowledge how their work and the pandemic might not be as intrinsically related as they first appear.
“To a certain extent, it feels like we’re helping to meet people’s needs that were already there, and there wasn’t anyone ever calling or putting out a number saying, ‘Hey, if you need help with groceries, call this number,’” says Silverman. She describes the messages that Mutual Aid of Beacon receives as thankful, but persistent: “We get text messages, voicemails saying, ‘We’re so grateful, and we hope this will continue because we need it so much.’”
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.