Mutual Aid Efforts Are Working to Fill the Gaps of Biden’s COVID Response

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We’ll take what we can get. This seems to be the general sentiment around the Biden administration’s response to COVID. We didn’t get $2,000 stimulus checks as originally promised, but we’ll take the $1,400. They didn’t raise the minimum wage to $15 during the midst of a devastating pandemic and recession, but the American Rescue Plan does include a child tax credit beginning in July.

As COVID continues to expose the innumerable gaps in our already dysfunctional political and economic system, policymakers and political leaders have demonstrated that they are only willing to fill in some of these gaps, temporarily, and maybe just halfway.

In response to the half-measures of the Biden administration, communities are taking matters into their own hands, as they have done since the pandemic began. Many of these responses are taking place in communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and take the form of grassroots mutual aid projects and campaigns.

The Sacramento, California-based organization NorCal Resist is just one of many groups focusing on a specific community that has been hit particularly hard: those living in this country without documentation. When the pandemic first hit, an organization named Resource Generation, a multi-racial membership community of young people with wealth or class privilege committed to the equitable distribution of power, wealth and land, launched a #ShareMyCheck campaign, encouraging people who received a stimulus check, but don’t feel they urgently need it, to donate it to be redistributed to undocumented individuals and families who are largely ineligible for stimulus aid.

NorCal Resist, along with many other organizations around the country, decided it was going to participate.

“We have had about 2,000 people donate all, or part of a stimulus check so far,” Autumn Gonzalez of NorCal Resist told Truthout. “We’ve raised $950,000 so far, for the most part from smaller donations of under $250, but certainly we’ve had a good amount of people donate $1,000 or more of their check. And we’ve been able to distribute those funds out to around 3,000 families.”

This kind of wealth redistribution has made a significant impact for many of the individuals and families who have been hit hardest by COVID and the recession.

“I mean, honestly, I felt like it’s just the right thing to do,” John Hershey, a pipefitter and union member who donated $860 from his stimulus check to NorCal Resist’s #ShareMyCheck campaign told Truthout. “Mutual aid definitely is sort of a survival response to where there are gaps in the state or whatever authority having the ability to take care of or resolve issues.”

In addition to donating part of his check, Hershey works with NorCal Resist on some of its other mutual aid projects, such as community fix-its, food delivery programs and brake light repair events.

“We just invite people to come in and we’ll fix all their exterior lights on their vehicles to eliminate at least that part of the probable cause for a cop to pull them over and escalate the situation,” Hershey told Truthout. “We’re trying to prevent the chance of another Daunte Wright.”

Unsurprisingly, there’s very little trust in the authorities within the communities that NorCal Resist serves.

“Right now, I think mutual aid is filling a gap that we can’t rely on the state or the federal government to fill,” Gonzalez told Truthout, “especially when folks have so much distrust for the government and whether or not their information is secure.”

With ICE raids and harassment being an ever-present reality for these communities, it’s not surprising that many undocumented individuals feel hesitant to put their information out there, either to the state or in the nonprofit sector. One of the important aspects of mutual aid versus state assistance in contexts like this is that mutual aid organizations have already built community trust and are often embedded in the communities they work with.

NorCal Resist is just one of many organizations running stimulus check redistribution campaigns around the country, from California’s UndocuFund to New Mexico’s Santa Fe Mutual Aid to New York’s Make the Road, which has raised over $150,000 through its #ShareMyCheck campaign.

“I am thankful for the funds that I received — it was money that I was able to use to go to the grocery store and put food on the table for my children,” Reyna, a single mother of two who is excluded from federal and state pandemic relief, told Truthout. “Before the pandemic I worked as a domestic cleaner, but since the pandemic began, I have been struggling to get by because I went from working almost every day to just working one day.”

The funds from organizations like Make the Road NY are critical for families like Reyna’s, which have been impacted the most and helped the least during the pandemic.

“Over the last year, immigrant and working-class people of color have been struggling financially through this crisis,” Arlenis Morel of Make the Road NY told Truthout. “While this [campaign] has allowed us to provide vital support, we will continue to fight to ensure all, regardless of immigration status, are included in Congress’ next COVID-19 relief package.”

Another important way that mutual aid is being deployed during the pandemic comes as a response to the vaccine rollout. As of April 21, the United States has fully vaccinated roughly 87 million people — that’s more than 1 out of every 4 residents. In terms of numbers of people reached, the vaccine rollout in the United States is coming along quite well, and the Biden administration is already ahead of its vaccination goals.

When you look at the numbers, things seem promising. However, numbers only tell one story. When you begin asking where these vaccines are concentrated and which communities have access to them, an entirely new story emerges — one with a less triumphant tone.

“What we’re seeing right now is that communities of color are less likely to get early access to the vaccine for many different reasons,” Gregorio Millett, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist and current vice president of amfAR, an international nonprofit dedicated the support of AIDS research and prevention, told Truthout. “For example, not having access to the internet when vaccine appointments are available over the internet, or the distance to a vaccine center is much farther in Black and Brown communities as it is and compared to white communities.”

These patterns are nothing new when it comes to public health, and they have prompted many mutual aid organizations and collectives to focus on vaccine equity. One of these collectives is Get Out the Shot: Los Angeles, co-founded by Liz Schwandt.

“I live in an area of Los Angeles called Lincoln Heights, which is an area that is one of the ones that was hardest hit by COVID,” Schwandt told Truthout. “When I started looking at those early maps of vaccinations and where the rates were higher and lower, the places with the worst impacts from COVID economically and loss of family members, it was an exact overlay of the places with the lower vaccination rates and penetration.”

After realizing how complex and difficult the process of signing up for a vaccine appointment could be, Schwandt decided to put up a sign on the front gate of her home encouraging folks to call her if they needed help with the process themselves. This sign grew into a Facebook group aimed at crowdsourcing information, which led to a request phone line, which has now grown to a group of over 400 volunteers who receive about 250 requests per day, now that eligibility has opened up to everyone in California.

“We’re working with a lot of non-U.S. nationals, a lot of folks who were working in the informal economy, a lot of domestic employees — people who don’t have those types of job protections like time off to get the vaccine,” Schwandt told Truthout. “Another barrier we’ve identified is folks who will need to continue to care for their children while they are having their appointment.”

Another very significant barrier to making an appointment is how much time it takes to search for an appointment, plus the wage loss from taking time off of work to go to the appointment.

“I’ve heard multiple stories from our volunteer corps of people calling in with these impossible parameters,” Schwandt said. “A woman we were working with said, ‘Yeah, my boss told me that I would be fired if I didn’t get the vaccine. But I’m not being given any time off to go to the appointment and I don’t know what to do.’”

Another person that volunteers spoke to said he had refused to book his second shot because he was almost fired for taking the time off to get his first one.

“So, for our folks who are really vulnerable economically, we’re trying to get them those early morning appointments, those late appointments, the weekend appointments,” Schwandt told Truthout.

But the mutual aid provided by Get Out the Shot is not just about the logistics of making appointments — it’s also about truly understanding the needs of Lincoln Heights, deferring to community and family leadership, and ultimately, helping to facilitate the strengthening and safety of a neighborhood that has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We know that we can’t solve health and wellness justice — but we really think that we can provide a little barrier removal to getting this care,” Schwandt said. “And in the process, I just feel really lucky to have [so many] new neighbors that I hadn’t met before and that we’ve gotten to connect with. We’ve all agreed to about 999 Sunday suppers when everyone is allowed to get back together again.”

Building and strengthening community connection and power are very integral parts of mutual aid as both a practice and a theory. This dual strategy of helping communities in very practical ways while simultaneously organizing them is exemplified clearly through the work being done by the San Francisco East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (East Bay DSA) in California.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, DSA chapters all across the country have been practicing mutual aid by purchasing and delivering food, personal protective equipment, and other supplies to those who couldn’t safely leave their homes during lockdown; delivering supplies to folks experiencing homelessness; and much more. Most recently, East Bay DSA has been putting together virtual mask-building workshops.

“During the mask builds we have a breakout room with a teacher for folks that are new and who are learning how to make masks,” East Bay DSA member Genean Wrisley told Truthout. “And then in the other room … we’ve had really interesting and inspiring discussions around mutual aid, building power and tenant organizing.”

As volunteers gather around their Zoom screens to make high quality N-88 masks together virtually, they are also discussing, for example, the ideas of Marxist theorist Anton Pannekoek, the work of union organizer and author Jane McAlevey, or the writings of revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, whose books they are currently reading.

“We’ve been able to engage a bunch of people in DSA,” Wrisley said. “One of the goals of this project is really building community — and I think we’ve seen that happen. People are staying on these Zoom calls for hours after they’re over. People are coming to the [mask] builds and hanging out and getting pizza afterwards and relationships are being built.”

On the distribution end of things, East Bay DSA has been working with Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC), which is a prominent tenant organization in the Bay Area. They have been distributing their masks primarily at food banks with volunteers that speak the languages of many of those standing in line for food — whether that’s Chinese, Vietnamese or Spanish — and asking them if they’re having trouble with their landlord or paying rent.

“Giving someone a mask and then asking that question opens up the ability to build some trust rather than just asking random people if they’re having trouble with rent,” Wrisley said. “It loosens barriers and allows us to have some really meaningful conversations. We’ve been able to bring folks into TANC and give folks the tools to organize around issues that they’re facing, issues that are directly related to their lives.”

One of most important principles in mutual aid is the principle of “solidarity not charity.” The idea of charity is often based on the premise that marginalized communities are suffering from some kind of deficit. Solidarity, on the other hand, is premised on the idea that marginalization is the result of structural barriers and systemic equities. Community organizing to overcome these barriers is a necessary component of any mutual aid project. These principles drive much of the mutual aid work being done by groups like NorCal Resist, Get Out the Shot and East Bay DSA.

“Community building is really necessary in order to fight capital, and you can’t go up against a state if you don’t have relationships that are already formed,” Wrisley told Truthout. “We’ve seen how terrible capitalism has been for this pandemic. We’ve seen how the state has ignored and looked the other way as people have died. We’ve seen how rent forgiveness still is not a thing and that’s primarily affecting Black and Brown tenants. Through building relationships, we really can make a difference and start to organize collectively for a system that actually takes care of people.”