Congress’s embarrassingly slow and insufficient response to the still-surging pandemic, you might have heard, will be $600 checks—dropping into mailboxes as soon as next week. If you don’t need that money, some or all of it should be going to people that do. And one of the shortest paths to depositing it straight into your neighbors’ bank accounts is a mutual aid network.
While the house dragged out their bitterly politicized standoff and broke for two recesses, the strategic national medical stockpile depleted, and the federal government did nothing to fix potentially catastrophic supply chain disruptions. Simultaneously, tens of millions have teetered on eviction and at least 100,000 businesses closed. If you’ve been out of work for months, $600 is just about enough to clear a few bills off the pile, or maybe cover half a month’s rent. In other words, you’re most likely to forfeit that check straight to the power company, the bank, insurance companies, or the government—not exactly your community. Undocumented immigrants won’t see a dime.
In lieu of meaningful government action, a wave of grassroots neighborhood groups formed to connect local donors and volunteers with recipients who might need money, food, delivery, childcare, etc. A good example: the Times ran a story this spring about a group of young community organizers in Massachusetts who founded Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) by canvassing door-do-door, finding point people for pods (groups of neighbors), and collecting contact information so that they could create a google spreadsheet for neighbors to list or fulfill each others’ needs.
The mutual aid network is an old idea whose widespread popularity resurges during crises; one of the most famous models being the support programs established by the Black Panthers. Nimble, scalable mutual aid networks highlight where the government isn’t doing its job—like the fast-paced volunteer kitchens and supply chain Occupy Sandy established while FEMA flailed. Dean Spade, author of the new book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next) has argued that mutual aid work “is one of the least visible and most important forms of work that social movements need to be developing right now.” Partly that’s because the gaps they fill highlight where state and federal response falls short, and partly because grassroots networks uplift whole communities rather than individual leaders.
Today you can hover over this nationwide map created by the nonprofit the Town Hall Project. While not all of the networks are up to date (you’ll have to do some googling), I found a local community fridge for food drop-offs, links to toy drives, and a fundraiser for an out-of-work neighbor all in my area. If you’re in the New York City area, check out Mutual Aid NYC’s database of local and national groups which offer senior care, child care, food pantries, monetary relief for undocumented immigrants, to name a few.
If you don’t see an active local network on the list, you can form a mutual aid network yourself with help from this guide from MAMAS and Mutual Aid Jamaica Plain. The rundown of the full process covers gathering neighborhood point people, creating needs matching forms, and encrypting and minimizing collection of participants’ data. And if a network does exist, but you’re unable to donate cash, most are happy to have fresh volunteers. You’ll learn a lot about your neighborhood.
Keep in mind you’ll have to do some of your own vetting, but the same goes for major charities. It’s better than a tax write-off that might vanish half a billion dollars into the ether, or “feel-good shopping” through a tech behemoth that’s forced workers to gamble with their lives, or handing money to the first person who hits you up.
If you’re more inclined to support nonprofit organizations, you might want to first search its rating from the charity analyst Charity Navigator, which checks for red flags in financial documents. A couple trusted suggestions include the food bank system Feeding America; the New York Times’s Neediest Cases Fund which distributes to Times-vetted organizations; and the direct cash donation distributor GiveDirectly, which is currently distributing money to randomly-selected SNAP recipients.