Mutual Aid Network Offers Material Support And New Vision For Society
by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) In the weeks following Governor Cuomo’s stay-at-home order, a number of Rochester-focused Facebook groups popped up with the goal of connecting people and resources.
They were part of a national proliferation of mutual aid initiatives that flowered in the cracks between overstretched non-profits and inadequate government services.
Remi Dobbs says it was in this context that members of the Rochester chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America decided to organize a different kind of mutual aid response.
"There were a ton of what I would call ad hoc Facebook groups which have been doing a lot of really good work, but it seemed like there was space for something that was a little more centrally planned, politically oriented, and democratically implemented," Dobbs says.
The Rochester Mutual Aid Network (RMAN) launched in early April. The original idea was to create a neighborhood hub in each quadrant of the city where food and other supplies could be stored and assembled into care packages before being passed along to volunteer delivery drivers.
One of the network's members even put together a cookbook with recipes that can be made entirely from the items in those care packages.
Members built a minimalist but highly functional website for people to submit requests.
So far the majority of requests have been for food and hygiene products. But Dobbs says RMAN has been responding to other requests as well.
A single mother who was about to have a baby needed baby clothes and a crib. RMAN bought and delivered them.
An older person was having trouble navigating social services and was afraid they wouldn't make rent. RMAN helped them cover the difference when it appeared government bureaucracy wasn't going to come through.
More recently, a mother of four had to leave an unsafe domestic situation. RMAN began doing a supply drive to find the family beds and other basic needs.
Over the last few weeks, RMAN's volunteer ranks have grown organically to include members of other local Left organizations including R.O.R.E., the Rochester Organization of Rank and File Educators.
Ashley Ladiges is a R.O.R.E. member and a teacher in the Rochester City School District. She says getting involved in RMAN has helped to ease the feeling of helplessness.
"It's kept me busy and made me feel like, amidst all the horrible things that are happening, people in our community really just want to help each other," she says.
The Rochester Mutual Aid Network has already received nearly $8000 in contributions. That includes funds from members who decided to donate their entire federal stimulus checks.
With a solid financial and organizational foundation now in place, Dobbs says RMAN is ready to focus more on getting the word out, asking groups like the Rochester City-Wide Tenants' Union to help with outreach. Dobbs says RMAN has gotten about two dozen requests through its website to date, but they expect many more in the months to come.
Even after the immediate public health crisis is over, Ladiges says there will be plenty of work for RMAN to do.
"There were needs before COVID, before everything got shut down, that were going unaddressed," Ladiges says. "The virus has really exposed capitalism's inability to provide for our basic human needs."
Thus, for the people and groups helping coordinate RMAN, the goal is not to lend a helping hand until our society can manage a return to business-as-usual. As Dobbs says, business-as-usual is what set the stage for the havoc COVID-19 is causing in the U.S., especially among the working class/communities of color.
Instead, mutual aid is about building the confidence and the capacity for democratic organizing needed in order to build a new world.
"In organizing this stuff, what it allows us to do is to teach people how to make material day-to-day decisions about their own livelihoods," Dobbs says.
"As horrific as social distancing, quarantine and the virus itself are," Ladiges says, "it has exposed our need for these kinds of [mutual aid] groups, and our need to just help each other and not rely on government agencies or charities."
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org