The appeal was heartbreaking, but not particularly unusual these days. “I am writing with a need. I am currently in a position where I am not able to pay my half of the rent for several reasons. I have four small children too. Does anyone know of any resources at all that can help with rent?”
The writer had posted it on a new Facebook page for residents in Durham, North Carolina, that aims to connect residents in need with those who might be able to help. In her case, it worked. Within a week, readers had contributed enough cash to cover her rent, and she’d received so much donated food that she’d started giving some away to others in need.
Durham isn’t unique. Over the past month, hundreds or maybe even thousands of homegrown assistance networks like this one have sprung up around the country. Most call themselves “mutual aid,” and their goals are generally to meet needs that have arisen during this scary time of quarantines, social distancing, and sheltering in place. For every person who has lost a job and is now worried about how to make ends meet, who can’t go to the grocery store because they’re immunocompromised, or who is simply desperate for a little one-on-one contact, there’s likely someone else who’s been relatively unscathed by the crisis and can help—wants to help, in fact.
It’s a beautiful impulse, and one that makes immediate sense. Ultimately, we’re neighbors; we should lean on one another.
But that enthusiasm and goodwill masks an unpleasant reality. With much of our interactions confined to online spaces during this novel coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak, only some people are gaining access to that assistance—and it’s generally not the folks who need it the most. Although there have been some tech gains toward closing the digital divide, most lower-income people, especially those who are elderly, don’t have regular access to WiFi or familiarity with a range of relevant websites. Forums for assistance advertised on social media, in emails or texts may never make it to people living in generational poverty, and segregated by income.
At this time in our recent history, like no other, we are witnessing how our circles are limited to our own socioeconomic statuses. Where mutual aid efforts are organized around neighborhood “pods” to facilitate direct neighbor-to-neighbor engagement such as those in Seattle, or municipalities around Boston and other affluent areas, people in the poorest communities wind up with little contact with those who have ample means to help out.
The problem, however, isn’t endemic to this particular time. “Income inequality readily translates into information inequality in the United States,” wrote James Hamilton, a Stanford University professor, and Fiona Morgan of Branchhead Consulting, in a 2018 report on the topic. “Low-income individuals who are not connected with the web or communicating via smartphones miss out on this online network of expression and thus miss opportunities to share and receive information and tell their stories.”
According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, almost a third of U.S. adults in low-income households don’t own smartphones; more than 40% lack high speed internet or a computer.
“The people who are most vulnerable don’t have broadband; they can’t go to a library [now],” Morgan says. “So how do we adapt to social distancing, and still not only rely on the low-hanging fruit of social media, when the people we most need to help aren’t part of our social network?”
That’s a critical, eternal question, says Shirin Senegal, who’s behind the mutual aid project in Long Beach, California. “It’s always been the biggest issue, whether it’s the mortgage crisis or day-to-day struggles—that digital divide and not meeting people where they are,” she says.
Like many other mutual aid groups around the country, Senegal began her efforts by creating a Google form where residents could enter their specific needs, and others could respond with assistance. But she’s a longtime community organizer, which means that she has a deep understanding of how to work with vulnerable communities.
“I hit the pavement,” says Senegal, explaining how she created fliers advertising the initiative and distributed them to small businesses, community members, and places that lower-income people might visit, such as laundromats. She also established a 24-hour phone line where people can leave a message; she or other volunteers respond within a day.
But above all, Senegal says, it’s about collaboration. Getting in touch with neighborhood groups that help the elderly. Contacting nonprofits that work with the homeless. “It’s really important to create those on-the-ground networks,” she continues. “By empowering community members like that, the reach is much bigger and broader.”
Using those relationships is key, say organizers from the Highlander Center, a social justice training center in Tennessee that’s been around since 1932. Highlander recently held giant public conference calls on mutual aid, emphasizing that the practice has been around for centuries among marginalized communities like formerly enslaved Africans and poor immigrants who have lacked access to conventional services.
“Real mutual aid is bottom-up,” says Highlander’s co-director Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson. “It’s about talking to people and engaging them in the work. Allowing those who are directly affected to be empowered to help others.”
In Atlanta, Project South has been doing that from the start. Unlike many other efforts around the country, its mutual aid initiative started back in 2017, long before the current crisis, to support and strengthen the community there. As a result, its organizers already have connections among residents.
“A lot of our communication, because of access issues with the internet, is more phone and door-to-door communication,” says Project South’s co-director Emery Wright. He and other organizers are making sure they have accurate phone lists for everyone in the neighborhood, and created a survey to ensure that residents have the medication, food, or hygiene products they need.
“It’s a 21st century challenge: How social movements are able to become powerful enough to respond to scales of disaster, even on this global scale,” Wright says.
Every mutual aid effort is a little different. Some have existing deep roots; others never realize how important those roots are. And some aim to build them from scratch. That’s true for the Berkeley Mutual Aid Network, which recently formed serendipitously among a handful of unconnected people. They realized they needed to work hard to connect with the poorest members of the community.
“There’s never really any overcoming it—it’s a basic inequity in our society,” says Dave Peattie, one of the project’s organizers, of the digital disconnect. But they’re trying. He and the other leaders put up roughly 6,000 posters in English and Spanish around the city. They’re collaborating with a large affordable housing organization that will distribute fliers to its 1,400 housing units. And Peattie is aiming to reach out to every church and synagogue in Berkeley, to encourage them to share information about the initiative with congregants.
Berkeley’s program has a unique element. Rather than helping to fill one-off requests, the organizers match up those in need with those who want to help on a longer-term basis—a buddy system, if you will.
“So each person making a request has someone checking in with them on a regular basis,” explains Helen Marks, who’s in charge of matching pairs of residents. She and others try to find the best fit possible: among needs and abilities, personal styles, and geographic location. They ask that the pairs be in touch at least once a week, to stay on top of a situation that’s still evolving for everyone.
“[The requester] knows someone will keep checking in on them,” Peattie says. “We want to make sure everyone is being cared for as much as possible.”
The matching feature has been extremely successful, with residents on both sides of the equation gushing over their partners and discussing plans to remain in contact later. It’s a very clear, tangible way to improve people’s lives—both those in need, and those with help to give.
And in a more subtle way, those pairings are helping the community become a little less stratified, couple by couple. In an America where different socioeconomic groups can barely find footing to communicate, that’s an incredible feat.
“For volunteers, it’s just seeing what it must be like to have an empty fridge, or what it’s like to be immunocompromised or struggling for money—this exposure to different lives, different people who you wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Marks says. “Probably the No. 1 thing that gives me hope for the future is how everyone’s learning.”
Amanda Abrams is a journalist living in Durham, NC. She's been freelancing for over 12 years and has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Republic, Glamour, and many other publications. Before working as a journalist, Amanda was a policy wonk.