A sign publicizes mutual aid in Ward 5. D.C. residents have created groups to meet neighbors' essential needs during the pandemic.
Miriam Palacio lived in Ward 2 for 15 years and remembers how much her neighbors supported her after she immigrated to this country from Peru. She spoke to WAMU/DCist as she was setting up a clothing swap in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Northwest D.C.
"This community helped me a lot in many aspects of my life," Palacio says in Spanish. "I feel the need to give back a bit of what this community gave me."
Palacio, who runs a catering business, has been involved in organizing mutual aid in Ward 2. She helps coordinate food deliveries, and answers calls on a hotline that a group of organizers set up for neighbors to request assistance with food and other necessities. Palacio finds it emotionally difficult to hear from people on the phone about how much they are struggling during this economic crisis — especially now that the mutual aid group has had to cut back on some deliveries for lack of funds. But hearing the calls also motivates her to do what she can to help.
"I hope I can help more people. This mutual aid community wants to help more people, and I hope more [volunteers] come to us so that we can help more people," says Palacio. "That way, we don't have to expect anything from the government, because it doesn't matter. What matters is the community, what matters is neighbors supporting each other. That's the most important thing."
At its most basic level, this is what mutual aid is: Members of a community offering and receiving help from each other. It's not a new concept, particularly in organizing circles, but the practice has proliferated and expanded across the District over the past six months of the pandemic.
Mutual aid groups in each ward of the city (the network for wards 7 and 8 is combined) have been packing and delivering groceries and other basic necessities to neighbors, organizing and attending protests, reading radical texts together and forming a community of politically-aligned people committed to providing for one another. Put together, they are helping to support thousands of D.C. residents across all eight wards, funded by a system of crowdsourced donations, without any government help.
Six months in, some mutual aid groups have had to reduce the frequency of deliveries or cut back on certain forms of support because their funding has waned. As the city's economic crisis stretches on, organizers are fighting burnout and trying to figure out how they can raise enough money and retain enough volunteers to meet urgent and continual needs for food, shelter and other necessities. Ultimately, their work positions itself as a critique of government and what it has been unable to provide to D.C. residents, mostly Black and Latinx, who have experienced disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 and continue to face the worst of the pandemic's economic effects.
Rabia Ali, who has been helping to organize mutual aid in Ward 5, says the process of organizing citywide hubs for mutual aid began in early March, with a call convened by core organizers with Black Lives Matter's D.C. chapter.
"I was one of, I think maybe ... seven people in this ward on the call that very first time," says Ali. "And we were just strangers on a spreadsheet. We had never met before."
Joie, an organizer in Ward 1 who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, says she didn't even stop to think about how long the crisis might last — she just knew she needed to get involved.
"I had this understanding that things were getting bad, very fast. Like, exponentially fast," she says.
From there, organizers at the ward level set up hotline systems that allowed people to call a number and request assistance directly, either from a human being answering the phones or via voicemail.
Many of the mutual aid groups started out by doing grocery deliveries on an individual basis. A request for groceries or other specific items would come in, and then a volunteer would go to the store, buy the items and drop them off.
But with the volume of requests coming in, organizers began to realize that they needed a more efficient and less expensive approach. They moved to a distribution model. They got subscriptions to Restaurant Depot and started buying in bulk from Costco. Some formed partnerships with local food banks and nonprofits like Bread for the City or Food Rescue.
Maurice Gibson, a 68-year-old Ward 2 resident, says he got involved with mutual aid because he needed some assistance himself; he had to leave his job with the Department of Behavioral Health in January for personal and medical reasons.
"I was unemployed, and I'm a senior, and I needed a little assistance," says Gibson. Then, he learned more about what organizers were doing in Ward 2 and decided to join the effort. "Every time they meet, I go down there and do what I have to do to assist people, assist them in preparing the food, the bags, delivering the bags — whatever they need me to do. It's a good way to give back to my community."
Gibson says he has always helped his neighbors experiencing homelessness on 17th Street with food when they need it, and he sees mutual aid as another way to continue the kind of work he has always strived to do.
Mutual aid networks were able to scale up quickly and increase the amount they could provide to community members in need. Now, as the pandemic stretches on, some have had to cut back.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the Ward 5 mutual aid network gave our direct cash assistance for people who called requesting it. Later, they had to cut back to a cap of $100 per caller. Then, they started to limit cash assistance to once per caller per month — but now, at least temporarily, they've ended it.
"We've put a pause on that right now because we're a little low on funds, but once we're doing well again, we hope to get that started again," says Ali. The group has gotten more organized about fundraising over time, Ali says, and now tracks all incoming and outgoing funds on a centralized spreadsheet.
Rita Radostitz, who has been helping to organize mutual aid in Ward 4, says the group started having some trouble retaining volunteers over the summer.
"After probably about four months, we had a lot of turnover in volunteers," says Radostitz. "People just got tired or they had to go back to work, and so they couldn't volunteer as extensively. We also saw that happening right at the same time that Congress didn't renew the extra benefits, and our neighbors were in greater need. So we did a huge outreach to find new volunteers and we were able to do that."
Still, the group has had to cut back on some services. They used to do deliveries six days a week, but because they've had fewer people to help out recently, they reduced the number of delivery days to two and added two days where people can come and pick up groceries from their distribution site in Brightwood Park. Radostitz says the mutual aid group in Ward 4 provides groceries to about 200 families a week, many of whom are undocumented and ineligible for many forms of government assistance.
"The feedback we're receiving is people are hungry, and they don't have enough food," says Radostitz.
In Ward 2, organizers used to coordinate deliveries of 150 to 200 bags of groceries a week — but now they say they've had to cut back deliveries to every other week because they have less money than they used to.
Joie, in Ward 1, says because the operation is entirely dependent on individual donations from the community — a key principle of mutual aid — the stream of money is not reliable. Many weeks, they cannot fulfill all the requests that come in.
"I feel like almost every week, I'm tweeting or reaching out to networks and being like, 'Hey, we are out of funds. I know I said this last week, but we're here again,'" says Joie.
At the same time as certain resources are dwindling, many organizers are thinking about a looming and urgent need to provide more.
"The need is so great and everything is so overtaxed that it's not possible to meet all the needs," says Silvia Salazar, who runs a system of grocery deliveries out of the housing cooperative where she lives. "For example, there is a mother in our building who's been diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She won't be able to work and she lives by herself. She doesn't get any benefits. And so we know we're trying to figure out how to provide the support that she needs."
Then, there's rent: A looming concern about evictions once moratoria expire, combined with the burden of all the backpay families who have been unable to pay have accumulated during the pandemic.
"If we do about 200 [grocery] deliveries, we're spending less than $1,000 a week to do that," says Jackie Glovanniello, who is on a team of organizers for the Ward 2 Mutual Aid Network. "If Ward 2 were to genuinely offer housing support, rent support to folks, a thousand dollars would maybe be a little bit helpful to one person, you know what I mean? And so I think the scope of it feels scary."
As they work to fundraise and provide food and other necessities to residents, many mutual aid organizers are also levying a critique of local government.
The D.C. government has been providing meals during the pandemic. The bulk of them have been available at school meal sites, which, according to slides from a mayoral press conference on Thursday, have offered 1.2 million miles across 48 locations. The city has also been delivering meals to seniors, and grocery boxes and hygiene kits to residents.
But perhaps the most poignant example of the tension between mutual aid groups and the city came in April, when Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration started directing calls from its COVID hotline to mutual aid networks. Black Lives Matter core organizer April Goggans told WUSA9 that for Wards 7 and 8 alone, 1,200 additional calls to the mutual aid hotline could be attributed to the switch.
"We're obviously providing what the District can't," Goggans said at the time.
Bowser defended the practice, saying it was a way of connecting D.C. residents with organizations who could help.
"If they have presented themselves as helping people in need or helping the hungry, then they would have gotten a referral," she said. "If they're not doing that or helping, we need to take them down from our referral list."
For many, mutual aid is actually about working to set up systems of support that exist outside of government.
At a recent protest the Ward 1 mutual aid network helped to organize at the Garfield Senior public housing complex, organizer Natacia Knapper said that though COVID-19 has been "a very traumatic experience for a lot of reasons," one of the things that at least came out of this time is a new determination among organizers like herself.
"It is very clear that the government is just not going to take care of us," says Knapper. "So yes, let's hold them accountable and let's put some pressure on them. But let's create something entirely separate from them so we don't have to be so reliant on them anymore. I'm excited to build that new world."
Maurice Cook is a longtime Washingtonian and founder of the youth-based nonprofit Serve Your City, which has been working with a coalition of other community-based organizations to do mutual aid work with groceries and other supplies in Ward 6. The group has also been working to provide laptops, tablets and school supplies to children across the city.
"The city creates enough oppression that it forces us to do this stuff," says Cook. "We don't have choices. This is not something we wanted. It's what we have to do: mutual survival."
For thousands of D.C. residents, the basics are very much a concern — and for many, they were before the pandemic. Now, mutual aid organizers are thinking about how their work might stretch on indefinitely.
"I don't really think there is a post-pandemic world, to be honest," says Radostitz, in Ward 4. "I think that the economic downturn that's the result of our handling of the pandemic is going to last for years."