Mutual aid network responds to coronavirus crisis

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RMAN’s neighborhood hubs store, sort and place food and household items into care packages for delivery.
(Photo: Rochester Mutual Aid Network)

For Linda Edwards, mutual aid offers a better chance at survival through cooperation rather than competition.

Edwards is a coordinator at the Rochester Mutual Aid Network, established with an aim to build a self-sustaining society that’s not worse off than the one that entered the pandemic.

“With so many people losing their jobs and unable to pay their rent, or who are immunocompromised and/or elderly or disabled and unable to do their own shopping so they can limit their exposure, it’s never been clearer how interconnected we are and how badly we need to care for each other, for our own well-being as well as the well-being of society,” Edwards says.

The effort, which initially began as a project of Democratic Socialists of America’s Rochester chapter, was launched formally in early April to meet community needs of food, rent and medical supplies. 

“What people need most during this crisis is solidarity, not charity,” says Edwards, who has been adjunct faculty at St. John Fisher College for a few years. “These are really different things. Charity is short term and one-off; it operates more like a Band-Aid.”

Solidarity, on the other hand, is the opposite, she says. 

“It’s not about determining if someone qualifies, it’s about getting together and trying to help someone out in a bottom-up way instead of a top-down way, which is how charity works,” Edwards says.

Since its launch last month, RMAN has raised nearly $8,000, including stimulus checks, and fulfilled 33 requests. Roughly 20 coordinators are involved in the mutual aid network and more than 70 volunteers have signed up to help Rochester-area residents. RMAN is fiscally sponsored by Metro Justice, a grassroots, member-driven organization focused on social, economic, and racial justice.

“We are most prepared to answer requests for food, medical supplies, hygiene products and things like that,” says Earl Johnston, RMAN coordinator and freelance web developer. “We have hubs around the city that are stocked with those goods already.”

RMAN’s website serves as a central point for requests in the area. Administrators manage the flow of requests, keeping track of them through a dashboard, and assigning tasks to volunteers. Once a request is fulfilled, a volunteer delivers the items.

So far, requests have included assistance with rent, furniture, food and medical supplies. RMAN is not just looking for monetary donations; volunteers can deliver and purchase supplies, give rides and do odd jobs.

“We have a couple of people who have connections to restaurant suppliers, which is kind of a more sanitary and in some cases cheaper way to get bulk goods like rice, lentils,” says Remi Dobbs, RMAN coordinator and an organizer at Citizen Action. “Also connected to that, we have two members who both have worked at Chickpea magazine, a vegan quarterly, and they made a recipe book using the stuff that we have at the hubs.”

RMAN has hubs located at Metro Justice, in Brighton and in the 19th Ward. Coordinator Ashley Ladiges, an English teacher at the Rochester City School District’s School Without Walls, operates RMAN’s main hub. She has been working with teachers to submit requests. 

These locations store, sort and place food and household items into care packages for delivery. RMAN now has added a “database of things” where community members can list household items for donation. 

“The intention is for our coordinators to refer to this list first when attempting to source items to fulfill requests, so we can gather items directly from the community,” Johnston says. “If the coordinator finds an item in the database that would satisfy a request, they would get in contact with the person who listed it to arrange one of our volunteers to come pick it up and deliver it to the community member who requested it.”

The coronavirus outbreak spawned several ad-hoc groups on social media like the COVID-19 Rochester New York Food Relief and elsewhere online to assist Rochesterians with basic needs. RMAN eventually hopes to connect with these groups and increase collaboration with other organizations such as Flower City Mutual Aid,  another solidarity-driven network which was established this year.

“The crazy…utopian long-term vision would be that if we’re still in some sort of economic crisis by the end of the year, that at the very least in Rochester and the surrounding counties you have neighborhood hubs where people are making decisions in a democratic way about how we’re going to help each other through all this,” Dobbs says.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

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