Mutual Aid Keeps Fighting Inequities Illuminated by COVID

You Can Help Neighbors Continue Work of Giving Community What They Need

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Volunteers pass out supplies, groceries, masks and public health literature to unhoused residents in NoMA. Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke, Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid

By this time this article goes to press, it will have been more than six months since Ward 6 Mutual Aid (W6MA) performed its first act of collective community service. On March 18, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the group first delivered groceries, supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to neighbors who needed them.

COVID-19 might have provided the impetus for the creation of W6MA, but it didn’t create the conditions that the community is working to change —and that will continue to exist after the pandemic is over, said Maurice Cook, Executive Director of Serve Your City DC (SYCDC), the nonprofit acting as the hub for W6MA efforts.

“The virus put a flashlight on these disparities for everyone to see,” Cook said, pointing to gaps between white and black residents in health, financial security, education and politics. “But we need to keep the light on them even after the COVID crisis has passed.”

Ms. Juanita gestures at grocery items during a tabling event at Ellen Wilson Place. Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke, Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid

The Blessing of Having Something
Mutual aid is not a new concept, especially among brown and black communities. It’s based in the idea that a community can make sure that everyone in it has what they need to survive.

“Basically, it means that the blessing of having something is that you can give it away to someone who doesn’t,” Cook said.

Long-time organizers from across the District, including Cook, met shortly after Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a Public Health Emergency on March 13, to build the DC Mutual Aid Network. Each ward has a grassroots, de-centralized group working together to meet the material needs in their communities such as food, housing and healthcare.

Given how embedded SYCDC is in the Ward 6 community, it was a natural choice as the organizing hub for the work. The established non-profit already had the networks and the infrastructure to accept financial donations, help assemble volunteers, establish a telephone line and create a supply chain.

While SYCDC is the facilitating anchor, W6MA takes the action in the community, working with affected people to solve problems in their everyday lives and working to change the policies that create those conditions. “It’s fighting and supporting —it’s not one or the other,” Cook said.

Since March, the group’s activities have expanded exponentially. In addition to distributing more than $30,000 worth of groceries, W6MA has partnered with more than 35 organizations  to help deliver devices, tutoring and grocery delivery. It has delivered more than 25,000 masks and 20,000 public health fliers; refurbished more than 110 used computers; distributed 300 new devices, internet hotspots and supply packages through the DC Back to School Bash; and delivered weekly packages of groceries, masks and information to the homeless encampments living under the K and L Street overpasses.

Daisla Robinson of the National Association of Returning Citizens, which operates Cure the Streets violence interruption sites in Wards 5 and 8, picks up backpacks at the W6MA Back to School Bash for students who need supplies and devices. Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke, Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid

Listening to the Community
Miranda Mlilo is a 23-year-old who graduated from the University of Maryland last year, and an experienced community organizer. She is the program coordinator for the tutoring and youth enrichment programs that came out of W6MA.

Mlilo said she was looking for ways to get involved after seeing the work of mutual aid early in the pandemic. She wanted to address the achievement gap in education, but she wanted to do it with the families of affected students.

So Mlilo asked. Parents told her they were already feeling overwhelmed by the economic and health challenges of the pandemic, in addition to being concerned that their kids were not engaged with their education. “Students weren’t getting the sort of personalized and individualized attention that they need to succeed,” Mlilo said.

She created the tutoring program to give them that attention, designing it with input from families. Tutors are matched based on educational needs, shared interests with students and scheduling. They are asked to commit to at least a semester at a time to build trust in their relationship with the kids.

Students who began tutoring in the spring are now continuing in the fall with the same tutors, Mlilo said. “We’ve had parents say that they were afraid their kids were going to fail, and because of the help of the tutors, they are feeling less overwhelmed,” Mlilo said.

“I think what is unique about our program is that we are constantly changing and adjusting as we recognize the needs of the community, rather than going in and imposing a system on these kids,” she added.

Volunteers create packages during the Back to School Bash. Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke, Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid

Making Ourselves Obsolete
Pranav Nanda, a lead organizer with W6MA, said this approach is critical to the work of Mutual Aid. “If you want to help someone, the first thing you do is shut up and listen. What is the community asking for and how can we help facilitate that?”

He said that from the outset, W6MA has focused on following the lead of established organizations who have been doing the work for generations. “We were really mindful about how can we add and leverage the awareness around these issues and the growing desire to help,” Nanda said. “We wanted to add capacity to the groups that have the relationships with the community, and galvanizing people into a sustained effort.”

Nanda, a law student who has a background as a teacher and in education policy, helped Cook organize the Back to School Bash, establish W6MA’s organizational approach, and propel advocacy work on issues such as internet access for all.

Those same principles used in mutual aid work should also apply to government policy, Nanda said. So, W6MA advocates to change the systems that create inequities in violence, health, education. That is the long-term objective of mutual aid, he said.

“There needs to be sustainable, long-term systematic change in place so that these issues do not exist and there are better systems in place the next time, if we are unfortunate enough to face another such crisis.”

Ward 6 Mutual Aid Worked with Brotha’s Huddle and Food for All to distribute 75 bags of groceries in this run. Courtesy: SYCDC

A Different Set of Hands and Eyes
This is a philosophy that the W6MA hub is practicing. “I’m probably the only board member who ever participated in the program as a beneficiary, “ said Naa Sackey, who recently joined the SYCDC Board. “It gives a different perspective on what is going on. It’s a different set of hands and eyes coming from someone who has been involved in this.”

Sackey first encountered Cook through her children, who had participated in SYCDC’s Financial Literacy and College Prep programs before the pandemic. When COVID first hit, she found herself in need of groceries, and reached out to Cook. He gave her the number to contact mutual aid.

“Someone actually showed up with a box,” she said, “and I was like, this is what you’re doing? I know other people who would need this help.” Sackey started to deliver groceries and supplies to neighbors and others in need. Then, she started to connect W6MA to childcare centers serving essential workers that needed supplies.

“Maurice [Cook] saw what I was doing and started giving me more work to do,” Sackey remembered, laughing; “That’s how I got involved – it just kept growing from there.”

Back on her feet and with a daytime job as a teaching assistant, Sackey has been working with W6MA ever since.

For her next project, Sackey hopes to help communities form pods —small groups of 4 to 5 children supervised by one adult. The network is working to find creative ways to provide small group care in ways that work for families, with both teachers and students already interested.

“I don’t know –where do they put their kids when they have to go to work at a restaurant, or at a grocery store, or at a hospital?” she asked, with deep concern. “What are [the kids] doing? Are your kids even able to get into virtual classes?”

W6MA would like to pay teachers or pod leaders for dedicated, regularly scheduled work, but Sackey says it’s hard to compete with the kind of paychecks being offered by the families that can afford to pay up to $5,000 a month for similar care.

“At the end of the day, it really comes down to money,” she said. “Our place right now is to really find funds. It’s a hard road because there are so many needs. I think more so than anything, my prayer right now is that we’ll get the funding for everything we’re trying to do –because we are really trying to help.”

Cook said he is confident that the community can look out for each other and work to make change for the future. “There’s enough love from the people to be able to take care of everyone,” Cook said. “There just is. Our work is to capture it and bring it together.”

Do you need help? Do you want to volunteer, or donate masks, technology or supplies? Email [email protected], or call the Ward 6 Mutual Aid hotline between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. at 202-683-9962. Get more information or make financial donations at ServeYourCityDC.org