“We’re more than a free store,” says Tiane Goines, an artist and creative based in New York City, and a member of Gowanus Mutual Aid. “We offer free groceries and that kind of stuff, but mutual aid is also about doing things for people individually. You get to build connections and share the resources you have. So, it’s not just one day of serving them, and then you don’t talk to them ever again. That’s important to me.”
Gowanus Mutual Aid has been getting a lot of attention for its Sharing Corner, a brightly painted “free store” at the intersection of Douglas and Bond that invites neighbors to take what they need and give what they can. But the project’s founders say that this focus on free stuff misses the human connections at its core.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Mutual aid is based on the idea that when you live in community with other people, everyone has something to give and to receive and that this relationship will ebb and flow over time. It’s an informal social safety net. You need to feed your family? Gowanus Mutual Aid delivers groceries. “There’s no catch to it. There’s no extra thing you need to do. You don’t have to jump through many other hoops,” Goines explains. “This is something that we’re just giving. You don’t have to provide any documentation or an ID or a degree or social security numbers. Especially for undocumented people, I feel like that would be a relief. It’s so hard to come across something that’s just given to you, without something attached to it or something you need to supply in return.”
Goines got her passion for community care from her grandmother, a Southern-born Black woman, who helped raise Goines in Bed-Stuy, where she often saw community care in action as a child.
“Black women have contributed by opening up daycares or orphanages, watching people’s kids or babysitting them, and making food for others,” Goines says. “That’s what my grandmother did. She always used to make a cake for people on their birthdays and watch people’s kids that she knew in her apartment building. Mutual aid is still looking out for someone else, and there doesn’t have to be anything in return. She just did it because that’s who she was. That’s what got me into doing things for others.”
And taking part in community care, in turn, fills Goines’ cup: “It’s nice to see other people do it, but you actually do it yourself, it’s different. And in terms of giving back to people, even if you don’t want anything in return, something is gonna eventually come back to you in a good way. I believe in that. It’s not just me caring about people, it’s other people caring about me, too.”
Projects and partnerships
Gowanus Mutual Aid started out providing groceries to neighbors and shopping at local stores. Now they’re looking to start a partnership with Grow NYC, a non-profit focused on supplying local communities with food access and environmental programs geared toward conservation and sustainability. The hope is to buying produce in bulk and thus get more fresh, high-quality, affordable food to more people.
Alongside food insecurity, rent assistance is also an imminent need in the community. “People have difficulties figuring out whether they want to pay their rent or buy groceries or other essential things,” Goines notes. “That’s an issue a lot of people go through. When they do play rent, they have almost nothing left for getting food.”
When members of the community face these impossible financial decisions, they can look to mutual aid for consistent support. “Mutual Aid can’t be a once-in-a-while thing,” Goines says. “This needs to constantly happen. We need this type of system every single day.”
How to get involved
Gowanus Mutual Aid has a number of resources to meet community members’ needs and an endless amount of ways for people to get involved with community care. The Sharing Corner on Douglas and Bond welcomes pick-ups and donations of hand sanitizer, diapers, non-perishable food, and more (you can see a current list of needs here). The Gowanus Community Fridges (with locations at 123 3rd St. and 326 6th St.) are great places to give or get food that needs to be frozen or refrigerated. Need support or want to share your time? You can call or text the Gowanus Mutual Aid hotline (929-243-4408) or fill out a very simple form on their site. There’s a new member orientation almost every Sunday at 5pm, which explains what it’s like to be a member of Gowanus Mutual Aid.
For those who want to get involved but are strapped for time, the best way to do so is through a recurring donation. “Because mutual aid groups do rely on individual stakeholders in terms of finances, the fund itself is quite volatile,” said Ava Cotlowitz, founding member and an elementary school art teacher. “We don’t necessarily know, in a given month, if we’re gonna have the same amount as the month prior. And so to mediate that volatility and literally get food to people and ensure that we can have that program in place, it helps if folks can set up a monthly recurring payment. Then we have a little bit of security, and that’s super important.”
Financial security can help anchor the group, since their work is always in flux. To stay on top of what’s happening at Gowanus Mutual Aid, the easiest thing to do is follow their Instagram. “One of the great things about mutual aid groups is the flexibility of the group to bend in the direction of what the community needs at any moment,” Cotlowitz added. “I think that’s incredibly powerful.”