Mutual-aid groups have a long history of spreading their safety nets across New York City in times of need. And a wellspring of grassroots initiatives aimed at helping communities keep calm and carry on during Covid-19 has bubbled up during the past year. Some efforts are brand new and a direct response of the pandemic, like Gowanus Mutual Aid and Crown Heights Mutual Aid—both of which launched in March 2020—while others are more established organizations who’ve pivoted their programming in response to the public health crisis, including Woodbine community space in Ridgewood, Queens.
Recently, we spoke with Catherine Zhang, an organizer at Crown Heights Mutual Aid, as part of a series exploring the future of mutual aid in NYC and its role in helping local communities recover right now. Here, Zhang explains how the pandemic has influenced the network of volunteers in her neighborhood.
Ilana Novick: How did Covid-19 change the needs of the communities that you support and how they’re engaging with Crown Heights Mutual Aid?
Catherine Zhang: At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much panic or general fear. We were in crisis mode. Crown Heights Mutual Aid was very much focused on trying to respond to those immediate concerns. We had contacted a distillery to see if they could make more hand sanitizers. We tried to get PPE to hospitals. We tried to get PPE to each other. We developed flyering protocols that are very, very cautious. And we did a lot of grocery deliveries because there were people who are immunocompromised, who are elderly, who are in circumstances where they couldn’t get groceries.
IN: What were you focused on after the initial crisis-mode period was over?
CZ: Now that we’re at a time where we can see maybe the end of the pandemic, we’re thinking about how we can shift our model from the original crisis response delivery option toward whatever else is needed. We’ve done some vaccine outreach efforts. We’ve also, over this past year, talked a lot about bulk buying groceries instead of relying on individual volunteers to buy groceries at the store and then deliver them. And I think a lot of other mutual aid groups have also gone into bulk buying, especially because Brooklyn Packers, which is I think usually the one that people partner with, they’re a Black-owned worker co-op. So that’s a more conscious effort to also promote food sovereignty and sustainability rather than relying on corporate grocery stores.
IN: What were the most surprising needs in the community over the last year?
CZ: I think one need that a lot of these mutual-aid groups have helped alleviate is just the need for community and companionship. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all under the threat of being isolated from each other. And even prior to the pandemic, it’s not always normal to talk to your neighbor about things. Sometimes you just go to your apartment and you exit and you maybe say “Hello,” but that’s pretty much it. So when the mutual-aid group started and then they were making calls to all of these people, especially people who live in senior centers or who may not have someone who’s living with them and assisting them, it helped people feel less frightened and alone.
And so I’ve heard about volunteers who, it seems like in addition to maybe needing food, the people that are calling also just want someone to talk to and to empathize with what they’re going through and their anxieties. For me as someone who can do my own shopping and stuff like that, but had been craving a sense of community in my neighborhood and a sense of purpose, I really, really value being a part of mutual aid. Before I joined, I was just a young person who had recently moved to New York who wanted to do something, but felt disempowered to. But now I have a ton of friends in the neighborhood and we do stuff together. And I just really think that it is really improved my relationship to the neighborhood and improved the way that I think about social justice and how to strive for a better world.
IN: And is the organization still looking for new members or is there any way that people who are reading this can support Crown Heights Mutual Aid?
CZ: Yes. So we have an ioby page (a fundraising page), so people can make the contributions there if they want. And we are always looking for volunteers. So, on our website, you can click the button, “I can help.” And then it’ll direct you to how you can volunteer.