As mutual aid groups cement themselves in Brooklyn communities, they have remained staunchly apolitical. The groups have not endorsed any political candidates in any of the local elections taking place this year. They have also remained adamant about not registering as government-recognized non-profits, 501(c)s.
After the pandemic hit in early spring of last year, Brooklyn saw an emergence of mutual aid networks—an interconnected web of organizations that, by definition, are run by members of the communities they serve. Serving a population that reaches into the thousands, these networks admitted they could play a significant role in local elections.
“I think we had a policy that was like, ‘We don’t want to necessarily be associated with electoral politics.’ The work is political, but we don’t want so much to get caught in a lot of the Brooklyn party politics, political machinery,” said Nikita Nangia of Crown Heights Mutual Aid, which started last spring and at one point delivered groceries to fifty families a day. “We have a policy of not endorsing and not building clear, direct partnerships with politicians,” said Margaret Schultz, another of the group’s volunteers.
“In terms of utilizing us as a platform for a campaign or anything political, I don’t foresee that happening and that’s not something that’s of interest to us,” said Kelvin Tait, a founder of East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, another group which started last spring and now makes 100 grocery deliveries a week. “We will work with and co-create with anyone who is supporting us with the resources that we need for the community, not for personal gain.”
These networks have already managed to grow exponentially without assistance from politicians. “From the beginning, we were having to lean on other mutual aid groups for funds,” said Robert Dorleans of East Brooklyn Mutual Aid. “That was the first thing, Crown Heights was the first mutual aid that was actually giving us money so that we could go grocery shopping.”
“We’ve received very loose support from local officials because of the nature of our structure and just the capacity of what they can and cannot do in terms of support,” said Tait. “In no way do we want to get caught up in the government and the red-tape of receiving their funding. Anything that we receive has to be in terms that are favorable to us and our community.”
The groups rely heavily on donations, but there are some grants available to them even if they are not a 501(c).
“Becoming a 501(c) has been discussed, but I think at the end of the day, there’s maybe not a lot of freedom once you do that,” said Sandrine Etienne of East Brooklyn Mutual Aid. She works as a social worker when she’s not volunteering for the group. “I mean, it sounds weird saying that as a social worker, but I think it’s the truth. You have to go through a lot of red tape.”
“Oftentimes, organizations like mutual aid groups that don’t want to be a non-profit, and it’s very understandable why— they are burdensome to run, as someone who’s helped start up two and ran one for a very long time from scratch,” said District 37 city council candidate Sandy Nurse. “They’re very burdensome to manage and even just receiving donations can be often very time consuming and come with conditions.”
“It’s not easy to move money to support networks that don’t have some kind of legal entity, but it’s not impossible,” said Nurse.
Groups can apply for a fiscal sponsor, in which a registered 501(c) gives money to the mutual aid group.
“It doesn’t necessarily negate the non-profit industrial complex, but that is an option,” Nurse said. “Another option is to help facilitate resources.” Nurse explained that Antonio Reynoso secured $4,000 from Food Bazaar for her food aid organization.
“I’ve been very impressed by the community fridges and the mutual aid that has emerged across the city, especially in Bushwick,” said District 37 city council candidate Rick Echevarria.
“It really isn’t just funding—it’s providing support, it’s connecting to city agencies, it’s listening to what they also have to say based on experiences that they’re hearing from other community residents,” said District 37 city council candidate Chris Durosinmi.
Indeed, these networks are uniquely positioned to hear from the electorate.
Flatbush Senior Housing Mutual Aid delivers food and PPE to just one low-income senior residence development. In addition to delivering food and PPE, the organization has been able to assist residents in navigating government processes.
“Last summer, one of the big needs for people wasn’t related to food or PPE, it was related to air conditioners,” said volunteer April Bethea. “We have this building with a lot of people over sixty-five who have a lot of medical conditions that is basically a hotbox, so we were working to connect people not only to the city hotline to get free air conditioners, but also thinking about what that could be outside of that. Because if you can call the city hotline and you can get through to them, that’s great, but if you can’t do that for a certain number of reasons, language, otherwise, it’s not as easy.”
“What Crown Heights Mutual Aid aspires to do, the definition of mutual aid, is to create long-term relationships, especially with people that have lived in the community for a long time, and to try to address the root causes of things,” said Schultz of Crown Heights Mutual Aid.
“I think for me, mutual aid is more of a community, it’s allowing the folks that live and work in the communities to have a say, and have a part, and have a responsibility without a specific organization or the government coming in and giving us everything in a blanket and expecting it to work for us,” said Tait. “I think it’s us standing together, us working together, using our skills and our abilities and our resources, to enrich the lives of the people around us.”
Top photo credit: Crown Heights Mutual Aid
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