May 5, 2020

Mutual Aid: Our Collective Responsibility in the time of Coronavirus

It's been a little over one month since Governor Gretchen Whitmer first made the decision to shut down non-essential services and businesses, and close down school buildings. (The most current “stay home, stay safe” order is in effect until May 15th.) In the meantime, hundreds of folks across West Michigan have been left without income. Unwilling to just sit by and watch the economic fall out harm their neighbors, West Michigan residents Sarah Doherty and Amy Carpenter came together virtually and started to plan. Their plans led to the creation of the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network (GRAMAN). 

Doherty says GRAMAN was started to help those struggling to make ends meet during the coronavirus era. The purpose of the fund is to get cash into the hands of those who need it the most with no stipulations in place.

“Amy and I, we understood that there are a lot of nonprofits that are funded by wealthy donors, and a lot of charity in the area, but that not everyone gets access to help and opportunities that they need and often there are barriers in place like extensive applications or referrals,” shares Doherty. 

Mutual Aid and Giving Circles have been around since the late 1700s when the Free African Society was founded to provide support to newly free African Americans. Doherty says anyone is able to start a mutual aid group. “Mutual aid is about gathering resources in community and sharing it with others.” 

Rebel Sidney Black, a community organizer, describes mutual aid as the random person from the internet bringing you a hot meal when you can’t get out of bed. It’s cleaning or spiritually cleansing the home of someone who’s too severely depressed to do it themselves. It’s staying up late talking to a suicidal friend, helping unpack an apartment after someone moves, giving rides to chemo, visiting or writing letters to folks in prison and walking someone’s dogs when they can’t do it themselves. It can also look like sharing coping skills, survival skills or job search skills. Mutual aid can be sharing medicine, making medicine, helping sift through allopathic doctors to find a good fit or referring someone to that awesome working class naturopath you know. Mutual aid can also be fighting to change the structural causes of oppression so that everyone can be more free.

GRAMAN is run by volunteers and relies mainly on monetary donations from community members to help provide food resources and financial aid to those who need it the most. “Everybody knows what they need to survive and the thing that people need is money and I think that's becoming clear for folks in Grand Rapids,” shares Doherty. 

Thus far, the group has raised nearly $50,000 dollars and Doherty says donations can range from $10 dollars per donation all the way to $1,000 dollars. 

“A little bit can make a huge difference. We have been able to get where we are not from grants, or nonprofits but from individual people who have decided they have some extra cash they want to use to help others,” she shares. 

The group of people who determine how GRAMAN funds are spent is made up of people of color from the local community who have been affected by institutional and systemic oppression and understand how resources and services function in Grand Rapids. 

“This group of folks who are calling themselves ‘The Giving Circle’ meets together virtually and they look at the people’s requests, and what resources are available locally and then they determine how funds are going to be distributed,” she shares. 

The messaging from GRAMAN has consistently been that it's about solidarity, care and community building. “It's not gate keeping. We are not trying to replicate the nonprofit sector. We want to get funds and resources for people who need them,” Doherty states. 

In just under five weeks, GRAMAN made 88 payments, distributed $19,380 dollars and delivered over $6,000 dollars worth of groceries to 130 families. All cash distributions are made to folks of color and other historically marginalized people, and grocery distributions are done on a first come first serve basis to anyone in the local Grand Rapids community.

Requests for support are made through a simple google form accessible to anyone with a smartphone or computer with an internet connection. In the upcoming weeks, Doherty says they hope to release a phone number to make their services more accessible for those without a reliable internet connection or a computer at home. 

“This is mutual aid, it's not a social service agency; it’s folks who have decided that they want to give to their neighbors and who trust us to be accountable to the community,” states Doherty. 

While many in Michigan and in Grand Rapids are struggling right now, folks at the GRAMAN are experiencing overwhelming support from the community to help those who have lost jobs, income and support amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Some of the most common ways we are using funds is for housing, utility payments, grocery shopping for high risk folks or those without transportation and health bills,” explains Doherty. 

As part of their organizing efforts, she says the group is encouraging local community members who have resources and haven’t lost their income during the pandemic to share their stimulus check from the government with others. The stimulus check is a one time $1,200 credit from the U.S. government in response to the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Resources and funds that you need are distributed in ways that are inequitable, so folks who have those resources, who still have their income, we are encouraging them to donate some or all of their stimulus checks to us,” she shares. 

Undocumented immigrants, incarcerated folks and those without social security numbers are examples of people who are not eligible to receive the $1200 stimulus check. 

For Doherty and Carpenter, the work GRAMAN has been able to do is thanks to the community’s willingness to show up for each other and to recognize how systems of oppression have kept Black folks, indigenous people, undocumented immigrants and people of color away from resources and capital. They do not plan to become a nonprofit, but do plan to continue to build trusting relationships in the community and create opportunities for the community to hold them accountable. 

To contribute to the Mutual Aid Fund, visit this site. To request assistance, complete this form


Written by Michelle Jokisch Polo

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