May 20, 2021

Mutual Aid is on the Rise, Strengthening Communities in Crisis

To build resilience in New York City, Robin Hood is hitting close to home.

By Stephanie Park, Associate | Partnerships & Impact and Ollie Gillett, Senior Program Manager | Research & Development and Lori Boozer, Director | Mobility LABs

People sort through food donations

If you’ve given to a fundraiser lately to help someone fill in the financial gaps between personal and governmental funding, you’ve participated in mutual aid.

Mutual aid is a concept that has deep roots in local communities. Throughout history, neighbors have supported neighbors when things go very wrong. Mutual aid was the go-to mechanism during the Civil Rights movement — from the Black Panthers’ school breakfasts to clothing drives — as communities of color were deprived of support. Since then, mutual aid has provided support after all kinds of disasters, from hurricanes to terror attacks, when government aid was slow to respond.

In the wake of the pandemic’s start, mutual aid is having a rebirth on a large scale. Put simply, mutual aid is collective coordination to meet the needs of each other, and is grounded in the principle of mutuality and solidarity, not charity.

As low-income communities in New York City respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the relief efforts in the most vulnerable communities are being led by unincorporated groups like mutual aid networks, groups of neighbors, grassroots organizations, and small nonprofits that have built trusting relationships with not just the communities they serve, but among each other — building a network of resource sharing across mutual aid groups within NYC and across the U.S. Despite the fact that these groups have deep reach into communities, they often face barriers to receiving funding.

As we continue to navigate the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges, Robin Hood has begun fueling mutual aid networks, by providing grants to organizations that embody the proximity model — supporting those who know first-hand (and better than anyone else) what is best for their own local communities.

Maybe you’ve walked by a community fridge — hundreds have popped up in communities across the city, kept stocked and decorated almost exclusively by young women from the neighborhood.

Or you’ve seen the Hattie Carthan Herban Farm, an herb farm and green space in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It supports the health and well-being of its ecosystem, its members, neighbors, and has transformed a once-blighted lot into a garden that improves its physical space and the lives of the humans who keep it running.

That farm is supported by ioby — In Our Backyards — a Robin Hood partner and innovator in this space. ioby is a civic tech nonprofit that offers its own crowdfunding platform, fundraising coaching for neighborhood leaders, and fiscal sponsorship program. Over twelve years, ioby has trained more than 30,000 resident leaders nationwide and has funded 3,000 resident-led projects in neighborhoods across the country.

In 2020, with match programs in partnership with Robin Hood, ioby supported 36 groups to provide cash assistance, food, emergency supplies, and more in low-income communities in New York.

Projects funded through this partnership include Easy Activism: Fundraising for Black Mental Health, an initiative to raise funds to package up to one month of free, individualized therapy for Black New Yorkers. The organization also funds the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) therapists who heal the community while also experiencing shared trauma. And Ocean Hill/East Bushwick Elder Boxes, a team of volunteers delivering weekly boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables and pantry staples to seniors in isolation.

The Mobility LABs initiative was Robin Hood’s first organized experiment to tap into this space, providing a view into what communities had been doing for generations. Through Mobility LABs, we’re able to give money to communities upfront to prepare for deep need, so that they’re better resourced from the start. It allows for funding smaller, scrappier organizations in a creative way.

As one example, thanks to Robin Hood’s continued funding and support, Chinese-American Planning Council and its six key collaborators — Asian Americans for Equality, the Child Center of NYMinKwon Center for Community ActionQueens Public Library, and RIVER FUND — are advancing the vital work of improving economic mobility in Flushing, Queens. As a part of this collective impact effort, this cohort, also known as the Flushing Mobility Collaborative, is expanding on findings from earlier listening sessions and a community survey with over 500 responses that highlighted job readiness, housing, healthcare, and language access as key barriers keeping Flushing families in poverty. This collaborative is continuing to assemble listening sessions and advisory groups with over 15 additional members and partners to design and implement community-driven solutions. Additionally, the collaborative is initiating new efforts, including a pilot intervention to connect immigrants and young adults ages 14 to 24 to more supports as they prepare to enter job training programs and research partnerships with local academic institutions to better understand and measure economic mobility.

Young Community Developers, Inc. (YCD) is partnering with other service providers to strengthen coordination and access to better serve Bayview residents. As part of that, YCD is deploying their Community Economic Mobility Vehicle (CEMVe) to be more responsive and to allow partners to offer services that extend beyond brick and mortar locations. Additionally, YCD is partnering with arts-focused community-based organizations to facilitate a community challenge to source logo designs, graphics and musical samples for the CEMVe project.

For United for Brownsville, another Robin Hood community partner and a recent Robin Hood Hero, expertise comes from the families and social services providers within their neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn to improve language and social-emotional developmental outcomes for babies and toddlers. Their “local stakeholders” share their solutions for easing challenges in early childhood education and health as part of their community-driven incubator. Their latest initiative is a relief grant for small businesses serving young children.

That money comes from the neighborhood, stays in the neighborhood and serves the neighborhood’s youngest constituents. When we choose to support communities rallying to heal from within, the fight towards lifting people out of poverty is a step closer to being won.

Special thanks to Lisa Pilar-Cowan of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation for connecting Robin Hood to ioby, through the Sterling Network.