Fear of the family policing system can prevent families from accessing needed resources and support. Through community-led mutual aid, community members support each other, often responding more quickly than systems and without intrusive processes or the threat of a report to ACS for not having food or resources for your family.
East Brooklyn Mutual Aid explains that mutual aid is “about living in solidarity with one another, about exchanging resources to best support the community at large. People give what they can and take what they need–all without the expectation of receiving something in return.”
Here, Kelvin Taitt, co-founder of East Brooklyn Mutual Aid and a community organizer in the Ocean Hill and Brownsville areas of Brooklyn, New York, discusses how mutual aid is different from services through the system—building relationships, keeping resources in the community and supporting investment in Black-owned businesses.
Q. What is mutual aid?
A. First and foremost, mutual aid is not charity. Mutual aid is a group of people in the community coming together to provide resources on a mutual level. You bring what you can can to the table, I bring what I can to the table. Mutual aid involves people taking responsibility for their neighbors, communities and environment. Mutual aid is grounded in solidarity — we’re all supporting each other, standing by each other and in this together.
Q. What does East Brooklyn Mutual Aid do? How is mutual aid different from services through the system?
A. We deliver groceries to our neighbors for free. We are 100% focused on food security and serve 100 families weekly.
You don’t have to qualify to request groceries from East Brooklyn Mutual Aid. Anyone over 18 years old can make a request, for any household type or family size. As long as we have resources, funding and volunteers, there’s no waiting list.
City agencies’ systems of qualification take so long. When you sign up for SNAP or food stamps or food programs, you have to fill out an application, wait for an interview, be interviewed and then finally they send you a letter to let you know if you’re approved. If you’re approved, you have to go to the office and bring your I.D. and paperwork.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of our neighbors weren’t eligible for SNAP because they had just lost work or were on furlough. Because their incomes were still in the system, they didn’t qualify for support.
We were able to get families food when they were faced with the choice of paying rent or buying groceries. As a community-funded organization, we can act faster than a city organization because of all of their red tape. We made the choice not to become a 501(c)3 (nonprofit organization) because we don’t want to be held back by restrictions or have to follow guidelines from the city to get funding. We don’t want to do things that our community finds invasive or unnecessary.
Resources can be allocated to communities and we can build systems that work for us. We’ve done it and can continue to do it. We work with the city as long as their systems and resources work for us and our systems.
Q. How does mutual aid keep money and resources in the community and support investment in Black-owned businesses?
A. When we started the mutual aid group, we were working out of a community church. I connected with other mutual aid groups. There was an organization called The Brooklyn Packers that was sourcing and packing food at a bulk discount for any group that needed it. They had a contract to work as a packing company for GetFoodNYC, a city program that provides produce boxes to NYC residents.
We collaborated with the Brooklyn Packers and allowed them to work in the space we were in. They were packing 1,000 boxes a day for people in Brownsville and across the city with GetFoodNYC. They had excess food and access to vendors and distributors that gave them discount wholesale rates. They offered, “We work with cooperative farms, Black-owned farms, and get bulk discount rates from distributors and supply chains because of our relationships. We can get you the best deals and allow you to stretch those dollars.” We started collaborating with them and they did our purchasing, as well. This saved us a ton of money because we weren’t paying the 40% retail markup.
Because of their workload, the Brooklyn Packers offered opportunities for our volunteers to be paid to work with them. We were able to get 10 people jobs that were in our community and paid above minimum wage.
They are a cooperative—at the time, there were four owners. I was asked to work with them to help them scale up. I started working with them and they asked me to join their cooperative as the Director of Operations. We have been working with several mutual aid groups, helping them curate boxes and groceries for their communities below retail cost.
We’ve worked with the USDA in getting some of their Coronavirus food assistance program boxes to Brownsville and to mutual aid groups and community fridges. We built an infrastructure that is Black owned and worker owned in East Brooklyn. It puts people to work in our community and helps to address the food insecurity problem in our community.
The Brooklyn Packers have been working with East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, Bed Stuy Strong and a subgroup in Flatbush called the Kings County Senior Residency Mutual Aid. We’ve also worked with the Astoria Mutual Aid Network and several food pantries. We’ve worked with countless organizations because we help control the supply chain. We’re also working on farmland upstate—owning our own farm and growing our own food.
I took data from mutual aid groups and curated a program called Black Radish. It’s a grocery bag that is $35 and has 16 items—eggs, butter, chicken, produce, rice, flour, beans, etc., with home delivery. We also do bulk orders for all of the mutual aid groups. It saves them money and their neighbors get enough food for a family of four for a week. We’re working on building systems that can work for any community.
I would love to build a food hub in every community that includes workforce development and housing. We can build a hub that has housing and people that live in the building can be part of the workforce in that building. If we had more of those hubs, especially food-related hubs, our food insecurity problem could be solved. Give communities the power to own it and feed themselves—they’ll nurture and grow it, especially if it’s for their benefit, our benefit.
Q. How does East Brooklyn Mutual Aid work with other mutual aid groups?
A. We are part of a mutual aid network. There are over 50 different mutual aid groups across the five boroughs. We work hand-in-hand. When we first started, Crown Heights Mutual Aid supported us for a couple of weeks until we were able to support ourselves with community donations. We’ve had volunteers come from Bed Stuy and Flatbush when we needed drivers. Other communities put the word out to their volunteers and shared resources. There’s a really amazing network of people that care and they’ve been very supportive.
Q. How does mutual aid center and build relationships in the community?
A. Our first priority is making sure people are OK. With SNAP programs, it’s about the system and how people navigate it, instead of the person and their needs. We put their needs first. If you have a need, we provide food, no questions asked. We don’t force you to fill out a ton of paperwork to qualify—just basic information so we can get it to you.
You don’t have to do something grand to make a difference. Calling to check on your neighbors is enough — asking if anybody needs anything when you run out. I’m grateful for the community that I live in because we have that type of rapport with each other. I can go to my neighbors across the street and ask for a cup of sugar and actually get it.
I’m taking time off for my birthday and my neighbor offered to watch my dog. This is the type of community that we need more of and will thrive in. It’s more than food security—it is mental health, financial stability, resources, awareness and education. There are many resources and supports that mutual aid can provide.
Wealthier communities have systems that they rely on in their community and can stay within themselves because they have everything they need. We should take a page from that book and start building things, with the people that live here owning the things we build. If we’re living in it or working there, we should own it. We should share the profits if we’re doing the work and we should share in the property if we’re living there.
Mutual Aid NYC is a network of groups organizing to provide aid and support to New Yorkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Call the hotline at 646-437-8080 for support or visit the website to learn about resources, get help and/or get involved