By Haritha Kumar
During the initial COVID-19 shutdown in the spring of 2020, safety net services faced a deluge of new applicants. Many stuttered during this time of intense need. Those hit hardest by the pandemic — people of color and low-income workers – could not get the help they needed in time. Thus, mutual aid groups were frequently asked to fill in gaps created by overwhelmed safety net services.
Mutual aid is not a substitute for the effective provision of social services, but policymakers can still learn from community aid networks. These groups, like Bed-Stuy Strong (BSS)—a Brooklyn-based mutual aid network—quickly organized and mobilized during the pandemic to generate flexible, far-reaching responses despite extremely limited time and resources.
From March 2020 to June 2021, BSS supported 28,000 people in Central Brooklyn by organizing a volunteer- and donation-driven grocery delivery mutual aid program. The group also raised about $1.2 million in grassroots, crowdsourced donations, redistributing it back into the community.
Lessons from the Field
In writing this piece, I interviewed Alyssa Dizon, a volunteer who managed BSS’s automation system for its food access mutual aid program during the pandemic. She suggests four best practices for those involved in mutual aid based on her organizer perspective.
Start small and iterate.
Drawing upon existing resources and iterating based on evolving needs can ensure effective, sustainable system design.
After only a month of COVID-19 shutdowns, BSS’s grocery delivery mutual aid program rapidly evolved from handling requests using ad-hoc favors traded over Slack to a robust system that could process 40 requests daily and more than 200 deliveries a week.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, few (if any) technologies existed specifically for mutual aid organizing. In this context, BSS initially created a rudimentary system for managing food deliveries. They started with a minimally complex structure to meet the group’s most basic needs. It utilized free, off-the-shelf technologies such as Google Voice, Slack, Google Sheets, and free peer-to-peer payment apps like PayPal, Venmo, and CashApp. It augmented technical solutions with offline resources such as paper-based flyers.
When it became clear that more organizational infrastructure was needed, BSS revamped its system to better serve volunteers and the needs of those requesting food deliveries. These reforms included:
- Developing a script to address callbacks for neighbors in need
- Providing guidance on conducting safe, sanitary no-contact deliveries
- Splitting Bedford-Stuyvesant into quadrants to accommodate delivery volunteers without cars
- Utilizing Zapier, a technology automation platform, to scrape text-based voicemails created by Google Voice, translating them into Airtable records that included a call back phone number, date, and actual message
- Automating the tracking of basic metrics for incoming requests received or fulfilled in a day
However, delivery coordinators were still performing quite a bit of manual work, and the number of delivery requests were growing. This led to the development of the Automated System Plus, the system BSS uses today. As part of the redesign,, BSS switched from Google Voice to Twilio, introduced a standardized process for volunteer reimbursements using ioby (a civic crowdfunding platform), and migrated away from a quadrant delivery system, instead posting a summary of urgent requests twice a day.
As the food access mutual aid system became more advanced, it required consistent upkeep by technical volunteers. Communication between those involved at all points of the process–delivery coordinators, technical volunteers, delivery volunteers, and those requesting food delivery–and an understanding of the need to automate processes allowed BSS to be flexible and adapt their systems over time.
Meet people where they are, even if that means going low-tech.
Although BSS ended up with a relatively advanced back-end system run by technical volunteers, a substantial portion of BSS’s outreach was analog. In mid-March, volunteers posted multi-lingual flyers throughout the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with a link to their website and a Google Voice phone number that residents could call and leave a voicemail with their shopping lists.
They found that grocery requests were submitted via their telephone hotline/voicemail more often than over online forms. Most of the 1,400 households that worked with the group learned about them through word-of-mouth.
“People were telling their neighbors to call this phone line; it was more of a home-grown, word-of-mouth thing that had more trust,” said Dizon.
Though more technical, advanced systems can facilitate efficient communication for those with the expertise, it was necessary to maintain a low technical barrier to entry, as there was a wide range of digital literacy amongst volunteers. Thus, BSS needed tools that were as simple as possible for those who’d interface with them––both for volunteers and for those requesting food delivery services.
Many safety net services––including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and others––are underutilized precisely because people do not know about them or think they are ineligible for benefits. Proactive outreach, such as creating and posting flyers, utilizing popular messaging platforms such as text or Facebook, and establishing phone numbers that people can call to determine eligibility or discuss benefits options can be beneficial. Further, relying on peer-to-peer networks has been crucial for mutual aid outreach. Organizations or agencies administering services can also utilize such networks and encourage word-of-mouth as an outreach strategy.
“The tech was helpful for sure, but there’s an access issue when you rely on tech,” Dizon added. “We’ve always been challenged by walking that line between having technology that makes us efficient and being grounded in making sure we’re still really accessible.”
Center people and relationships at every point in the process to build public trust.
Mutual aid inherently centers human connection. It requires cooperation to create networks of care and levels of generosity to meet the immediate needs of a given community. BSS strongly emphasized having conversations with neighbors –even at the expense of efficiency – as its organizational model necessitated mutual support and community involvement.
“The whole point is that it’s not a service model with a group of people in service and a group of people being served. The entire paradigm shift of mutual aid is that it’s peer-to-peer, in mutual support of each other. Everyone’s a member. If you’re receiving food, you’re part of a community,” said Dizon.
Though the mutual aid model is not the same as a service model utilized by government agencies, it is nevertheless important for policymakers to understand the importance of trust and perception––particularly concerning the provision of social services. Negative experiences or perceptions of government services can decrease trust and turn people away from programs designed to help them.
“Within our organizing groups, we wouldn’t have been able to move as quickly as we did if we didn’t trust each other or feel safe to take bets, make decisions, and try stuff out,” said Dizon.
Integrate mutual aid into existing public service ecosystems.
Though mutual aid helped provide immediate relief to individuals during the pandemic when government could not, states cannot rely solely on community groups to fill the gaps in services.
However, deliberately integrating mutual aid into the public service ecosystem can be extremely beneficial. Government agencies can consult with aid networks to learn from their work, involve them in policy design, and collaborate with community groups on outreach efforts.
BSS incorporated such outreach into its work. As NYC’s emergency home food delivery program GetFood and other local food banks came online, BSS changed its intake script to include information about these resources. This helped reduce the strain from rapidly increasing incoming requests and may have contributed to long-term community awareness of resources provided by the City of New York.
Mutual aid networks can promote state-run services, and government agencies can also help foster a mutually synergistic relationship between aid groups and service agencies by actively funding and supporting mutual aid work.
“This structure kind of exists in NYC. There are community boards, local resident-level branches of city governments. Those groups get city funding to do local work,” Dizon explains. “If there’s a way we could tack mutual aid groups on – where a tranche of money gets set aside for a very local, on-the-ground group that’s hyper-nimble, can be responsive to whatever the needs are––that kind of group can really understand hyperlocal needs and priorities and allocate funds maybe more efficiently or directly than that money going through a bunch of City bureaucracy.”
Mutual aid work demonstrates the importance of dynamism, flexibility, and human-centered design in work that directly promotes community welfare. By actively working to center people at every point in the service provision process, organizations can build trust among their constituents and tap into the enormous wealth of communities’ social infrastructure, ultimately better serving those in need.
“There’s this infrastructure that already exists of peers being able to communicate with each other and distribute information across trusted networks of people and mobilize across the whole neighborhood,” Dizon adds. “We ended up having people involved with Bed-Stuy Strong in every block in a neighborhood that has 250,000 people in it.”
Haritha Kumar (SFS’24) was a student analyst on the Digital Benefits Network during summer of 2022.