“Mutual aid” has become part of our Covid-era vocabulary. And we hope it’s here to stay. Mutual aid is, at its core, neighbors helping neighbors — similar to the concept behind Epicenter-NYC. It is not to be confused with simply giving to those in need. “Solidarity not charity” is one of the defining slogans of mutual aid. According to the mutual aid toolkit created by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it can also be classified as “cooperation for the sake of the common good.”
The concept is not new, but when the world was turned upside down by the pandemic last year, thousands of mutual aid groups sprung up around the world to provide much-needed resources in ways that governments simply were not. In New York City alone, there are dozens, helping neighbors with food, child care, language support, help navigating the unemployment assistance process, mental-health counseling and much more.
As things begin to “return to normal,” we have seen mutual aid groups around the city lament a sudden drop in donations while need has remained the same.
Epicenter-NYC spoke with East Brooklyn Mutual Aid co-founder Kelvin Taitt about where the group is one year later. He, too, said it is struggling to get donations.
“Everyone who donated and supported and gave and provided and subsidized through the pandemic, they’ve stopped because the world is starting to open up and they believe that folks are no longer hungry,” he said. “But that’s not the case, it’s actually the opposite.”
Some people who have returned to work have months of bills to catch up on. Others remain unemployed. The most important thing to remember, Taitt said, is that Covid-19 didn’t necessarily cause food insecurity and inequality, it simply exposed it.
“Covid lifted the veil. All it did was expose the food system that was almost non-existent. New York City did not have a food policy plan,” he said. “They have recently developed and released their 10-Year Food Policy Plan, which is new to them. So there haven’t been plans in place before when it comes to emergency food or food for folks in communities of low income that can’t afford it or don’t have regular access to fresh healthy food.”
East Brooklyn Mutual Aid’s focus is about 95% food security related and 5% vaccine appointment support. It currently delivers groceries to 150 households every week. Pandemic or not, Taitt says the work is necessary and it will continue.
“We are going to grow and we are going to create our corporate structure, whatever that means for our community,” he said. “Now we need the government and the city and the officials that we’ve elected to recognize what we have done and support it because they have the budgets to do so, and ultimately that money is for the community.”
Astoria/LIC’s first flower CSA (community-supported agriculture) is offering a “flower scholarship” for BIPOC and LBGTQ+ folks who are unemployed, underemployed or underpaid. Epicenter writer Jade Stepeney spoke to Helen Ho, an organizer at Queens Perennial.
Wait. What’s a flower scholarship?
“It started as an experiment,” Ho said. “I was trying to offer shorties at a lower rate for low-income people.” A shorty is a subsidized $5/week flower share. The idea quickly became centered on alleviating the grief of marginalized communities.
Even before these pandemic times, Ho, who is Chinese-American, says she experienced thousands of racial microaggressions throughout her life. That, she expects, will outlast Covid-19.
The flower scholarship “doesn’t make up for anything that’s happening, but it acknowledges that things aren’t the same,” Ho said.
Why the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid?
The flower scholarship is also about celebration. Flowers are somewhat of a luxury. Being unemployed in a pandemic is stressful as hell, and long-term unemployment is on the rise. People who have lost their jobs or work for way less than deserved, like essential workers overshadowed throughout the pandemic, are eligible to apply.
“Back in the early pandemic when everyone used to clap at 7 p.m., I had to think about who we were clapping for,” Ho said. “A lot of people were clapping for white-collar workers like doctors and nurses.”
But what of those working behind the scenes in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice care? A former colleague of Ho’s, Priscilla Carrow, 65, died of Covid-19 last April. She was a coordinating manager at Elmhurst Hospital.
“She was deprioritized [in getting personal protective equipment],” Ho said. She and other organizers at Queens Perennial want to spotlight people like Carrow, also a hero of the pandemic.
“People have told me this is the highlight of their pandemic,” Ho said. “It’s an excuse for people to go on walks with their friends and get outside.”
Queens Perennial exclusively partners with Luna Family Farm, which is POC-owned, in Wrightown, NJ. Apply for the flower scholarship here. If you want to join the CSA and receive a bouquet weekly from the beginning of May through the end of October, you can sign up here. It’s $540 upfront or $90/month for the 2021 season. You can also request a prorated subscription here. Any questions, comments or compliments can be sent to Ho on Instagram @queensperennial.