While We’re Forced Apart, Mutual Aid Groups Bring Neighbors Back Together

Local mutual aid groups are helping community members find housing, food, and support—all while maintaining social distance.

Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Just a few weeks ago, Boston looked a lot different than it does today. You could sit down at a restaurant if you wanted to. You could go to the mall, the movie theater, or the hair salon. The T was crowded at rush hour. Traffic piled up. You were probably even still going into your office every day.

But even then—when reports of the spread of the disease were alarming, but our elected officials had yet to majorly respond—a team of local organizers was taking action. Disturbed by the abrupt closures at area universities, Hannah Freedman, Sophia Grogan, Miriam Priven, and Anna Kaplan, a group of friends all in their 20s, quickly began brainstorming ways to help all the students, and eventually, all their neighbors, who were suddenly in need. They compiled documents full of information they gathered from the health department. They rounded up their neighbors’ phone numbers to create phone trees. And finally, they created a Google Form, where anyone in the community could submit a request for help. This was how MAMAS, or Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville, was born.

“I believe in the power of the people and the fact that the people can create solutions when we need to,” Freedman says. “And that we can come together and make sure that our needs are going to be met.”

The coronavirus pandemic has shined a bright light on the deeply-rooted structural issues that prevent the government from providing adequate aid in times of emergency. College closures have left students without places to live. Restaurant workers have suddenly found themselves jobless. Families whose breadwinners have fallen ill are desperate for cash. It’s become increasingly clear that there’s simply no time to wait for the system to right itself and provide help—and that’s why mutual aid, or the grassroots practice of providing person-to-person community assistance through a centralized system, has arisen as an alternative solution. To offset the government’s inept response to this emergency, Boston-area residents are finding help closer to home instead.

“Mutual aid is about recognizing that no one in our community is okay unless we’re all okay,” says Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, a Cambridge City Councillor who has been involved with various area mutual aid groups. “It’s about putting out where you can give help, and then being able to be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it.”

These groups, constructed primarily over social media and Google Docs, are founded on the belief that this pandemic will be significantly easier to survive if we pool our resources and knowledge with our communities. While mutual aid networks existed in some forms and certain local communities prior to the crisis we’re facing today, they’re a particularly useful tool in a world where we want to help our neighbors, but are forced to stay six feet away from them at the same time. They exist almost entirely online—a Google Doc introduces new members to the group, and then directs those with needs to enter their asks on a Google Sheet, and those with resources to volunteer them on a separate Google Sheet. Anyone can browse either spreadsheet, reaching out directly via phone or email to those in need.

“Our priority was to make sure that it was a model that lots of people could replicate, and could work on the micro level of your block, but also on the macro level of the city,” Freedman says. After MAMAS was founded, similar groups were born in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain/Roxbury.

There are no rules about what can be requested or offered up. So requests run the gamut—a dance teacher in search of a place to live, an MIT graduate student who needs money for food, a laid-off restaurant worker who needs computer access for job searching. In paging through the needs spreadsheets of the various groups, you begin to form a clearer picture of just how devastating the coronavirus pandemic has been for local residents, and how lives have been upended in the most sudden and anxiety-inducing ways.

“Just lost all freelance (yoga teacher therapist) and service industry work (weekend restaurant server) until further notice,” one person wrote on the Cambridge needs sheet. “My adult daughter’s cafe hrs have also been cut drastically. I am a single mom of an 8 yr old boy (and said adult daughter). I also have a large dog to feed! I receive no financial assistance from my son’s father and have no safety net.”

Scrolling through rows and rows of these stories is heartbreaking. To be introduced to your neighbors in this way—“I’m a service worker in a nontipped environment”, “I am a first-gen/low-income student at Northeastern University who has recently been displaced”, “I am a disabled mother to 3 and 1 granddaughter”—can make you feel utterly helpless. Just outside the walls of your quarantine zone are community members who are suffering, who have been failed by the institutions meant to protect them, and you can’t exactly just knock on their doors to check in.

A glimpse at the offerings spreadsheets, however, provides a glimmer of hope—people are using their restless, cabin-fevered energy to become resources for each other. Freedman says MAMAs has received thousands of dollars in donations that the group has been able to redistribute. Many volunteers have picked up groceries or prescriptions for those in self-quarantine. Others have offered up their time for childcare, opened up their spare bedrooms for the housing-insecure, or simply volunteered to virtually hang out with anyone feeling lonely. Still more have offered up their unique skill sets in endearingly earnest ways.

“I’m quite good at the mechanics of writing and grammar.”

“I estimate I can contribute 10 each of the following seedlings: basil, squash, cucumber. I also have lots of seeds for carrots, radishes, greens, and beans.”

“Can offer tarot reading over the phone for psychological orientation, support, and illuminating choices.”

“Would be happy to arrange deliveries of pre-packaged chocolate and host online tastings for neighborhood friends to boost morale!”

Even Freedman herself has benefited from the system she helped create. While she was self-quarantined due to possible exposure to the virus, she needed a prescription picked up from CVS, so she posted on the needs spreadsheet. “Within five minutes, somebody texted me,” she says.

As reports on the progression of the coronavirus pandemic get scarier, and this period of social distance drags on, it’s easy to envision that people would begin to adopt an every-man-for-himself mentality, entering survival mode by hoarding groceries and locking doors. But when you take a look into MAMAS’s spreadsheets, and those of the other local mutual aid groups that have popped up in its wake, it becomes clear that during these desperate times, many are inclined to take down walls, not put them up.

“In this moment, things really feel they’re out of control, and we feel pretty powerless to make larger scale change,” Freedman says. “But I think folks feel more empowered by being able to build the kind of communities that we need to survive and thrive.”

Interested in joining or requesting assistance from your neighborhood’s mutual aid group? Visit the websites of the groups mentioned here below. 

Cambridge Mutual Aid

Mutual Aid Jamaica Plain and Roxbury

Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (or dial hotline at 339-545-1315)