In the past nine months of the pandemic, an all volunteer-effort in Richmond has filled more than 4,000 requests for help and distributed more than $140,000 in direct cash assistance.
The group, called Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond, has existed since 2018 when there were record low winter temperatures. A group of people saw unmet need in the community and decided to help. But over the past nine months of the pandemic they've significantly ramped up efforts.
“When folks come together we really can get things done, and we really can take care of each other,” said Ayanna Ogaldez, a coordinator for the all-volunteer effort, during a recent interview.
The group has filled thousands of requests for resources -- everything from food, to diapers, to cleaning supplies. They’ve also distributed more than 1,000 “mini-grants.” The $120 checks go directly to individuals and families, no strings attached. Many use the money to supplement rent or other bills.
Tamanna Sohal is a volunteer and has been involved since March. She says Mutual Aid is defined by meeting people’s needs directly “without blaming them for having needs.” It's a radical philosophy that's long existed in community organizing, but has taken hold across the country amidst the pandemic.
As Sohal explains it there’s a distinct political element that involves not just distributing things to people who need them but also “organizing against the systems and power structures that create unequal needs.”
Mutual aid is often summed up by two short phrases: We protect us. Solidarity not charity.
Those who have recieved aid have also turned around and given it. For instance, one woman who had regularly received supplies donated a $5 gift card to the grocery store Aldi. Another person donated an overabundance of pull-up diapers that the group is still spreading around.
“We’re not looking at it from a perspective of ‘we are saving people’,” explains organizer Ogaldez. “Systems and structures are impacting all of us and we can’t look at it from a ‘those people over there are being impacted,’.”
The group aims to be as low-barrier as possible. To get supplies, all you have to do is ask. Volunteer drivers deliver the goods. Rolling into the winter and holiday season, the group is now asking for blankets, space heaters and toys. Because of COVID-19 they’re requesting the items be new.
Mutual aid isn’t particular to the Richmond area. The group here says their mini-grant program was inspired by Cville Community Cares, an effort that raised thousands of dollars early in the pandemic but has since been on hold. Ogaldez also points to Future Economy Collective in Blacksburg as doing similar work in the New River Valley.
Sohal says those who can’t find a group already up and running in their area can still embody the spirit of mutual aid, and think small.
“It starts with your roommates, your neighbors, you and your best friend coming together and thinking about what are the needs and what are your resources and seeing how you can build solidarity through differences,” said Sohal.
This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.