In organizational theory, mutual aid means the exchange of services or resources in which both parties benefit. Mutual aid has likely been a pillar of human society since our nascence but the concept was largely popularized by Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), a Russian anarchist. He argued that in addition to competition, mutual aid among animal species is a prominent factor in their evolutionary struggle.
As true mutual aid and grassroots organizers usually do, BICS volunteers pick up where capitalism falls short.
The Free African Society was one of the first mutual aid societies in the United States. Formed in 1787 by a group of free black people, it provided mutual aid and religious services to free blacks in Philadelphia and led to the foundation of one of the first independent black churches in America.
Fast forward 233 years. The COVID-19 pandemic hits New York. Relief groups pop up all over the five boroughs. Some are dedicated to certain neighborhoods, others to certain sectors of the population. Some groups practice mutual aid, while others provide a one-way service to those in need or at high risk of protracting the virus.
Fabiola Mendieta, a long-time community organizer in Sunset Park and an indigenous Mexican person, decided to take action when she realized her community was not benefitting from public or private safety nets as much as other New Yorkers. With the help of her copartner, Devon Morales, and a core group of volunteers, Fabiola started Brooklyn Immigrant Community Support (BICS) to aid immigrants and undocumented people that are struggling during this time.
As true mutual aid and grassroots organizers usually do, BICS volunteers pick up where capitalism falls short. They employ on-the-ground, equity-oriented practices in taking care of their community, a group of Americans that doesn’t receive public aid. Their community is not forgotten, but purposefully denied stimulus checks or unemployment insurance by the government. Such exclusion is in part a result of the tactics of powerful lobbyists that make money off private prisons and detention centers and the politicians that support them.
For the most part, the group runs a food distribution network. With the money they receive from their GoFundMe campaign, they deliver hot meals to their homebound neighbors and run a grocery distribution operation out of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge. When a dire situation arises, and BICS has cash on hand, they provide financial aid. They are in communication with many families who have loved ones in detention or who have lost someone and need the $1,400 it costs to claim the body before it gets sent to a pauper’s grave.
Although soup kitchens and food pantries do vital work, they are often need-based rather than solution-oriented, providing a bandaid to the problem of food rights in this city. The folks at BICS take a more holistic approach. They assess the needs of their community by performing an intake with every person they serve. Fabiola asks the person basic questions like family size, as well as deeper queries, like whether a family member is sick, who is working in the family, and whether they are in search of legal aid.
One of the volunteers, an employee of Mixteca, fills out the census for people as they are waiting to receive groceries.
“We do the census so that these people don’t just have resources now, but for the long term,” Fabiola says, as she rushes around preparing to distribute food.
“She can recognize almost every face in the line,” Devon Morales tells The Indypendent. “If Fabiola doesn’t recognize somebody, somebody else there who’s bagging up groceries does. So we get to hear their story. It is really personal.”
When the team is ready to distribute groceries, Fabiola goes outside to the line of people waiting in front of the Good Shepherd and asks ¿Quién tiene cita?, “Who has an appointment?”
Only a small number don’t and volunteers will perform intakes with them.
Everybody always receives the staples: rice, beans, maseca and sugar — plus other varying essentials that BICS can afford from a restaurant supply warehouse. People also drop off donations at the church.
Not having 501 (c)(3) status means that BICS is not eligible to receive first-round offerings from larger food donation networks and when it does often the food has gone bad.
In order to be able to ensure they provide the food that the community is accustomed to eating, BICS must count on what they make from their GoFundMe. When they created the fundraising account, each volunteer shared it with their Facebook and email contacts. Most of the donations come from within the community and from the connections the volunteers have.
Many of the volunteers offer support based on a common ground shared with the people they serve. Aristotle Sánchez is originally from Venezuela but has lived in the United States for about 25 years. He was recently arrested for using a false identity. “I did it in order to work and provide some sort of stability for my family,” he says. “I have three daughters.”
Sánchez served a 20-month jail sentence. Upon release, he was immediately put into deportation proceedings and sent to Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. “It’s called ‘the black hole,’” Aristotle says of the privately-run prison. “If you go in, they won’t let you out easily.”
Released from detention when the pandemic hit due to health complications that make him high-risk. Sánchez got in touch with Pastor Juan Carlos Ruiz of Good Shepherd through an inter-state network of individuals and immigrant rights groups. Ruiz helped Sánchez find a place to quarantine when he returned to New York, which is how Sánchez found out about the work that BICS does at the Good Shepherd.
Now helps with food distribution but he also wants to help people navigate the confounding web that is the U.S. immigration court system. He spent about eight months in the Law Library when he was in jail and also recently started volunteering with New Sanctuary Coalition.
Sánchez is just one of the many BICS volunteers who benefit themselves from the operations of the organization. Some volunteers are unemployed with no unemployment or stimulus check to fall back on. They spend their days bagging or delivering groceries and then take their own share home.
“It’s really important to remember that this is women-of-color led,” says Morales. “The purpose of mutual aid is building one another up through mutual service. It’s not feeling helpless because you’re also helping. Several of these women have lost their jobs, but they know that they are doing awesome things for their community, so it feels like it’s all worth it because now you get to serve your community.
A reminder that mutual aid work is absolutely not sustainable. The state is relying on these network to feed people who can’t get public assistance. This cannot go on all year! We need a fund for those excluded from public relief now. Where is the leadership on this?!
— Sandy Nurse (@NurseForNYC) May 17, 2020
Morales and her fellow activists see mutual aid as a foundational necessity in working toward a just society, a society for the many. But it is not the answer to systemic inequality. BICS volunteers work tirelessly, unsustainably so. Wider change is necessary for everyone to have food security. To accomplish that, we’ll all have to lend a hand.