NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS: Community Care In The Time Of COVID-19, Parts 1-4
During the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid groups and other volunteer-led organizations have sprung into action, creating neighbor-to-neighbor networks of assistance to take care of people, providing food, medicine, and more where the government has failed to respond to the crisis. One year after the shutdown, Cell Vision correspondents Michelle LoBianco and Lily Reszi Rothman traveled to groups across New York City throughout the month of March 2021, sharing photos of and words from the people doing the work in addition to ways that you can donate or get involved. In the final part of a four-part series, they visit The Gym and Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, having previously visited Mutual Aid For Parents, Clean Bushwick Initiative, Red Hook Art Project, the Council Of Peoples Organization, Supper Collective, Brooklyn Relief Kitchen, Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid, and Bronx-based organizations 1 Freedom For All and South Bronx Mutual Aid.
Speaking with organizers, volunteers, and members of various New York City communities firsthand, we’ve documented how groups across the city have stepped up to keep their communities safe, provided for, and fed on a hyperlocal level while examining the problems they aim to combat, the issues that arise, and the solutions they see moving forward.
By sharing the stories of these inspiring individuals and groups who have protected, uplifted, and empowered their communities, we hope to raise awareness about the breadth of hard work, energy, and love that is devoted every day as well as the unfathomable, and yet tangible and ubiquitous, cruel ripple effects caused by systems that must be reexamined, all in the wake of inequalities exposed and further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and in the absence of sufficient government assistance.
While we documented an array of initiatives with varying missions and modes of operation -- including but not limited to mutual aid groups, a nonprofit, a youth art program, a relief kitchen, and community fridges -- the many connections and common themes between these dedicated individuals and groups were undeniably apparent, all of them sharing the same end goals: to help people survive first and foremost, to help people thrive once their basic needs have been met, and to tie our intricate community networks and resources together to become self-sustaining.
Even for groups that don’t identify themselves as mutual aid, the binary of those who are helping versus those who are receiving help isn’t always evident. Blurring and even erasing those lines serves to connect communities and neighbors, destigmatize asking for help, and facilitate honest, open conversations, which is the only way to really learn what is needed in the community.
Food scarcity and housing inequality exist in every neighborhood, no matter how affluent. Many are protected from this reality, but when a community fridge appears, or when people are seen waiting for food on several-block-long lines, or when homelessness becomes increasingly visible, the struggle is no longer an abstract concept to those who are not suffering, and the pressure falls on the community to step in and take action.
We must start in our own backyards. If there’s anything we’ve learned from these inspiring individuals and the amazing work they’ve done, it’s that all it takes is one person who wants to help, no action is too small, and anyone can do it.
In previous weeks, we visited a cleanup initiative caring for street trees in Bushwick; a mutual aid network for parents disseminating diapers and children’s clothing to those in need; a youth art program in Red Hook that’s gone beyond to help sustain and connect the neighborhood; a multicultural organization in Midwood that provides halal food as well as financial, immigration, and legal support; a Michelin-trained chef in Bed-Stuy who dedicates her time and skills to uplift activists and neighbors; a relief kitchen in Park Slope; a mutual aid group in Sunnyside, Queens; a youth-led sustainability and activism initiative in The Bronx; and a community fridge in The South Bronx.
We’re closing out the four-part series with two Bushwick-based groups founded in the spring of 2020, The Gym and Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, both continuously adapting to meet the needs of their communities by providing food, essential items, social services, housing assistance, emotional support and validation, and a safe social space for those who have nowhere to go.
Walking up to The Gym, there is a detectable feeling of familiarity bolstered by great music and endearing greetings. Though the people present are wearing masks, you can tell they’re smiling from their eyes while offering food and stories of their lives. The grill smoke wafts down Broadway as trains pass overhead, and the group that has gathered dances and engages in lively conversation.
At Latinos Americanos Unidos in Bushwick, we found a band of volunteers assembling a sea of bags full of food and essentials for Bushwick Ayuda Mutua’s weekly distribution. We then found ourselves nearby at Mil Mundos bookstore, a bilingual literary haven and community space, to meet with one of BAM’s lead coordinators. They pay explicit attention to the anonymity of the patrons, showing utmost respect for the protection of those most in need. As cars pass by blasting music, and neighbors greet us enthusiastically, we begin to discuss the details of a complicated system and the path of a better future.
Bushwick Ayuda Mutua
Bushwick Ayuda Mutua (BAM) was born out of the COVID-19 crisis in response to a lack of government support and resources for the most vulnerable in our community, framing their response around the pandemic’s exacerbation of longer-term systemic setbacks. They serve Bushwick neighbors through the distribution of food, pantry items, and necessities like toilet paper, soap, diapers, and menstrual products, striving to ensure that community residents have their most basic needs met while receiving access to resources and information to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. BAM, 100% volunteer-run and community funded, equips individuals to fight systems that seek to divide, serves as a deliberate and intentional community that prioritizes the marginalized, and aims to empower, prioritize, and give space to long-time residents.
We spoke with Maria Herron, who has been involved with Bushwick Ayuda Mutua since it started in April of 2020, when the collectively-run bilingual bookstore and community space Mil Mundos had to close due to the pandemic. With space and real estate being a commodity, Maria checked in with the community to figure out how to put the then-unused space to use and met BAM founding members, Fernando Ramos and Samy Nemir Olivares, who, along with Maria and a few other dedicated members of the community, created a Google Voice phone number to be used as a helpline and printed it on flyers that they put up around the neighborhood. They began fielding calls and connecting families in need with fellow Bushwick neighbors who brought food to their door during the early days of the pandemic. From there the model grew to serving over 200 families per week.
Now, in addition to their weekly grocery distribution, BAM continues their work in others ways, such as supporting neighbors who lack large furniture items that nobody should live without, but that many take for granted, including beds, fridges, and other major appliances, by sourcing them from neighbors who have items to spare or are moving, connecting families with education, legal, and housing resources, and they’re leading an initiative to get people internet access through the MESH network on a large scale. They’ve done the work to find the cheapest sources for essential items, with an emphasis on diapers, and happily share their research so people in the community can make their money go as far as possible. They also strive to find a balance and unity in a neighborhood that is incredibly diverse and divided in many ways, where you can find multiple multi-generational families crammed into one apartment next door to a brand new luxury condo housing one person in a roomy apartment, educating people, building a sustainable support system throughout, and making sure people have their basic needs met as a foundation before even considering asking anything of them.
Prior to meeting Maria at the Mil Mundos bookstore, we visited Bushwick Ayuda Mutua’s packing for their big weekly grocery distribution, where volunteers gathered at local community center Latinos Americanos Unidos to pack up bags of pasta, rice, fresh fruits and veggies, toilet paper, and more.
BAM is especially in need of bilingual volunteers for both onsite and remote work calling and communicating with families. While monetary donations are always welcome and needed, larger-scale donations of essential items from corporations that have the resources to spare are a major goal.
BAM’s partners include Mil Mundos, a bilingual book store that celebrates Black, Latinx, and Indigenous heritage and operates their drop off center/depot, and Latinos Americanos Unidos, a community organization that has operated for over 30 years and hosts BAM on a weekly basis for grocery packing and pick up.
"It's one thing to have a Google form that people can fill out for help, but not everyone has digital access, let alone digital fluency, so being able to put a Google [phone] number on printed flyers really changed the game for a lot of people and really helped a lot of people gain access. . . . [Organizers] Samy and Fernando had alerted me that there were many, many, many calls coming in Spanish[,] . . . so seeing the need for multilingual accessibility, that's kinda where Mil Mundos started playing a larger role." -- Maria Herron, Bushwick Ayuda Mutua
"One of the nice things, for me, [is] this work falls in line with historic movement work in that BAM feels more like coalition-building than an organization in and of itself. During this time, I’d urge everyone to revisit the work of groups such as Black Panthers, Young Lords, [and] the work that was done by the first Rainbow Coalition. People have been helping other people since people have been around, so mutual aid is by no stretch a novel concept. And when people mention respecting your elders, I try to think about those from generations before me [who] have already done this work -- pre-iPhone, pre-spreadsheet, pre-internet -- and that’s not for nothing."
"I think, for me, it comes down to: what kind of culture do I want to build in my neighborhood? We talk about gentrification, we talk about who belongs here and who doesn’t. For example, I see a lot of people trying to authenticate their experience here in Bushwick by asking, how long have you been here? . . . [I]t’s not so much about where you’re from, but what are you gonna do with the space you have now?"
"I have people come up to me and they’re like, ‘hey, I printed this composting guide and it’s in Spanish,’ and I’m like, that’s cool, But if you’re not going to look at the intersectionality of it, If you're gonna ask a house of 9 with two beds in the house to compost, you are missing the point, and you are adding insult to injury, period. . . . [B]efore we even have a conversation about sustainability, [basic needs have to be met. If] you don't have an ID, you don't have internet, you're sending your kids to school over cellular data, and you're spending your cash on phone cards to do that, no. . . . [I]f people need to just take a nap and eat a slice of bread to have a normal conversation, then let's facilitate that, right?"
"[O]ne thing that BAM has been really great about has been mapping that access. When the numbers come in, you see how many people live in a house, you see records come in, and somebody writes 16, and you call, and that’s not a typo - that’s important. When you explain to somebody who lives in a newer luxury condo that’s a 3 bedroom 1 bathroom that sometimes those apartments look like three migrant families living in a 3 bedroom 1 bathroom, and no, they don’t wanna share a fridge ‘cause they’re hungry, that means two families don’t have a fridge. And sometimes I tell people that, and they’re so shocked, and they can’t even move past their own guilt or moral quandaries to even be present to help others, and I think these are things we have to process as a community. We can’t function as a unit until everyone’s had their tea and thought about it."
"[B]e nice to people, say hi when you meet them. It’s important. I understand everyone’s in the void, having their 2021 existential crisis after the plague. I get that. But it’s important to be kind and to listen and put your response away for a minute, and maybe learn something you didn’t know. When I started this line of work, I didn’t know diapers came in different sizes, I just didn’t. I also didn’t realize they were so expensive. I didn’t realize they weren’t covered by FSA; I didn’t realize they weren’t covered by Medicaid; I didn’t realize they didn’t come with SNAP; I didn’t realize there was no diaper bank in the entire metropolitan area."
"We have to remember that the only people making decisions around here are other people, so everyone has to be accountable for their decisions. People don’t always make the right decisions, mistakes happen, but I think that this is something that we have [to] consider when we engage with each other."
Started on June 1st, 2020, at 1083 Broadway as an extension of longtime music and organizing space Trevorshaus, The Gym initially served as a center for packing and distributing protest kits for street medics, food for protestors, and more during the uprisings, all out of the building’s first floor commercial space, an inactive fitness gym that was closed due to COVID.
An excess of goods coincided with a blatant increase in community need due to the pandemic and the opening of new shelters in the area, mainly comprised of men who’d been moved from overcrowded and unsafe shelters in other boroughs who were new to the neighborhood and lacked support and resources. The dedicated and tight-knit community working out of 1083 Broadway began providing essential materials and items as well as physical space to sit and be human together and a link between those who were in need of or had excess resources, and thus, a beautiful, multi-generational, unique, and supportive community was formed.
Beginning in October, The Gym’s physical indoor space was no longer accessible, so the community took to the sidewalk, setting up tables and chairs on the weekends, distributing clothing, shoes, diapers, PPE, hygiene products, art and school supplies, toys, and items directly requested by the community as well as healthy meals provided by other local groups, such as Supper Collective, Collective Nameless, and Cafe Forsaken, while providing a safe and comfortable place for people to gather and talk. In addition to meeting neighbors’ baseline material and emotional needs, other efforts have included assisting neighbors with finding safe long-term housing, providing social and legal services, distributing pay-per-use cell phones, assembling a community coloring book, and setting up a free store that now lives on the sidewalk 24/7.
The Gym has undergone several iterations, at times being referred to simply as“1083 Broadway” or “1083.” What has remained consistent has been the level of warmth and support in the symbiotic relationship that The Gym facilitates among the community.
Rather than a standard description of “The Gym,” their website features a series of testimonials from members of the community. This decision in and of itself echoes the gym’s egalitarian ethos, giving everyone equal say with no hierarchy of power. The Gym is formed by the community, its purpose and framework are dictated by the needs of the community, and it is therefore best described by the words and experiences of community members rather than the words of one person assigned to pen a description that would only serve to pigeonhole or box it into one idea.
These testimonials describe The Gym as “a healing space” providing “shelter and a safe place for folks who do not have that otherwise,” with “generational, racial and cultural diversity that makes [the] space an empowering and vital aspect for the larger Bushwick community,” “teaching that we can take care of our community,” with “no tax write offs or public postings or virtue signaling, just immediate, direct and free action,” where you can routinely find “30+ pairs of socks and underwear distributed to people in need in less than 10 minutes.” “Nothing about 1083 feels like a ‘charity’ initiative. This space is a sanctuary to those in the community and those in need.”
We visited The Gym, located in the epicenter of a cluster of shelter-hotels and the action under the train tracks off Myrtle Broadway, for a community BBQ on a sunny Sunday, during which neighbors stopped by to say hi and step in to help with whatever was needed: preparing and barbecuing food, sorting through and handing out clothing, pouring soda and drinks, and, most importantly, hanging out, listening to each other, and having a great time together. We spoke with Caitlin Baucom, who’s lived upstairs at music venue Trevorshaus for 8 years, and Rabbi Green, who thrives on the energy of the community and has been a consistent source of support.
"It's a heavy shelter and city housing neighborhood already, and then they opened up a bunch of shelters during COVID in hotels, one of which was right across the street, and so we started [distributing] excess goods[, and] . . . it all snowballed very quickly and turned into an active and always expansive hub for both [directly] providing physical space to be human together and also material needs . . . and trying to . . . link people together who are in need of or have excess resources, etc." -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"I asked the leaseholder in the ground floor commercial space, which was a gym, like a fitness gym [closed because of COVID], if we could use it starting on June 1st, and she said yes, so we were in there for a while and it became known as The Gym. [T]here’s something about a gymnasium as a school or place where people come together to have conversations historically. [Gyms] always seem to serve as a place for emergency care or housing during times of crisis, so it makes sense poetically.” -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"[The Gym] has a very deep-rooted and active immediate community, most of whom are not 'volunteers,' or whatever that looks like in a traditional sense. It's definitely transitioned into acting more immediately as a very daily safe space for people who don't feel comfortable or safe in [other] environments." -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"This neighborhood has a lot of shelters and housing where . . . there's nowhere to be outside. It's actually just ridiculous, but the most important thing that we do is sit outside on the sidewalk with people who otherwise have literally nowhere to sit in which they’re not bullied or treated like a piece of shit for just wanting to sit somewhere and talk to people and maybe have a beer or whatever. So that’s turned into much more of a focus as opposed to active organizing in the protest-related fight for liberation in the city. But gearing up toward summer, I think it’ll be nice to bring both together again -- nice is not the right word, but dynamic." -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"The thing about not just having one specific mutual aid collective that you're relying on . . . but being apart of a group that's actively networking with other groups . . . [is that] someone will always step in, and there's always someone who's freshly recovered from being tired when someone else is tired or has to cancel at the last minute. There's always someone, so it's very beautiful." -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"The main thing that I think is important about this space, specifically, is mostly about having space for people to be themselves and to be joyful and together . . . . [A] harm reduction approach, in a literal sense, where people are really allowed to be themselves and do whatever they want as long as they’re not actively harming anyone, and just the conversations and things that we’ve had have been the most transformative of my life, ‘cause there’s a bunch of people who come from all kinds of different places and have all kinds of different baggage and trauma, who’ve had to work through all kinds of difficult conversations, which is the kind of shit that we’re all working for and that we want to see in our own communities, but I actually find it happening most here." -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"On a daily scale, we have a free store outside, the address is 1083 Broadway in Brooklyn, and we have shelves outside all the time that can always use really anything that people need every day, but people definitely appreciate hygiene products, like bathroom shower products and diapers and baby stuff, and canned goods. We also love to have people come and join us, and we’re definitely looking for people who can speak Spanish and any language that’s not English." -- Caitlin Baucom, The Gym
"What the Gym needs right now? Right now, it’s what the people need. Kids need Pampers, they need non-perishable items, food, shoes, clothing, and someone to talk to. Someone who they can share their views and values with, that’s what’s the important thing right now." -- Rabbi Green, The Gym
"1083, it’s in everybody’s household, everybody’s name, they know they can come over here by Malcolm X and Broadway and get whatever they need. Whatever they need -- they make a list, and we try to provide whatever they need. And I love coming here. I love coming out of my comfort zone and making a difference, ‘cause at the end of the day, it’s about touching lives, making a difference, and the legacy is not what you’ve done but whether the work you’ve done will speak for you after you’re gone, that’s what it’s all about, amen." -- Rabbi Green, The Gym
Mutual Aid For Parents
Mutual Aid For Parents, founded at the onset of the pandemic and fully operated on Instagram by Hallie Neely, sources donations of baby items and hygiene essentials and distributes them to families in need, aiming to complete requests for specific items quickly and efficiently.
By August, it became glaringly evident that the number of families struggling financially was growing exponentially, and Hallie tapped into networks of parents, working as a middle-person to collect secondhand items to distribute directly to whomever needed those particular items. Some parents have a large network of support while others struggle to meet their basic needs, and, as it turns out, a lot of parents genuinely wish to help other parents but don't know how, so Hallie thought to connect families in order to accomplish a beautiful form of community aid.
Then Hallie met Janell Barron, a doula who’s been a maternal health advocate and community health worker for years, and Janell began helping out Hallie with advice and referring people for donation requests. Janell partnered with Mutual Aid For Parents to organize the diaper drive we visited in Harlem, situated in front of a church with an impressive display across a few tables of items donated and purchased from a registry prepared for the event, with visible joy and good energy emanating from the volunteers and the whole block, the event’s volunteers mainly being comprised of Janell’s family and people who belong to the church and community where her family is based.
Janell has dedicated the past seven years of her life holding space for people who are in marginalized communities. As a doula, she informs families of their options before they enter the birthing space and helps each family set a birthing plan and goals for before, during, and after labor, and she guides each family in the direction of their personalized birthing experience.
Janell wishes to ensure that people feel appreciated and valued when coming to an event to receive donated items and that no one feels uncomfortable coming to ask for help. She makes it abundantly clear that everybody needs help sometimes, no matter how they appear or present themselves, and it’s always okay to ask. Parenting is ever-changing and incredibly complex. No one can be fully prepared all the time, and feeling unprepared or like something is missing doesn’t make anyone any less of a parent. She strives to relieve some of the extra pressure that people carry and destigmatize reaching out for help.
During the pandemic, Janell expressed reservations about collecting used items to distribute to avoid the risk of spreading COVID at all costs, but she saw that people were really in need, and she couldn’t say no.
In this new partnership, Mutual Aid for Parents is aiming to host more drives and events and looking for recurring donors who can give on a consistent basis and people who can donate to their PayPal whenever possible. When they have a constant input of funds, they’re able to help and give to even more families.
"Even before the pandemic, I realized that a lot of people weren't getting all of their basic needs met, and that really upset me . . . . [T]hat was really amplified in COVID, [while I was] trying to find resources for other people and realizing there are none, [or] there are few [and] they're not easy to access, . . . and that really made me just feel like you need to be the change you want to see." -- Janell Barron, The Savvy Doula, partnering with Mutual Aid For Parents
"I remember days, being in Target, choosing between Pampers and a toy, and my son is crying for a toy[, and] . . . I won't have money until tomorrow or two days, and we came for Pampers and wipes 'cause that's what we NEED. So I knew that part of being a mom that was that sacrifice, and that feeling of, Yeah, I want my child to have the best, and I want something too!" -- Janell Barron, The Savvy Doula, partnering with Mutual Aid For Parents
"I want people to feel appreciated and valued when they come here, because I know a lot of charity events where they’re sometimes given things thrown away, or it’s so used, or it doesn’t feel good, and I didn’t want people to feel like that. I didn’t want them to feel like they were coming to beg or solicit. I wanted them to feel like these things are here for you, and we want you to take them when you need them. So that’s why we were really trying to, make sure that they felt comfortable to get the things that they needed." -- Janell Barron, The Savvy Doula, partnering with Mutual Aid For Parents
"I'm at an age where everyone around me is having kids, and I was just seeing that people needed help [especially with COVID] . . . . I was unemployed starting in March, and throughout the summer, I was just trying to figure out what else I could do, and . . . then it was just like floodgates opened to bring in donations. I started the [Mutual Aid for Parents] Instagram account, and . . . there was obviously a need, so it kept me really, really, really busy." -- Hallie Neely, Mutual Aid For Parents
“Originally, my idea of mutual aid was more like community aid: someone who has, gives to someone who needs, therefore helping the community and bettering the quality of life within the community. But when it became more apparent the number of families struggling to meet their basic needs was growing over the course of this pandemic, it felt more urgent and more like a flaw in our city’s system. If someone needs formula to feed their baby, and they can’t afford that formula, that’s a problem. And if someone can’t afford to feed their baby, they likely can’t afford to feed themselves, let alone purchase a stroller or toys or a coat. The point of MAP is to ease the stress on parents' shoulders; it’s to let them know they have a neighbor close-by who has plenty of clothes and bottles and books they don't need and are willing to help out. As much as it takes a village to raise a child, it can sometimes take a village to uplift and empower a parent who's physically and financially insecure.” -- Hallie Neely, Mutual Aid For Parents
Clean Bushwick Intiative
Clean Bushwick Initiative was founded in 2016 by Nicole De Santis and Sarah Back with the intention to address the rampant litter problem in Bushwick and the surrounding communities. The group is committed to treating the symptoms of today’s pervasive environmental challenges — the general lack of accountability and collective action necessary to make change happen. In inspiring change, the group hosts frequent meetups to clean up the parks, streets, and treebeds. Ultimately, the group aims to connect the community through environmental awareness, education, art, and fun while working with community stakeholders to raise awareness on all sustainability related issues, not just street litter. Since its inception, the Clean Bushwick Initiative has gained the support of Partnerships for Parks, NYC Parks, and Happy Place Bushwick.
We found Nicole digging up dirt around a baby tree on Knickerbocker Avenue, a block from Maria Hernandez Park. Clean Bushwick Initiative partnered with the NYC Parks Department on a spring kickoff event to train volunteers on tree stewardship, passing on tools and wisdom that they can take back to their neighborhoods and blocks. We learned that, two years after planting, baby trees become the responsibility of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which is an unrealistic feat as there are thousands of these trees, which prompted the steward program through the parks department. The hope is that, if you make the tree beds look good and people become aware that somebody is making an effort, the rest will follow -- people will be less inclined to litter, and the city will be more likely to provide services to neighborhoods that they’ve historically neglected.
Nicole has dedicated myriad hours to cleaning and protecting her hometown of New York City and honed in on two particularly pressing points: 1. We need to navigate away from producing so much garbage as a society. Everyone starts somewhere, there’s no reason to feel bad, just implement one change at a time to create less waste. 2. The effects of litter and pollution go beyond an aesthetic issue and snowball into larger and potentially dire health consequences for communities that are neglected by city services, which tend to be made up of lower income and marginalized populations, directly impacting asthma, lung health, and hospitalization levels and even affecting our oceans.
Clean Bushwick Initiative is hosting an expansive earth day event on April 18th, kicking off with a cleanup along Starr Street that will culminate in Maria Hernandez Park, featuring educators speaking about issues surrounding sustainability, composting, recycling, facts, and myths; as well as tabling and information from different companies who are doing sustainability work; and a Q&A, yoga, and live music. The Department of Environmental Protection will be offering an education about the rain gardens followed by the opportunity to plant in the rain gardens.
"We have a lot of pollution issues here, and we’re certainly on the receiving end of environmental racism. This is kind of a dumping ground, and the city services are less in Bushwick than they are in a lot of other higher income neighborhoods. It’s just very frustrating to see that when people have so much other stress on their plate. This is an issue we have to consider, because environmental issues affect peoples’ health. We have high rates of asthma here, high hospitalization rates -- both for adults and children -- and we’re one of the most underinsured neighborhoods in Brooklyn. . . . I don’t think many people are super aware of [the greater environmental racism issues that are so rampant.]" -- Nicole De Santis, Clean Bushwick Initiative
“I asked, why would one neighborhood get more services than another? Why do they get more services in the West Village than in Bushwick? Is that based on tax? I didn’t get a clear answer, and I want an answer to that.” -- Nicole De Santis, Clean Bushwick Initiative
“Some people will say things like, ‘Oh, New York’s always been dirty.’ I know that ‘cause I grew up here in the ‘70s, and I lived in the East Village, and I understand that concept, but that doesn’t make it okay." -- Nicole De Santis, Clean Bushwick Initiative
"We need support from the businesses to do their part. First of all, they’re required to, actually. This neighborhood doesn’t give a lot of fines, the sanitation department does not fine here. We cleaned Melrose Street last week, which was completely a dumping ground. I mean, I never saw anything like it. And luckily, a concrete company donated tools like shovels and brooms for us to do it, and like 35 people showed up, and we cleaned that whole block. People who lived on the block wrote to me and were like, ‘Thank you so much, people illegally dump here, and we never know what to do about it.’ . . . [We've been] trying to raise awareness and also connect with the local politicians to get them to help us, and they’ve been very very supportive." -- Nicole De Santis, Clean Bushwick Initiative
"I’ve been working and organizing with Clean Bushwick Initiative for about five years. I became involved at the first event. I got an email about a meetup that somebody put together to clean the litter in Bushwick, and I’d lived here for many years and thought, I complain about the litter a lot and it would be really hypocritical of me not to go, so when I showed up to that meetup, it was just a girl named Sarah and [me], and we cleaned for an hour and a half and then we sorta strategized on how to get more people involved, and it kinda grew from there." -- Nicole De Santis, Clean Bushwick Initiative
Red Hook Art Project
Founded in 2014 by Deirde Swords, Red Hook Art Project provides youth between the ages of 7 and 18 with free homework help, visual art lessons, and music lessons on an ongoing basis, all offered by volunteer educators in intentionally small class settings, with the program currently containing no more than 51 students. 90% of students come from low income families, and 95% are living in low income housing developments in and near the Red Hook community. Through art and individual attention, children and teenagers can find ways to better understand who they are, deal with their challenges, create their own words, and tell their own stories.
We met with Tiffiney Davis, the organization’s co-founder, whose son was the first student in the program. He was taking an art class at the local P.S. 27 (now P.S. 676) with Deirdre, who saw his potential and began offering him personal classes at home. They had the idea that he should go to an art school, and the reality sunk in that in many communities, arts programs are the first to be cut from school curricula, and students need a portfolio in order to be considered for arts-focused schools. They realized that free, individually-focused art classes could be truly impactful on a larger scale, so they canvassed the neighborhood and found local artists who were able to give back to the community and help build students’ art and music portfolios.
When Red Hook Art Project’s classes were moved online in March of 2020, they were able to reach students in The Bronx, Canarsie, and even China. All supplies are provided for RHAP’s virtual classes, with kits prepared and mailed or personally delivered by volunteers. Recent class activities have included affirmation cards, storyboarding, animation, makeup, and sugar/cake art. All classes are currently run and taught by volunteers, but they’re seeking funding to support teachers and hopefully encourage people of color to come in and give back to students who look like them.
Tiffiney walked us through the neighborhood, pointing out partners and businesses who’ve stepped up to strengthen the neighborhood’s collaborative support system during the pandemic, encountering murals painted by students from the program along the way. Jam'It Bistro, the only local business owned by a woman of color, hosts the community fridge that Tiffiney manages (in collaboration with Hashtag LunchBag Brooklyn) and also opens up her space for volunteers to prepare art kits for the students. The Regency, a community event space nearby, is Red Hook Art Project’s business address and home to their free library. Community member Mr. Dallas built the library and a wooden house for the community fridge.
Tiffiney has also generously taken it upon herself to do everything she can to support and feed the community, with a goal of opening up a commercial kitchen space to combat food scarcity in the area. She also seeks to highlight the true love, commitment, and support that Black people provide for the community, despite continuing to go unseen without receiving adequate credit.
“Right now, we work on a volunteer basis, but we do know that volunteer-based can take away from people of color coming in to give back to students who look like them. So we do want to change that model with funding.” -- Tiffiney Davis, Red Hook Art Project
"COVID really opened up the community to what is needed and where people need to show up. We have a community refrigerator over at 367 Columbia that I manage as well, and just putting that community refrigerator outside made people realize food is really an issue here." -- Tiffiney Davis, Red Hook Art Project
"[The community fridge is] right over by Jam’It Bistro, which is [run by Dawn Skeete,] the only woman of color here who is a business owner, and she allowed us to put the refrigerator outside of her restaurant even in her struggling . . . during COVID. So that’s one of the things that i would like to continue to highlight. Those are the things that Black people do, and those are the things that don’t get noticed. . . . [People] forget about the true love and the true commitment that we have for each other.” -- Tiffiney Davis, Red Hook Art Project
Council Of Peoples Organization
COPO, founded in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, aims to assist low income immigrant families, particularly South Asians and Muslims, to reach their full potential.
Prior to 9/11, the Pakistani community was isolated and poverty-stricken. The people toiled at below-minimum wages, lived in substandard housing, had limited access to healthcare, and lacked proficiency in English. Following 9/11, racism, racial profiling, and selective immigration enforcement only added to the woes of the South Asian population. These political and socio-economic factors exacerbated conditions in the already isolated and underserved community. COPO’s formation on February 1st, 2002 addressed these issues at a time when very few organizations primarily served low-income South Asians and Muslims in Brooklyn.
Nearly 20 years later, Mohammad Razvi, COPO’s founder, is as busy as ever keeping the community safe and fed. Since COPO’s onset, Razvi has opened himself up to the needs of the community and adapted to fill them -- from finding that local seniors were going hungry and starting the first halal meals on wheels program for seniors to taking over unused and empty local spaces to be used for food storage and prep (including a wedding hall and preschool that are now full of fridges and freezers) and even listening to community members’ recent requests for pet food, Razvi, relying on support from donations and 50 weekly volunteers, continues to meet the needs of the community and go beyond, feeding 15,000 families every single week.
Every day of the week, particularly on Thursdays and Fridays, chaos ensues on the block in front of COPO as trucks, church vans, and personal vehicles pull up to load and unload boxes of food, and people arrive with empty shopping carts to leave with carts overflowing with fresh produce and non-perishables.
They supply food to individuals, families, and approximately 65 organizations that do larger food distributions, comprising churches, mosques, elected official sites, and community centers, including Brooklyn Relief Kitchen, who we visited last week. In addition to providing boxes of produce and cultural and dietary-restriction conscientious meals, COPO assists the community with food stamps and other government support applications onsite and has raised a substantial sum to offer families cash cards for paying bills.
"When the pandemic hit, [the number of families we were serving with our food pantry program] went from 60 to almost 200 overnight, then a few hundred, then a thousand, then more than a thousand. Currently, just on our line every Friday, we have over 1,500-1,800 clients . . . . [W]e have about 65 organizations including churches, mosques, elected officials' sites, and community centers that pick up [from us,] and we're actually giving food to 15,000 families a week." -- Mohammad Razvi, Council Of Peoples Organization
“All it takes is one individual and dedication, and everything can happen. And it resonates with our other volunteers. This 7-year-old boy, little Steve, he was on the line, getting the food with his mom, and his mom comes up and says, ‘We want to volunteer, we want to also help because you guys are helping us.’ These little New Yorkers are encouraging the older New Yorkers to give back.” -- Mohammad Razvi, Council Of Peoples Organization
"Everyone is expecting that it’s only the poor neighborhoods, but it’s all of them. It doesn’t matter. And I grew up on food stamps. [Everyone on this line for assistance is told they] can come in to do the food stamp application right there. I’m always afraid that I will run out of food, and turning away someone who’s in need is the biggest devastation for me actually. It’s already hard as it is for some of the family members to just, for the first time, get on a line.” -- Mohammad Razvi, Council Of Peoples Organization
In June of 2020, thousands of New Yorkers gathered in Lower Manhattan to Occupy City Hall, demanding dramatic cuts to the bloated NYPD budget and calling for justice and accountability for police brutality and racialized violence. Supper Collective’s founder, Lucy, called a friend on the ground at City Hall to ask what was needed and was told, “hot food, cold water, and somewhere to use the bathroom.” The next day, Lucy showed up with Haitian rice and black bean sauce and got to work. Alongside an incredible group of committed volunteers, the food team built a food-safe infrastructure from nothing to provide thousands of hot meals and extensive supplies, twenty-four hours a day, to anyone who was hungry.
That food and supply team was the birth of Supper Collective, who has since taken what they learned at Occupy to continue to safely serve high-quality food sourced from BIPOC chefs and restaurants as well as provide a wide range of supplies and PPE to protestors, organizers, and, most importantly, anyone who is hungry across New York City and beyond.
Most of the food is donated thanks to friends in the food and film industries, to-go plateware and other supplies are generously donated by various chefs and restaurants in the area, and their kitchen is provided by Church of The Good Shepherd, a Lutheran church in Bay Ridge, that they repay in meal donations. Supper Collective carries out meal distributions through partner mutual aid organizations and local shelters, and they make it abundantly clear that just because the meal is free, that doesn’t mean quality or presentation should be forsaken.
We visited Lucy at an event dedicated to the appreciation of Black women in honor of Breonna Taylor and the Black women who hold our communities together. Gourmet-quality, beautifully plated, individually-packaged meals were distributed for free, and feminine hygiene products were collected for Supper Collective’s longtime women’s shelter partner, Women’s Safe Start, which provides housing for those recently escaping domestic violence.
Supper Collective’s form of protest is a hot meal and the hope of a different kind of society for those who need it most -- those who cannot afford to fight on the frontlines because they are too busy surviving.
They are seeking grants to pay the team a salary, however the GoFundMe is currently set to $30K to fund basic operations.
“I was having a conversation with one of our chefs the other day, who said, ‘You need rest, you need to pull yourself away from this work and create some sort of separation,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ because the urgency for me, being a Black woman who spent six years homeless, . . . [means] it’s impossible for me to separate those two things. . . . [T]here are business owners who own local restaurants and bodegas, and they have to get donated food to sell because they don’t have the money to buy the food to sell. It’s impossible to separate myself knowing that. And so, funding, food in hands.” -- Lucy Saintcyr, Supper Collective
“If people cannot donate through financial means, they can donate with their time or with their resources. So if you know someone who can get us to-go plates that are preferably recyclable but also shelf-stable, great. Any access to business accounts with different food distributors, etc., great. Order a bunch of food and give us your extras. Whatever it is, if you can’t do the money, give us your time, give us access to those resources. . . . [H]owever long we’re doing this, if we’re 100% donating and still able to provide, that’s less money that has to be spent.” -- Lucy Saintcyr, Supper Collective
“Most of us are Michelin-trained chefs who are just unemployed. And that’s it, unemployed, bored, and want to serve. And that’s what we do now.” -- Lucy Saintcyr, Supper Collective
Brooklyn Relief Kitchen
Brooklyn Relief Kitchen, founded by husband and wife Andy and Piper Wandzilak who previously ran the Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen, is a volunteer-led organization aiming to tackle food insecurity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each week, the team of volunteers prepares 1,500 fresh cooked meals and thousands of produce and pantry relief boxes for distribution by local frontline community partners across Brooklyn, all out of a fully equipped kitchen space generously provided by Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope.
The pandemic has caused a few setbacks, including a temporary hold on the Families to Farms USDA program, limits on volunteer capacity, and risks posed to seniors and retirees who make up a large portion of their volunteers, but they’ve overcome and worked hard to serve the community despite these roadblocks, continuing to produce healthy meals and boxes and receiving abundant and, at times, unexpected product and food donations from a variety of companies.
Frontline Community Partners (for whom they provide produce and pantry relief boxes) include: CHiPS, Camp Friendship, Worker’s Justice Project, Caribbean Women’s Health Association, St. Mark United Methodist Church.
We were present for their Saturday morning food prep in the beautiful Old First Church, where the team of volunteers works together seamlessly to chop, cook, and prepare a bounty of nourishment for their neighbors.
“It’s important to help out and think about our neighbors and the people around us. This is not a new concept, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all susceptible to setbacks, emergencies, and loss, and you never know when you might find yourself in need of a helpful hand.” -- Andy Wandzilak, Brooklyn Relief Kitchen
“One of the things we need most now are canned goods and pantry items . . . because it’s a little shaky, the food supply we’re getting from the government . . . . They provide milk and some protein, maybe apples, potatoes, and onions, and we try to put some greens in, some other fresh vegetables, and then some healthier stuff.” -- Andy Wandzilak, Brooklyn Relief Kitchen
"We're working with Hunger Free America, which has an initiative to get people onto the SNAP program, or get WIC benefits, because as good as it is handing out bags of produce to people, it’s better if they could have money to purchase what they want in the store. We have people who are on SNAP and WIC benefits who still need help. We provide food for them, of course, but . . . we’re trying to make more immigrants feel comfortable signing up for the benefits that are available." -- Andy Wandzilak, Brooklyn Relief Kitchen
Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid
Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid is a group of neighbors in Queens acting collectively to address community needs and take care of each other, recognizing the long history of mutual aid in New York City and throughout the world.
Keeping COVID-19 and community safety at the forefront of their actions, they operate several food and supply drives each week where they provide healthy meals cooked by volunteers, non-perishables, toiletries, baby supplies, and more. Additionally, they offer neighbors assistance with groceries, errands, and essential services.
We stopped by one of Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid’s monthly food and supply drives at the 45th Street Composters Lot in Sunnyside and were able to visit the cooking team at their HQ, who were busy preparing a delicious-smelling lentil dish and packing it into individual servings.
"I think [mutual aid] is really the only sustainable solution -- helping each other, addressing each others' needs at a community level -- because the government will always fail us, systems will always fail us . . . [M]utual aid really is the future . . . [I]t always has been the most direct way of caring for our neighbors, and it’s going to continue to be the only way to center care for our community outside of a capitalist structure." --Trace Otsuka, Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid
"Everybody has something that they need, and everyone has something that they can provide, so really creating those connections is important for us. We also try to center the community in everything we do. We really think about how our group can exist outside existing structures, how we can build a community in which we take care of each other, and a big part of that work is going out into the community." --Trace Otsuka, Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid
"We’re always looking for volunteers to help sort the food, help sort the PPE that we hand out, and also pantry tabling. Monetary donations are always great -- we especially love recurring donations.” --Trace Otsuka, Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid
"For many of us, mutual aid got us through the last year in so many ways: it provided human connection, food and medicine, emotional support, and filled other survival needs. Many of us have had a transformative year in that even those of us new to organizing work have discovered what power we have in ourselves as a collective." --Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid
"In a wider sense, we recognize that mutual aid has been the basis for collective care throughout history and all over the world in a wide variety of forms and by many different names. It operates on the idea that ‘we take care of us.’ A popular slogan of mutual aid—’solidarity, not charity’—reflects an intention to avoid the pitfalls that come with top-down hierarchies of formal nonprofit organizations. We believe that everyone has something to give and everyone has something they need.” --Sunnyside & Woodside Mutual Aid
South Bronx Mutual Aid & 1 Freedom For All
Founded in 2017 by Hector Gerardo and Elizabeth Guerra, 1 Freedom For All is a youth-led group that opened the South Bronx’s first ever community fridge and encourages youth and high school students of color to get involved in activism and grassroots organizing, identify their power, and continuously address pertinent issues in their immediate communities -- primarily, food insecurity as well as gender equity and environmental justice -- passing the baton onto younger generations in order to develop their leadership and, in turn, build a base of engaged community members. They also launched a campaign to create food alternatives in NYC public schools.
We visited 1 Freedom For All for the grand opening of their fourth community fridge, the second fridge they’ve opened in the South Bronx. This was a collaboration with fellow Bronx-based groups, South Bronx Mutual Aid, Rap4Bronx, and Bronx Community Alliance, who helped provide food, support, and more. Together, they’re working to create grassroots systemic change to achieve food justice.
“Our vision is to create a multi-generational, youth-led movement to address the current unjust food system and provide healthy and accessible food options in our local food apartheid neighborhoods of the South Bronx." --Hector Gerardo, 1 Freedom For All
“We acknowledge these fridges are a starting point for many people to discuss the larger systemic issues that impact youth, specifically in [the] West Bronx, of food and housing uncertainty that is experienced by young people, and community members at-large in the Bronx. The fridges are a program of 1Freedom, used to organize impacted communities throughout NYC at the intersection of food justice and the school-to-prison pipeline.” -Hector Gerardo, 1 Freedom For All
“I teach in the public school system in the Bronx. We want to make sure the kids know how to advocate for themselves, and we make sure they know that community work doesn’t take you being anything special. . . . A lot of times, kids think there are so many barriers to this, whether it’s age, or privilege, or whatever the case might be." --Ariadna Phillips, South Bronx Mutual Aid
"What we’re doing is about solidarity, it’s not charity. We’re all in this together; we’re no better than each other. . . . [I]t’s not waiting for somebody from the outside to come in and do something, it’s about us taking the reins and getting it done and encouraging each other to be a part of that with consistency and sustainability." -Ariadna Phillips, South Bronx Mutual Aid