Bed-Stuy Strong: Scaling Mutual Aid During COVID-19
On Tuesday evening, several dozen Brooklynites gathered together in one of the only spaces available to us right now—on Zoom—to sing Happy Birthday. But the honoree wasn’t a person; it was the one-month anniversary of Bed-Stuy Strong, a mutual aid network that was started to respond to the coronavirus crisis in New York City, and to give residents in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant—where I’ve lived since 2011—a way to help and to seek help from their neighbors. Since early March, more than 250 mutual aid groups have emerged in mostly urban neighborhoods across the country, all of them undoubtedly juggling similar challenges of coordinating volunteers, needs, tasks, and money as the crisis intensifies.
In a month, Bed-Stuy Strong has grown from just two people with 300 paper flyers into a Slack community with more than 2,700 members, and the group has raised more than $80,000 to buy groceries and other essentials for neighbors. More than 700 people have volunteered, either to do grocery runs and no-contact deliveries, or to manage requests for deliveries. At this point, Bed-Stuy Strong is coordinating more than 200 deliveries each week, and fielding nearly as many requests via calls and texts every day. In addition to deliveries of food and medicine, the group has donated more than 1,000 masks to healthcare workers.
As Panthea Lee, the executive director of Reboot and a Bed-Stuy Strong volunteer, noted in a Medium post, Bed-Stuy is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. According to a 2017 report by the Office of the State Deputy Comptroller for the City of New York, there are large discrepancies in the median incomes of long-term residents ($28,000) and new residents ($50,200), and the poverty rate has been around 30 percent since the last recession—well over the city-wide rate of 19 percent. Even before the current crisis, we knew pandemics hurt the poorest “first and worst,” and over the past month that has certainly been the case. Bed-Stuy Strong and other mutual aid networks have stepped up to try to alleviate some of that pain as governments and institutions falter.
The nature of the crisis and the necessity of social distancing means that most of the organizing that makes mutual aid possible is happening online. About a week she started the group, Sarah Mathews, a fiction writer and freelancer, convened a Zoom call with a few hundred people to discuss how everything should work. That’s when Alyssa Dizon joined a sub-group to talk about systems.
“I put my product manager hat on,” said Dizon, a civic technologist who works in business and product development at Sidewalk Labs.
What Bed-Stuy Strong needed was a way to connect people and resources as smoothly as possible. That means figuring out how to connect delivery volunteers with neighbors in need of assistance, and to get volunteers the funds needed to fulfill those requests.
They started as simply as possible, with just a Slack channel and a Google Sheet, but they have since incorporated a number of tools, including: Twilio, Airtable, Zapier, Node, Slack, and several money exchange apps. Some of the companies that make these tools have offered free or discounted access to organizations using them to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, although in some cases, Bed-Stuy Strong has maxed out those offers.
Now, when someone requests a delivery (via email, phone call, or text message), an intake volunteer enters it into the Airtable database. Any personal information is stripped from the request and posted automatically by a Slack bot in the appropriate channel (which is determined by location; the neighborhood has been split into quadrants so volunteers aren’t traveling further than necessary to make a delivery). When someone in the neighborhood volunteers to take that delivery, an intake volunteer helps get them the necessary contact information.
From that point, the delivery volunteer contacts the person who made the request, to coordinate a no-contact drop-off, and to ask any questions they might have about the request. After the delivery is made, volunteers fill out a form to be reimbursed, which closes the ticket.
Dizon and others in the systems subgroup pulled together this slideshow to show how these processes have evolved over the past few weeks, to share what they have built on the backend with other groups doing similar work.
As in most online communities, this one has its power users. Take Semoy Williams, 31, and her mother, Unis, 54. Between them they have made 38 deliveries and counting.
“My mom was the one who initially had this strong desire to help people and fulfill the deliveries and I pretty much hopped on board with her,” Williams wrote me in a Slack message. “However, once I started doing it, I realized how important it was and how helpful it’s been to others.”
Williams said Unis is still working full-time, so she tries to keep her mom from pushing herself too hard.
“Sometimes if I’m not tired after work I do at least two deliveries as my token for a working day,” Unis, who preferred to be referred to by just her first name, wrote in a Slack message. “[I]f I’m not working I do 5 or 6.” It helps that they have a car to help them do deliveries; some volunteers without vehicles have learned they can only take requests for households with just one or two members.
“Mutual aid isn’t a new idea,” Dianne Morales, the former CEO of several nonprofits, including an anti-poverty organization in the South Bronx, told the group gathered for the birthday party. “It is part of the tradition and history of the community that has been here for a long time. But these are unprecedented times.”
Morales, 52, was born and raised in the neighborhood. She is also a mayoral candidate, although she said she has largely suspended traditional campaign activities for the time being.
“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen Bed-Stuy come together like this before,” said Morales. She said she got choked up thinking about how much Bed-Stuy Strong has accomplished—but also why it’s necessary.
Bed-Stuy Strong is receiving up to 160 requests for deliveries every day, and currently filling around 200 each week. That means that there is far more demand for assistance than capacity to help, at least for now. Dizon said this is their biggest challenge.
“Currently, we let our neighbors know that we have limited resources and are working to prioritize those who are most vulnerable—those who are homebound and in most immediate need of food,” Dizon explained. “People have been very understanding of that, and they let us know how urgently they need support. We also do our best to connect neighbors with other resources that can help meet their needs in the meantime.”
In the database that tracks delivery requests, there are tags for those who are elderly (over 50), disabled, immuno-compromised, or with children. There’s also a column to indicate the immediacy of a need (within a week; within one or two days), in case someone says they are almost entirely out of food, or in desperate need of a medication refill. With more urgent requests, intake volunteers can flag or boost them to delivery volunteers, and in many cases the group can fill them in the same day.
“We are trying to ramp up our delivery operations to expand our capacity, and at the same time build better systems to ensure we’re meeting the most vulnerable needs most immediately,” Dizon said.
Dizon stressed that the tools they use are just that—tools—and they have pros and cons. Even Slack is in ways a hurdle for those who aren’t familiar with it.
“The most important piece of our operation is our relationship to the neighborhood, our sensitivity to the community, our approach, our values, our culture as an organization,” said Dizon. “The tech is a layer of it, and it’s not the most important layer of it at all.”
She said that organizers should “interrogate constantly” the role that different tech tools play, and whether they are really necessary to do the work, or if they’re getting in the way.
“What I would love to see long-term happen from this moment is that more of the people who are involved in the civic technology field are working with longer-standing groups,” Dizon said, as a closing thought. She also hopes it will inspire people to do more neighborhood organizing in the future.
“We don’t even know what it’s going to look like in a month, and this really just popped up as a response project,” said Dizon, “But what my hope is that the relationships that are formed during this time, where a lot of people are meeting neighbors that they never would have met—and they’re meeting over Slack and they’re meeting during no-contact deliveries, and they’re meeting during Zoom birthday parties—that those are the things that sustain and people feel more called to do this kind of work in a very hyper-local way.”