How volunteer organizers in Los Angeles created a safe, efficient, and life-saving mutual aid network in less than a month.
Our government has failed us.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Los Angeles City Council has, quite simply, failed in every conceivable metric. They’ve cut down public meetings to just twice a month, neglected to service hand-washing stations across the city, and voted against protecting tenants from eviction and rent hikes. A friendly reminder: 8 out of the 15 sitting City Council members are landlords.
In contrast, since mid-March, the Los Angeles COVID-19 Mutual Aid Network has raised over $115,000, received over 1,100 volunteer applications, and delivered critical supplies to over 900 Angelenos (housed and unhoused alike).
The people who built this network were not directed to do so by federal, state, or local authorities. They’re largely volunteers from organizations like Ground Game, the Sunrise Movement, and Nithya Raman’s City Council campaign.
No one is getting paid for this work. They’re doing this because they care. They’re doing this because the government isn’t. They’re doing this because, if they don’t, people will die.
I spoke to some of the people involved to find out how they pulled off this seemingly impossible task, and how other people both in Los Angeles and around the country can get involved.
If you’re interested in supporting their work financially, you can donate here.
Kait Ziegler — Admins Team
In early March, when the paradigm-shifting reality COVID-19 was becoming clear, millions of Americans were plunged in to confusion, fear, and despair.
For Kait Ziegler, it was another chance to get to work.
Ziegler, Poor People’s Campaign national social justice organizer with a Masters in Public Health in Emergency and Disaster Management, reached out to colleagues Brandon and Caleb Crowder to start a fundraiser aimed towards benefiting the people most impacted by the crisis. Other organizers became involved and, following a frenzy of phone calls and meetings, the project rapidly grew into the Los Angeles Mutual Aid Network.
Now, Ziegler and the Admins team work to intake the results of over 1,000 responses from people who want to donate, volunteer, or request assistance. They make sure everything is channeled to the right place. Ziegler says, “Mutual Aid is a way to plug in to see what could be, as opposed to what is. There are 140 million poor or working class people in the US, no one should feel bad about asking for help. If people are suffering, it has nothing to do with what they’ve done, it’s systemic. We could change the system for the better if every single person got involved right now.”
Caleb Crowder — Needs Assessment
“It’s not an accident that South LA is a food desert. It was designed that way,” asserts Caleb Crowder. He worked for years in housing justice, connecting unhoused people and the formerly incarcerated with the resources and services they need.
As a co-leader of the Needs Assessment Team, Crowder coordinates volunteers to sort through requests from people who require supplies, support, services, and sometimes cash. It can be a complicated process, requiring bundling requests, equity awareness, and building personal relationships.
“You can feel crazy out there when there’s a war on poverty, and you’re one of the victims. Right now, people are surviving off of ketchup packets,” Crowder says.
According to Crowder, “there shouldn’t be a necessity for this job,” and private citizens shouldn’t be forced to do the government’s work for them. But, he added that the work is rewarding because it creates deeper ties to your community: “When you’ve been oppressed, it’s hard to trust anyone, or the systems that govern us. We’re offering an alternative to that with Mutual Aid: solidarity and empowerment.”
Annie Powers — Neighborhood Pod Project
For Annie Powers, the solidarity we build during the COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t be temporary.
Powers co-leads the Neighborhood Pod Project (NPP), a more decentralized form of the larger LA Mutual Aid Network. The NPP puts together small groups of 5–30 neighbors that share resources, needs, and skills with each other. Every pod has a leader, and those leaders connect with one another across the city to coordinate assets.
“When our cellphones stop working, we need to know who people are in proximity to us and how we can help each other,” cautions Powers, who initially became interested in this work (along with their partner) after the July 4th earthquakes in Los Angeles.
But they don’t think this work should be confined to pandemics or natural disasters: “Living in late capitalism, this is always necessary. We’re looking at a Depression orders of magnitude larger than 2008. We need to be there for each other to make sure we can survive.”
Powers describes themself as new to the organizing space and encourages, “You are empowered to go get after it and start a pod.”
Caroline Johnson — Needs Assessment
A co-lead of the Needs Assessment team, Caroline Johnson opted to write about her experience directly:
In those first few days of the project, before any deliveries had been made, it was tough to envision our grand scheme actually working. I wasn’t completely skeptical, but felt an uneasiness about the whole thing: how could our Zoom calls and Slack messages, without meeting in person once, actually result in a workable system?
Although I did my best not to reveal my reservations, on that first day I spoke with many people who shared my hesitancy about the reality of what we were promising: non-contact delivery of totally decontaminated groceries and supplies, no questions asked.
But one conversation moved me, specifically. She was calling from Wisconsin, but her son, an immunocompromised hotel worker, lives in Los Angeles. She worried that he would be reluctant to seek help, and even if he could, that he wouldn’t know where to look for it. We talked about exactly what he needed: groceries, masks, cleaning supplies, and help navigating the world of unemployment. Even if I was uncertain if our whole operation would work out, she wasn’t.
By the end of the day, we had connected her son with a former labor lawyer to walk him through the unemployment process. A few days later, his groceries would be delivered as well. His mother left me with a promise: ‘Because of what you guys are doing, I’m going to get involved in my hometown. If we don’t have one of these networks, then I’ll start one.’
Kylie Jansen — Inventory
“I’m the wealthiest person in Los Angeles right now,” Kylie Jansen says of the stockpile of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and groceries she disinfects for distribution.
A co-lead of the Inventory Team, Jansen tells me that the skills she’s learned through her work (regular disinfection of surfaces with bleach solution, keeping outside supplies separated in a “hot room” until they can be treated and transferred to the “clean room,” constant vigilance around hand-to-face contact) has transferred to her home life as well.
“It helps keep you more disciplined,” Jansen says, “The training is fairly set in stone now, and easier to learn for people who are coming on.”
While Jansen has never worked in mutual aid before, she’s quickly adjusted to her leadership position and encourages others to volunteer — especially extroverts beset by cabin fever who are tired of sitting on their hands and want to help. Of her experience with the Mutual Aid Network, Jansen said, “I’ve spent the last five months being overwhelmed by the support we got through the Nithya Raman campaign, and I was preparing myself for the dip that comes between the primary and the runoff. And then I never got to have it. I never got to have a dip where I stopped being overwhelmed by how much this community is loving and caring.”