For some vulnerable people who need food and resources during the coronavirus pandemic, the solution has come through support from within their own community. A mutual aid network, spearheaded by the racial justice organization CTCORE, has created a way to get food and resources directly to people in need through word-of-mouth and an online form.
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“It was natural for us, I believe, to make a plan and reach out to the leaders of colors that exist throughout the state because we felt the urgency ourselves in our own lives and personally in our community around the school closures and executive orders that put everybody in a little bit of a panic,” said Raven Blake, one of CTCORE’s deputy directors. The concept of mutual aid stems from the idea that the help and services provided are mutually beneficial to those on the giving, volunteering and receiving ends.
“We’re working for the community, but we’re also members of the community that are also in need,” Blake said of the volunteers, some who she said have lost hours at their jobs, become unemployed, have kids or are disabled. “We all need assistance in some shape, way or form and understand that we can’t do this without each other.”
CTCORE designed an online form that lets people share whether they can help or fill out what they need, like groceries, rent assistance and other supplies such as masks, gloves and diapers.
“People need food,” said Ashley Blount, CTCORE’s co-deputy director. “They were unable to find just your common groceries, your bread, your milk, your eggs. Our volunteers have been having a rough time finding eggs in the stores, but due to community support we’ve been able to work with local farms to find some of those goods.”
Since then, CTCORE’s mutual aid program has partnered with urban farms in New Haven and with Haven’s Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes surplus food. More than 350 people have filled out the form since its launch in mid-March.
“I think this is a time when we are seeing each other’s humanity in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Blount said.
Angelica Robles stopped driving for Uber Eats at the beginning of March. The mother of two has asthma and recently underwent surgery. With the help of her daughter, Robles filled out the form to receive food for her family and to share with others in their neighborhood.
“It’s helpful because a lot of people are scared that they are not going to be able to eat the next day,” Robles said.
Robles’ daughter, 17-year-old Tashe Lee Hernandez, said knowing that there’s food out there for her family and a safe way to get it delivered really makes a difference as the pandemic continues.
“Most of the kids I know, they depended on school lunches,” Hernandez said. “I’m glad the program is here because it helps a lot of families I know.”
One of Hernandez’s teachers at Common Ground High School in New Haven, Disha Patel, is now one of the food site coordinators. As donations get dropped off, Patel, who’s a food justice educator and farmer, works to sort the food, which includes fresh produce.
One of the fields on the multilingual form asks about heritage.
“We want to make sure that even in this moment, we’re still providing foods in our capacity that are culturally appropriate to themselves,” Patel said.
One of the last lessons she taught her students before school shifted online was about how racism and xenophobia were affecting East Asian communities all around the world because of COVID-19.
To combat misinformation and stereotyping, Patel organized a schoolwide potluck lunch with Indonesian, Chinese, Thai and other Asian dishes. Though Patel misses her students, she said she’s inspired by how they’ve been getting the word out and by the daily efforts of everyone involved.
“It has been so beautiful even amidst this like sense of continual panic and fight-or-flight feeling,” Patel said, “to be working in this all-volunteer organization as community folks.”
Once Patel, Blake and Blount sort and box the food donations, a team of volunteer delivery drivers then comes to pick up the food boxes and begin their rounds.
“It seems like a really hopeful moment and a great opportunity for things to really shift in society,” Blake said. “We’re all really looking for that, and this is why we’re doing the work that we’re doing also to really be working towards a better future.”
CTCORE says the online system to address basic needs is just a start, as it continues working to address larger issues, like fundraising to help people pay their rent.