by Will Fowler
Sharon Moore was deeply concerned when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. A senior with diabetes, she is especially vulnerable to the disease – but it wasn’t the virus that had her worried. The Van Ness resident is one of more than 100,000 in the District who rely on SNAP benefits to keep food on the table. But for Moore, the “food stamps I get just isn’t enough. I’m on medication that I have to take with a full meal, and I need to watch my nutrition with the diabetes.”
Fortunately for Moore, Ward 3 Mutual Aid has been there to help.
Mutual aid networks are community support organizations based on fostering long-term relationships with those in need and helping them in whatever way they can. In DC, there is one for each ward, all of which coordinate and cooperate. Some of the District’s mutual aid networks have roots going back years, but they didn’t fully materialize across the city until the pandemic. Ward 3 Mutual Aid grew out of talks in March among neighbors who wanted to get groceries to those in need – and something more.
“The approach to organizing is a lot different than the clock in, clock out mentality that I would associate with a lot of community service or volunteerism,” said Sara Swetzoff, a coordinator for Ward 3 Mutual Aid. “We want there to be a deeper investment. We’re just starting with food aid and use that as a foundation to build up to something much bigger.”
Since its launch, the Ward 3 network has made more than 1,000 grocery deliveries, about a quarter to people in Van Ness. Ward 3 Mutual Aid has raised more than $73,000 from donations and grants, $4,000 of which came from advisory neighborhood commissions. More than 100 volunteers purchase and deliver food, including hot meals, to their neighbors every day.
Still, the need remains great, and the network needs more help.
“We always need more people to shop and deliver to our neighbors who can’t go to the store right now,” Swetzoff said. “And families in other wards need help too.”
Although the core of their work is in food aid, volunteers also help with everything from moving furniture to providing money for laundry cards. Van Ness resident Tammy Smallwood is using the network to promote her business, J&K Pressure Washing, that details cars and cleans decks, storefronts, and houses.
“I heard about them through a neighbor,” said Smallwood, who also uses the network’s grocery deliveries to supplement her food assistance. “I haven’t had to be depressed or worried about eating, and now I’m able to focus on getting my business started with my fiancé,” she said.
“The impact it’s had on the neighborhood has been amazing. It’s been really helpful for supporting the business. They’re wonderful, I give them thumbs up, five stars, however you want to rate it.”
Unlike many other models of charity, mutual aid networks are built around the idea that anyone can give or receive help. Everyone involved is supposed to get something out of it.
“My family has lived in Ward 3 since 1960,” said Swetzoff. “It can be kind of a bubble, predominantly white and higher income, so we’re often isolated not just from the rest of the city, but from each other. And mutual aid helps that. I’m the full-time caretaker of a special needs kid, and working in mutual aid I’ve found myself making more friends in my neighborhood than I have in the past five years. It reflects the mutuality of the organization – putting so much time into it, I got a lot back out of it too in terms of friendship and emotional support.”
Other volunteers, like Alizeh Amer, find that the network helps them fulfill a sense of duty to help others.
“I’m from Pakistan originally,” said Amer. “I grew up seeing poverty, but in that culture charity is something you do as a part of everyday life. Living in DC, the seat of wealth and power in America, and seeing people sleeping on the streets and going without food is just astounding. It’s our responsibility, especially when we have this excess of resources, to take care of each other.”
Amer said that her faith brought her to mutual aid work.
“It’s a principle of Islam that your wealth is given to you through God,” she said. “It’s your responsibility to share that with people around you. Your wealth is impure if you don’t use it to help others. None of can succeed until all of us can succeed.”
For both Amer and Swetzoff, Ward 3 Mutual Aid is about something larger.
“The importance of mutual aid networks is twofold,” Swetzoff said. “The first purpose is just to meet the needs of neighbors whose needs are not being met, because a lot of the current support isn’t enough, and the pandemic has shown us that. The second part of mutual aid is building a political movement where all people’s needs are met.”
Swetzoff said becoming a full-time caretaker for her daughter with special needs led her to become strongly critical of the current social structure and look into alternatives. The goal of mutual aid networks, she said, is creating a better system.
“It’s about building a grassroots movement from the ground up, starting with the most localized relationships of care and building a better society from that foundation,” Swetzoff said. “It’s about recognizing a better world is possible, and then making it happen.”
“The social programs that are available are tangled in administrative hurdles that most ordinary people can’t jump through,” said Amer. “Mutual aid is, unfortunately, a necessity. It’s about distributing wealth and resources, because there are structural issues in this country that stack the odds against disadvantaged people, and it hits close to home when those people are your neighbors. I’m unable to live in a society where you can prosper and your neighbor doesn’t.”
Whether or not the network can change society, they’ve already changed the lives of people like Moore.
“I really don’t know what I would have done without them,” said Moore. “I wouldn’t have been able to eat like I should. A lot of programs have been cut out because of coronavirus. I just greatly appreciate them, they’re life savers.”
“Oh, and they helped me out with my laundry one time.”
To request help from Ward 3 Mutual Aid Network, or learn how to get involved, call their hotline at 202-556-1315 or email email@example.com. The network accepts donations through Open Collective, GoFundMe, Venmo (Ward3-MutualAid), PayPal (firstname.lastname@example.org) & CashApp ($MutualAidW3).