After the pandemic hit a year ago, three sites for food sharing suddenly and inexplicably, or at least without fanfare or introduction, appeared in different directions within four blocks of my home in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood.
They are modest fixtures: boxes, shelves and coolers accessible from the street at all hours. Giving and taking are unsupervised, anonymous, and random, but seemingly steady and orderly.
The “sharing cabinets,” as they are called, are a project of a new group, Mutual Aid Tompkins. The group’s name might sound generic, but actually has distinct roots in a progressive movement with explicit political aims that distinguish it from traditional or mainstream charities.
In fact, the term “mutual aid” intends, in part, to supplant the idea of charity, which is seen as merely a temporary reallocation of resources from haves to have-nots rather than a lasting solution to social inequities and the needs they systematically cause.
Historically, the phrase “mutual aid” was popularized over a century ago in response to emerging powers that emphasized, or even mandated, competition and centralized control over sharing, cooperation, and community rights.
Specifically, now as then, mutual aid means not just relieving shortages of food, housing, medical care, schooling, employment, and other needs and resources, but acting against systems that are seen as creating them.
What are mutual aid groups? They are community groups, not professional organizations. They are generally run by volunteer members making decisions and sharing responsibilities without paid staff, entrenched leadership, hierarchy, or bureaucracy.
Typically, resources are solicited from community members and local businesses rather than corporate donors, professional philanthropies or charities, or the government.
Government regulations are shunned or resisted in favor of local autonomy.
Distribution of aid is free of application processes, or imposed requirements of any kind.
Goals and tactics are determined by those involved, relying on one another for expertise and guidance rather than on influences such as politicians, the media, or other external concerns.
The concept of giving help is replaced, or at least augmented, by that of promoting self-determination.
Direct aid is not depoliticized, nor disconnected from underlying causes that require change. Individuals are encouraged to connect with their communities in what is considered a continuing struggle for equality, justice, and access to resources.
Mutual Aid Tompkins has come a long way in a short time. There are scores of sharing cabinets throughout Ithaca and outlying areas, and brick and mortar sites in pop-up locations, some approaching regular or permanent status. There is a website, also a Facebook page, facilitating communication in the community, sharing information generally, and promoting developing projects that include, along with access to food, aid for issues such as housing, transportation, legal status, child care, and medical care.
On a Youtube video, co-founder Josh Dolan speaks about the group’s genesis, which has deep social roots, but new urgency because of the pandemic and its devastation of health and the economy, particularly among the traditionally oppressed, least served, and most vulnerable.
Dolan says, “We’re trying to fill some of the cracks that have been exposed by this whole crisis.” He speaks of “re-organizing society.”
Co-founder Phoebe Brown, a longtime activist in Ithaca and the Black community, speaks on the video of mutual aid as an intrinsic part and continuing legacy of Black communities in America. She describes the current effort as “one foot in front of the other” in a ceaseless march.
Over half a million Americans have died in the pandemic. Their bereaved loved ones are countless. Also countless are those who have lost livelihoods, financial stability, homes, and even access to food.
Mutual Aid Tompkins aims to address these conditions one step at a time. As a peer group, it also aims to offer shared assistance with personal issues of solitude, depression, and hopelessness, through communal action, vision, and caring.
Relatedly, possibly not least, it offers high spirits, even humor, in its efforts and connections. Some weeks ago, at the No Mas Lagrimas affiliate at the inlet at W. Buffalo Street, someone came to donate a new toaster oven, still in its box.
“Does that box have my name on it?” someone asked.
“No, why?” the donor asked, with a smile. “Are you implying that I stole this from you?”
“No,” came the reply. “I’m implying that I want it.”
There was laughter: No Mas Lagrimas, indeed. The transfer was made, and lightness arose, illuminating the place’s purpose and name.