Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Students reflect on involvement with community outreach, mutual aid organizations during pandemic

From giving directly to spreading awareness, students turn toward community involvement

From the onset of the pandemic, communities across the country have navigated financial crises alongside unprecedented public health concerns. The Providence community is no exception and has depended on the work of direct outreach and mutual aid funds to stay afloat, with local activists using their own resources to support community members.

Many Brown students have pursued their own efforts in raising mutual aid funds to benefit the greater Providence community as well as their hometowns. 

Throughout the pandemic, Aida Sherif ’22 has been involved in “one-off mutual aid funds,” working with community members to organize fundraising. Most recently, she worked with a teacher in Central Falls, R.I. to create a GoFundMe page and raise money for the holiday celebrations of local families in need.

“To me, the point of mutual aid is collective efforts to support each other within a community,” she said. “Part of that is recognizing that those larger systems (of governmental aid and charity) that are supposed to support our communities (sometimes) fail to do that.”

Oftentimes, students think “we don’t have to care about the communities that are right next to us,” Sherif said. “But that’s not true, and to me the systems that create disadvantages for the people around us” are not separate from our presence on College Hill.

She also emphasized that transparency around the allocation of money plays a crucial role in mutual aid. This makes “people more inclined to contribute” because they “know where the money is going” and can better “remember that our contributions impact real people.”

For Sherif, utilizing social media has been integral to finding and sharing information regarding mutual aid efforts, given current restrictions on in-person interactions.

Though it’s difficult to quantify success in raising awareness about mutual aid efforts, Sherif reiterated that she feels responsible as a Brown student to “try to support the communities around” her.

Harshini Venkatachalam ’23 has also relied on social media to find and spread awareness about fundraising and mutual aid efforts during the pandemic while studying remotely from her home state of Arizona.

“I think that (giving) is important because, especially in the time of the pandemic, it’s been really clear that the government and the state doesn’t really support communities in the best way,” she said.

Venkatachalam has found ways to support community members in her hometown thanks to the social media activism of others, leading her to donate to food drives and community fridges

Mutual aid becomes more powerful “when it’s delivered with a message,” said Samy Amkieh ’21.5. For example, some efforts from community members combine a “mutual aid element with political education,” or information on tenants’ rights, social organizing and community budgeting, he said. 

“Most of the time, the reason why there’s a need for mutual aid in the first place is because the folks that are representing us at all levels of government are doing a relatively poor job of keeping people healthy and financially stable,” Amkieh said.

But, according to Amkieh, not all forms of student activism constitute mutual aid. “The way that Brown students throw mutual aid around is usually not entirely correct or accurate,” he said. Whereas Amkieh said traditional charity is a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy, “true mutual aid is just people of similar or equal means helping each other out.”

Charity itself is not bad, but “it’s just unfortunate” that individuals opting to support others financially through charity or mutual aid is “the only sort of safety net we have in this country,” Amkieh said.

The origins of mutual aid funds lie in immigrant communities and communities of color. For example, Korean-American immigrants have historically depended on support from other community members in ethnic enclaves across the United States, using loans from community-driven “rotating credit unions” for start-up entrepreneurship.

Individuals in immigrant communities across the United States “pool their money (and) resources together and actually loan amongst each other,” Jennifer Nazareno, assistant professor of public health and entrepreneurship, said.

“Rotating credit unions have been a way to not have to deal with bureaucratic institutions and also the overhead costs” that come with them, she added. “It’s a faster way to support each other fiscally.”

But rotating credit unions’ role in mutual aid for immigrant communities is also rooted in the discrimination and challenges they face upon arriving in the United States, she added.

“Sometimes immigrants come here and, even though they have academic degrees, they are unable to access those same jobs because maybe their education or their diploma isn’t recognized here,” Nazareno said.

For these immigrants, “thinking of ways to be entrepreneurial” is not just necessary “for socioeconomic mobility, but to survive in a new country where they don’t have access to the mainstream labor market.”

Mutual aid is still present today in immigrant communities and ethnic enclaves across the United States. “It has persisted ... like we see in Little Italy in Rhode Island and we see in Chinatowns throughout different parts of the country,” Nazareno said. “A lot of students at Brown come from families (that) started businesses as immigrants,” and it is important to make sure that their history is “highlighted as well as celebrated.”

With the rise of anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans during the pandemic, community-based support has also “become a safety measure” for Asian-Americans, she said. Ethnic enclaves have created space where “the community (rallies) together,” and where “mutual support happens.”

“Even when something terrible happens, the community comes together,” Nazareno said. “It’s communal, it’s not individualistic … these communities have shown how they’re still very much supportive of one another.”

With additional reporting by Rebecca Carcieri


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.