Over the past year, Bed-Stuy Strong (BSS) has been one of the many groups citywide that have proven the power of mutual aid and need for it, especially in times of crisis.
Members have provided clothing, food and money to those hit hard by the effects of the pandemic, both health and economic, when other lines of assistance lagged. And the group is only growing in strength and resolve as the pandemic wears on.
As its one-year anniversary approaches, BSS is expanding its outreach efforts and empowering members to seek out new avenues to support neighbors — a major one being vaccination signups.
“Everyone is having challenges with the technology and the overall vaccine process,” Charlotte Sagan, a BSS member involved in coordinating vaccine assistance, told BK Reader. “The current system advantages people who are quick with technology, who might have access to fast WiFi and maybe work in jobs that allow them to be online.”
Despite being one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in New York City, Bed-Stuy is among the least vaccinated. Hoping to fight this inequity, BSS set up a text line for people who need help booking appointments. Thus far, they have received over 1,000 inquiries and have scheduled 240 appointments. The text line is currently on pause as they catch up, but Sagan expects to have another hundred or so confirmed by the end of this weekend.
Finding ways to fundraise
Although the concept of mutual aid is hardly new, the number of mutual aid groups skyrocketed to over 800 nationwide when the pandemic hit, including at least 100 in New York State, according to Mutual Aid Hub.
As with many mutual aid networks, BSS’s initial focus, and one that continues today, is the donation and distribution of groceries and household supplies. This is primarily done through the group’s Slack channel, which has over 4,000 members. The group recently passed $1 million redistributed since its founding.
Despite the success, maintaining funds to continue efforts hasn’t always been easy and can require creative solutions.
For Lydia Gilbert, a graphic designer who began delivering groceries for BSS in August, one such solution came in the form of a merchandise campaign. Inspired by a similar program from the mutual aid group Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, Gilbert put out a call for submissions from local LGBTQ+ or POC artists and received 90 responses.
“It was important to me that the art reflected Bed-Stuy,” Gilbert said. “The only qualities that I ask them to include are that it’s uplifting and positive. I just really want these pieces of merch to make people proud of [the neighborhood].”
BSS has sold the work of about 4-5 artists per month, with 15% of the proceeds going directly to the artists themselves, although many opt to waive their earnings. Thus far the group sold 538 pieces, and generated over $5,500.
To make sure BSS’s work endures and develops into the future, members have started studying mutual aid concepts together — including starting a reading group whose first text was Mutual Aid by Dean Spade.
“In my experience, groups have so much power to inspire and to fight for transformative change when they bridge theory and practice,” Sky Hollenbeck, cofounder of the reading group, said. She cited the group’s grocery delivery service, saying while members continued to provide groceries, they also wanted to explore the root causes of the injustice they were responding to.
In addition, the group is currently organizing a community bookshare, where free copies of the texts they read will be available to those who wish to read along, but don’t have access. They have partnered with the Bushwick bookstore Mil Mundos to coordinate donations and deliveries of these books and recently set up an account on Bookshop.org, where 10% of all purchases using their referral code go to the community bookshare fund.
As mutual aid networks face the challenge of maintaining the levels of participation seen in 2020, Hollenbeck sees the reading group as a positive sign that people are still invested.
“My hope is that the work of the members in Bed-Stuy Strong will continue beyond just this pandemic,” she said. “If history tells us anything about mutual aid, it’s that it has always been in practice and will always be around.”
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