Somerville Mutual Aid celebrates an anniversary as its communities contend with greater needs
Everyone has needs.
Maybe it’s hunger. Maybe it’s housing. Maybe it’s clothing. Maybe it’s emotional support. Maybe it’s a need for community.
And everyone has something to give.
Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s knowledge. Maybe it’s food or clothing.
That’s the crux of mutual aid and what is driving Mutual Aid of Medford and Somerville – better known as Mamas – as it celebrates its third anniversary.
Mamas began March 12, 2020, as a response to the Covid pandemic and now includes financial support, grocery cards, gardens and community “pods” to help keep neighbors connected. The group held two free clothing stores and a toy drive last year that collected more than 500 toys that were distributed to more than 300 families. It held a bilingual block party and hosted “Get to know Mamas” events at community events such as farmers markets.
The network also raised more than $122,000 last year alone through small donations and grants for redistribution through direct cash and grocery aid; in total, Mamas has redistributed more than $700,000 since March 2020.
But as the network celebrates its third anniversary and considers how to move into its next year, the community faces challenges: This month was the first that families in Massachusetts who get benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program began seeing benefits reduced to pre-pandemic levels – leaving most SNAP beneficiaries with an average benefit of $6.10 per person per day.
“Everyone is just the slightest disaster away from being unhoused or an illness away from disaster,” said Claire Blechman, a group grocery and deliveries coordinator. “We are three years on from the founding of Mamas and we are still in a pandemic. People have needs all the time and we need to highlight how the government isn’t fulfilling these.”
Blechman, a Ball Square resident who became involved with the group in March 2020, said she’s long been involved in area organizing opportunities. When she heard about a Zoom call for mutual aid early in the pandemic, it spoke to her. “We could provide for peoples’ needs. We could build the world we want. I want food in peoples’ mouths and I want people to be able to afford their groceries,” she said.
She’s since been helping with programs such as grocery pairings – a way to keep households fed by joining two households to shop for groceries or for delivery. “People lift each other up and help each other,” Blechman said. “The natural instinct of people is to work together.”
Crystal Huff, a garden coordinator, said they have learned from Blechman since joining in 2020, after the pandemic forced a halt to Huff’s frequent travel for work and other changes brought a sense of isolation. “Like many people, my life really changed,” Huff said. “I was also spending a lot of time night-shifted because I was trying to spend a lot of time online when my friends and colleagues were getting off work when they were available to talk in China.”
The sense of support and community helped.
“Mamas was there for me,” they said. “In February 2021, I started reinvesting more deeply to give back to this community that had been so helpful to me.”
Mutual aid, not charity
Combining Somerville and Medford may have added to the longevity of the network – but there’s also a value in the group’s structure itself, even if it’s an idea people have to adjust to. Huff did – they grew up in a religious household understanding the importance of giving to charity, but was unfamiliar with mutual aid.
“I have learned a lot more about mutual aid in the past three years,” they said: Charities are structured hierarchically and giving is one-way, with a giver and a receiver; mutual aid is about a two-way relationship, and community.
Skylar Karzhevsky, a money team coordinator for the group who moved to East Somerville after graduation from Boston University, had similar apprehensions when new.
“For a long time I had this fear that just giving money was not relationship-building,” Karzhevsky said. “And it took someone who was with Mamas for a really long time to say, ‘That’s not true. Every time you give someone money, even if you’re not having a ton of interaction with them, you know you’re building trust with them and they’re building trust with Mamas.”
She said because the group does not means-test its cash or food assistance, does not ask many questions, does not attach strings to the cash assistance or grocery cards – which can be used to buy diapers or foods not covered by SNAP benefits – the assistance builds trust with those in the community that have needs. Coordinators said they have seen many with needs come back to offer time at events or other help.
This is exactly how it’s supposed to work, Huff said: “Mamas repeats the mantra all the time: Everyone has things that they need and everyone has things they can offer.”
Improvements and needs
Members continue to make improvements to Mamas to ensure the aid keeps flowing. “A number of mutual aid groups saw themselves as pandemic response rather than long-term, and saw themselves as a collective starting something rather than a long line of mutual aid,” Huff said.
It’s Huff’s goal to not just improve the gardens – open throughout the community to provide for anyone – but to help spread the word of Mamas.
Karzhevsky, who began helping with grocery deliveries in the early days of the pandemic, last year helped transition group financials to Open Collective, an accounting platform that supports small collectives and grassroots organizations and allows them to raise and use their funds with transparency.
A group hotline that last year took more than 1,500 calls, texts, request forms and emails asking for help, but has a great need for multilingual participants because of the vast diversity of languages spoken in the community, including Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole. Many network participants speak only one language and must use Google Translate or similar technology to communicate, and with fewer volunteers last year, calls were not answered in real time. The hope is to bring in more people to better respond.
Sam Musher came to Somerville in 2001, quickly becoming active in the community. “All of which shut down in March 2020,” Musher said. “I got a message about ‘Do you want to keep your neighbors connected while we’re all at home?’ And I thought, ‘Of course I do.’”
Musher fought a feeling of disconnection in the beginning of Covid by helping to coordinate group “pods” through a messaging system. But Musher said it’s been so much more: Friendships have formed.
Musher said there is room to improve and they of course want to bring in new ideas in 2023 from the network and community, but the biggest thing is maintaining community and bringing neighbors together “because when stuff goes down – small stuff or big stuff – the way to take care of your neighbors is to know them as people.”
To reach out and give or ask for support, email [email protected] or call (339) 545–1315. Follow on Instagram and Twitter. You can also find the group online at mutualaidmamas.com or opencollective.com/Mamas.