The Astonishing Success of Monroe County Area Mutual Aid
Abby Ang Leads the Revolutionary Service Work of Mutual Aid in South Central Indiana.
I have been an admirer of, and sometimes participant in Monroe County Area Mutual Aid since its inception in March of 2020. Abby Ang started Mutual Aid, as it is simply referred to here locally, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America and the majority of food service and retail staff lost their jobs in the span of about a week. She formed it as a Facebook group where anyone could join and request or offer any kind of assistance: financial, material, labor, information, what have you. A year later it is still going strong. It’s the kind of thing that can really restore your faith in humanity to see neighbors coming together to provide for each other.
Here’s how it all works. At times with a small team of volunteers, but often alone, Abby matches up requests for aid with folks willing to lend a hand. She sometimes redirects those in need to local agencies already providing the assistance, and always does whatever she can to make sure their needs don’t go unanswered. Requesters are asked to fill out a form that collects their contact info as well as their needs. The form saves the requests to a master spreadsheet that still contains every request that has ever come in. For the sake of transparency as well as to foster collaboration, Abby has kept the spreadsheet public. However, requesters are given the option of remaining anonymous, in which case their personal information isn’t shared on the sheet.
I did some quick math and at the time of this writing, a year and two weeks after it began, Mutual Aid has fulfilled 903 of 964 requests giving it a 94% success rate. There were 461 anonymous requests and 334 individually named requesters with some duplication due to inputting their names differently at different times. Even the non-fulfilled requests weren’t really rejected as the requesters often just decided to go in another direction, or they were referred to a local agency instead. And 8 of the most recent requests were still being processed. So the real rate of fulfillment is over 95%, making Mutual Aid astonishingly successful at helping people in need. Basically no one gets left behind.
And the spreadsheet doesn’t even represent all the aid being given as many requests don’t make it on to the spreadsheet. Gifts and favors are negotiated directly in the discussion threads of the Facebook group. Countless questions are answered and advice is given on where to go for assistance and how to get help.
“The real rate of fulfillment is over 95%, making Mutual Aid astonishingly successful at helping people in need. Basically no one gets left behind.”
Abby also maintains a comprehensive list of local resources that contains contact information and procedures for getting help with food, rent and utilities, health care, non-food essentials, local hotlines, etc. And this list is actually how the whole thing got started.
At the beginning of the pandemic there were a lot of mutual aid groups starting up around the country. Thousands of people were suddenly out of work and needing some way to get up to date information on where to get help. So she started the resource guide. 211 and United Way already sort of fulfilled that function but didn’t have complete and up to date information like hours of operation or pandemic procedures for all the local agencies. She started with food, then expanded to rent and utilities. From there she went on to diapers and wipes and other non-food essentials.
The Facebook group became a resource hub for peer to peer guidance. People had lots of questions and often didn’t know which agency or resource was the right one to go to. So they would come to the group to ask their questions. Others in the group would respond with advice. People were helping each other file for unemployment and filling out forms for social security. Some people are intimidated by navigating networks of agencies and Mutual Aid feels to them like a more accessible venue for help.
The most frequent requests are for groceries, medicine, gasoline and cell phone cards. Cell phone providers like Straight Talk, Simple Mobile and Cricket don’t require contracts and operate on a month to month basis. So while the State of Indiana had enacted a moratorium on utility shut offs over the winter, that didn’t apply to phone service. People need to be able to call the doctor or their employer. They need access to the internet, and can’t afford to wait a few days. So refilling minutes for people was a life saver.
Requests really ballooned during the winter holidays which were the most difficult time of the year for people. Many of the township trustees were on vacation, and the local agencies were closed for the holidays. It was a struggle to keep up with Mutual Aid requests during that time.
Although the Facebook group has grown to over 6000, with hundreds of people actively participating, it’s a very small team that coordinates requests. Abby manages Mutual Aid mostly on her own with the assistance of two women from a group called Helping Hands who handle food deliveries. Abby commented to me frankly that all the men have quit because it’s too hard. Being a man, that was tough for me to hear, but the numbers don’t lie. My friends who work in this space tell me that many professional fundraisers don’t even bother approaching men for donations anymore because it’s not worth the effort. It literally doesn’t pay off.
Mutual Aid hasn’t been without it’s problematic or abusive people either. Some folks don’t really get the spirit of the thing and have tried to pressure Abby into buying them a house or a car. I guess it’s perfectly understandable that when you’re struggling with poverty you aren’t really going to be in the best of moods. But there’s just no reasoning with some folks, like that person who was furious when their request for a Wii guitar was declined. Thankfully Abby has been able to get some help from other volunteers while responding to people who make requests in bad faith, people who behave in verbally and emotionally abusive ways, or otherwise do things to exploit the good will of the group. Being able to rely on some backup hopefully helps Abby so she isn’t always stuck feeling alone and cornered by harmful people.
Mutual Aid as an online discussion group also acts as a volunteer hub of sorts. The Little Free Pantry Bloomington grew out of the project. And some of the organizing with and on behalf of the unhoused in Bloomington’s horrific COVID winter happened within the group. There is a lot of important relationship building going on even if it doesn’t appear on the surface to be organizing or direct action. The kinds of connections that people are making in the group, the slow work of relationship building and the building of trust creates the groundwork for future solidarity.
The language of “Mutual Aid” hearkens back to anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 book of the same name. In this context, Mutual Aid refers to the voluntary exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. And it was always meant to be a political activity whereby ordinary people take responsibility for caring for each other as a means of changing the material conditions of their own lives. Mutual Aid has always been revolutionary.
But transcending its historical context and day to day details, there is also a deeply spiritual component. I believe that Mutual Aid is working to bring about Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the Beloved Community, which is really the same thing that Jesus was talking about when he talked about The Kingdom of Heaven. Mutual Aid creates its own justice by facilitating a venue for us to provide for each other in a way that makes a concrete difference in our own lives as a community of neighbors.
And Mutual Aid will continue here even after the pandemic is over. That is if the pandemic is ever truly over. After we start to recover economically, there will still be a need for people who don’t qualify for assistance from agencies. And there will always be a need for phone cards. Mutual Aid acts as a backstop of sorts for people who are falling through the cracks. This has of course been a perennial problem, but the pandemic amplified our social inequities. And although Mutual Aid isn’t a new concept, it’s time has clearly come. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by the overwhelming success of Monroe County Area Mutual Aid. ⧫