Take What You Need and Give What You Can: A Mutual Aid Portrait

Take What You Need and Give What You Can: A Mutual Aid Portrait

Take What You Need and Give What You Can: A Mutual Aid Portrait

Residents of Morris County, N.J., aren’t waiting for federal relief—they’re helping each other.


Text by John Washington, photography by Tracie Williams.

It is all very scary.” On a warm, summer day in Morristown, N.J., Oscar was sitting on the stoop of the apartment he was sharing with his partner, Daniela.

Oscar has lupus, fibromyalgia, and what can sometimes be debilitating arthritis, and like many people we talked to in and around this town of less than 20,000, a little more than 30 miles from Manhattan, he hadn’t ventured beyond his front yard in months. “Very, very scary.”

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, after more than 286,000 deaths and countless lives interrupted or shattered by loss, the support most Americans have received from the federal government has been a one-time check for $1,200. The severity of the economic crisis millions of Americans face as we enter a seemingly unstoppable “third wave” of infection has not been matched by robust support at the federal level. That has left states and cities to make their own rules, with schools reopening, then closing again, gyms and bars staying open while curfews are imposed, in patchwork attempts to slow the virus’s spread. Even as the scourge has spread from coastal metropolises to cover the rest of the country, Americans are desperate for a return to the rhythms of life and work and human contact. For the stricken and the bereaved, however, any sense of normalcy remains a dream. For those housebound from underlying health conditions rendering them immune-compromised, everyday life since the onset of the pandemic is incomparable to life before.

In Morristown County, the lack of decisive action at the federal level has left people to fend for themselves. But they haven’t been doing so alone: For months, residents here have organized to help their most vulnerable neighbors. Through creative fundraising and the special kind of community that forms when neighbors help their neighbors, Mutual Morris, a mutual aid group with a roster of over 100 volunteers, is providing a lifeline for about 500 households during a very dark time. Just after the first wave of the pandemic receded, photographer Tracie Williams and I met with some of these families. Everyone we spoke to had a family member who was immune compromised, and access to transportation posed a barrier for most. As residents cracked open doors, visited with us (at a distance) in their yards, the fear was palpable: Masks on, tears welling, and the mood plaintive.

The founders of Mutual Morris, local activists Theresa Markila and Renee Shalhoub, started organizing in their community last February, handing out oranges—to boost immune systems—as well as hand soap and safety cards explaining the dangers of the coronavirus. Through that work, they began delivering school lunches and connecting with families who needed help shopping for groceries, working with mostly immigrant and low-income families. The work has expanded to wellness checks, tutoring, and helping to plan for the disruptions the pandemic is causing for young students’ educations. Now, they’re organizing an online children’s book drive and collecting donations for warm clothes for winter. And as the CDC’s moratorium on evictions is set expire at the end of the year, Mutual Morris is educating tenants about their rights.

Vital to the concept of mutual aid is the mutual support that all participants in the group provide to one another—one-way charity this is not. Mutual Morris trains participants on the skills they need to self-organize. While the exchange isn’t necessarily reciprocal; it is based on the fundamental principle of mutual aid: taking only what you need and giving what you can. Markila and Shalhoub make clear that they are not following the standard nonprofit model. “We want to help communities empower themselves, help them become self-sufficient,” Shalhoub said.

Mutual aid groups like Mutual Morris have sprung up across the country during the pandemic, and the people involved in these groups volunteer their time and resources to help folks they may have never met, ensuring they have medicine, food, housing, even legal services. As inspiring as these efforts of communal support are, they are also an indictment of the government’s failure to provide for the millions of people who need support during this incredibly difficult time. This isn’t a new story—the gutting of our social safety net has been in the works for decades, and will continue without vocal, grassroots demands to guarantee access to housing, food, and health care. In the meantime, as the Covid-19 caseload continues to climb precipitously, the principles and practice of collective care will be crucial in mitigating the devastation caused by a system that values profit over human life.

Heather and her children, Eric and Isabel

Poised with her two children on her three-step concrete porch, Heather struck a tone of defiant gratitude in regard to her months-long lockdown. Heather suffers from a host of chronic maladies, including immune thrombocytopenia, a serious risk factor possibly leading to increased mortality with the coronavirus. As such, she hasn’t risked venturing into public since March. “I don’t want to not be there for them,” she said, patting both her two children on their heads. The three wore blue N-95 masks cinched tightly over their faces.

Heather’s husband, Eric Sr., started stocking up food, especially canned soup, as early as January. Because his father is bedridden and in need of constant care, Eric Sr. spends most of his days at his father’s house, working remotely and tending to his needs—which leaves only an hour in the evenings for him to be with his family at home. “I don’t blame anybody for this, but I just want them to fix it,” Heather said, referencing the political response to the coronavirus. She isn’t looking for handouts, pays for the groceries that Mutual Morris volunteers deliver for their two households, donates for other families in need, and, early on in the lockdown, had set out boxes on her porch for her neighbors to come and retrieve basic food items. When the district abruptly paused school lunches, and the call went out for volunteers to help quickly organize lunch preparation and deliveries, she was one of the first to answer that call.

Mutual Morris was a lifeline for Heather in the early days of the pandemic when grocery delivery services like Instacart were completely overloaded. Now that she’s able to get her groceries delivered again, Heather has been able to get back to something resembling her usual routine—but that doesn’t mean she has scaled back her involvement with Mutual Morris at all. “I like giving back when I can, it makes me feel good. Especially because I can’t go out.” Mutual aid, she said, “is not progressive at all. It’s ancient.” She compared support networks to the collective action of Amish barn-raising. “The reality is, this is not something new. This is not what I consider progressive at all…. This is an old, old thing, what people used to do in the old days to help each other.”

As we spoke, she paused briefly, and then noted that she had just had a minor seizure. “I also don’t drive because I have epilepsy, you know I have never been seizure-free.”

Oscar, Daniela, and their daughters, Ninnah and Hailey

Sitting on the stoop of their apartment in Morristown, Oscar and his partner Daniela were in grieving: A close friend had died two days before in a motorcycle accident, but they wouldn’t be going to his funeral. Oscar grew up poor in Colombia, started working when he was 8 years old, and has been hustling construction jobs in the United States since the mid 1990s. As his lupus—an autoimmune disease triggered by environmental factors such as heat, depression and stress—began advancing, he struggled to work. Daniela, too, who grew up between New Jersey and Colombia, struggled living down an abusive childhood. They and their two daughters were homeless for a couple months beginning in late 2019. They managed to get back on their feet by February, but then the coronavirus hit.

“It’s so hard, being a man…and not being able to provide for my family,” Oscar said, breaking into tears. Given his medical vulnerability, he doesn’t risk searching for work anymore. “It’s hard for me to reach out for help because I always provided on my own.” And yet, with two young girls, Ninnah and Haley, he had to overcome that pride.

“With the two kids it’s been…,” says Oscar, emphasizing the inadequacy of the word—and Daniela nodding along—“hard.” When we met them, they had hardly left their apartment since March, insisting on taking extreme precautions: leaving shoes outside, wiping down grocery bags, bleaching the house. “But it’s the same, every day,” Oscar said. “It’s like being locked up, though sorry for using that term.” Some mornings his lupus and arthritis make it difficult to get out of bed, and because of the excruciating pain he is tempted to go to the emergency room so they can “knock him out.” “I’m scared every day, I don’t show her,” Oscar said, referring to Daniela, “but everyday I’m crying because I don’t know if tomorrow I’m gonna be here. I don’t have a home that I can say is my house. And to be honest, I have nothing to leave them if something happens to me. So everyday it gives me flares, because of the stress.”

Working with Mutual Morris—he not only receives school lunches and personalized groceries, he also volunteers his time by making phone calls for them—has given him some direction and welcome distraction. “They basically trained me how to come out, how to talk to people and stuff like that. So, it’s something positive that came out of this,” he said. “For me to get to know these families and call them was a big relief for me.… They have kids, you know. And we need to reach out because some people don’t know that we are here, some people are too shy to come out, like me.”

After talking a while, Daniela brought out the two girls to join the family on the stoop. They were both shy, and clinging to their father, who put on a tougher face in front of them. “The pandemic has affected me a lot,” said Oscar. “I’m sharing my story because I want people to know what it’s like for people like me. I feel stuck and I’m not sure how to move forward.”

“I like religion,” he said, unprompted. “I like God. He’s everything for me. I try to do good deeds. I don’t go to church all the time, but I try to be a good person.”

Frances, Mary, and family

Mary moved back from North Carolina, where she had been living for 40 years, just as the pandemic was taking hold. Her husband had died shortly before, and she felt alone, missing her family back in New Jersey. Frances, her niece, welcomed her into her home with open arms. Mary’s not alone now, as she sits on the sun-scorched porch with a passel of nieces, children, and grandchildren milling in and out of the adjacent apartments, The household had remained in their bubble all summer, except for Frances, who started working with Mutual Morris after she saw Shalhoub drop off deliveries at Oscar and Daniela’s apartment nearby. “I’ll do whatever I can to help the kids,” Frances said.

Mary suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and fibromyalgia and was hospitalized for three weeks this year because of upper respiratory complications, which at first the doctors suspected were related to the virus “I lose my breath easily. It’s hard to wear a mask.” She was a certified nursing assistant before she retired, and recognized the dangers of Covid-19 quickly.

As we were talking, Frances returned and sat down in a narrow folding chair in front of her apartment door, hugging the shade. She had just delivered about 20 school lunches to children of parents she cared for over the past 42 years as a daycare provider. And now, she “delivers lunches, news, and humor to the projects,” as she calls them.

The family still interacts with their neighbors, but as Mary put it, “We be teasing them about the coronavirus,” and they make sure to keep at least six feet of distance. “I don’t like the way it’s been handled” by the government, Mary said.

Frances was harsher about plans to reopen: “Hell to the no,” she said emphatically. She is particularly concerned about her granddaughter, who is 4 years old and has cerebral palsy. “Because for those kids that have difficulty, like my granddaughter, who was going to school every day to help with her physical therapy, occupational therapy, you know walking, talking, moving all that stuff. Now, they actually,” she says, laughing at the absurdity, “Oh Jesus, they actually are upset with us because we don’t have her on video.” Efforts at online learning aren’t “doing jack for her,” Frances explained, except agitating her. “I’m very, very, very upset about that, because that puts her behind and that’s unfair to her.” The conversation flagged for a moment, as Frances and Mary both mulled the difficulties of the coming school year.

With a household ranging in school ages from preschool to high school, the added risk of contracting the virus via in-person attendance is high. “I’m terrified,” said Frances, who is the primary caretaker in her home, “because I can’t afford to get anything right now.”

Orieta and her son, Damian

Originally from Guatemala, Orieta and her husband have been living in the United States for eight years. (Orieta requested that we use pseudonyms for her family.) Despite her initially settling in comfortably, the last five years have been riddled with adversity. It started with a lump in her stomach, which turned out to be a tumor, and required multiple surgeries. Soon after recovering, Orieta gave birth to her first child, Damian, who was soon thereafter diagnosed with leukemia. “I was so depressed that I got sick again. I thought he was about to die,”Orieta said. Damian responded well to treatment, but in May, he contracted the coronavirus. He sank into a coma, and again the family thought they might lose him. “I don’t care if we don’t have anything. I just want health,” Orieta said. Damian, back on his feet, peeked out the window, and then came around to hug his mother’s legs.

Orieta grew up speaking Mam, and never went to school. She only learned to read and write, and only learned Spanish once she got to the United States. She’s now fluent in Spanish and is working on her English. For her own stress, and other ailments, her family back in Guatemala sends medicine to her. Orieta’s husband still works in landscaping, but struggles to make enough to support the family. “I hope there’s a tomorrow in which we wake up and there’s a medicine for coronavirus,” she said.

Mutual Morris continues to deliver school lunches and church donation boxes to Orieta’s family, and has now paired them with a Spanish-speaking mother-and-daughter team who come by every Thursday to deliver specific grocery requests like diapers, toothpaste, and beans.

As Orieta is overwhelmed with taking care of Damian and her 16-month-old son, Alejandro, she doesn’t have the means to help Mutual Morris now, but plans to do so in the future. “I’m just so thankful for all the work” that Mutual Morris does, she said. “I don’t know what we’d do without y’all. I’m grateful to God.”

Libna and her children, Genesis and Gisella

Libna and her husband, also from Guatemala, have been in the United States for nine years. Her husband works in landscaping; Libna, part-time as a cashier at McDonald’s. They have both continued to work during the pandemic, though they have had their hours cut. Besides the fear of contracting the virus, they are dealing with Genesis’s heart issue—she had surgery in January, but is doing much better now. Gisella, doing cartwheels throughout our conversation, has been especially sad, Libna said, missing school, missing her friends, and worried in general.

Before the pandemic hit and their hours were cut, Libna and her husband were sending remittances back to their family in Guatemala every few weeks. They’re no longer able to send anything. They’re also worried about simply having enough to eat, and the girls welcomed the grapes, strawberries, and bananas Shalhoub brought as a treat.

Libna said she has noticed more anti-Latino discrimination since the start of the pandemic. All of the white Americans who worked at her McDonald’s quit, she explained. “People don’t realize that we [Latinos] are working hard for them. We’re dragging this country forward right now, and we’re dying for it. People think we’re getting sick more because we’re not careful, but it’s because we’re still working.” One McDonald’s customer told her recently to “go back home,” and that people like her are spreading the virus. But her home, Libna insists, is in New Jersey.

“I’m so scared,” said Libna. “I don’t want to go to work anymore,” she said, “but I have to for my family.” School openings have posed an additional risk to exposure for their family. And although Genesis’s health is currently stable, she has been having dizzy spells. The doctor told her she may need a heart monitor.

Besides working as a cashier and raising her two daughters, Libna makes calls for Mutual Morris, doing wellness checks, reaching out to other families who may have unmet needs. Libna also stepped up to lead in the effort to prepare school lunches when the district put that service on pause. When we asked her if there was anything else she wanted to say about the people who have pitched in to make Mutual Morris happen, she said, “There are no words to thank you.”

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