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Across the country, communities are responding to uncertain times with solidarity. People are connecting with neighbors, contributing to grocery and supply funds, and buying and delivering groceries to the elderly. All of this work falls under the umbrella of “mutual aid”—where communities and individuals come together to help meet each other’s needs. It is an exchange predicated on the concept of solidarity, not charity. Mutual aid recognizes that there is no hierarchy of need; it does not make distinctions between those who have and those who don’t. Rather, mutual aid is envisioned as a method of collective care—where resources and support are shared among everyone.
It’s been the case for students across America, too. For millions, Covid-19 has meant having their time on campus—which in many cases provided students with shelter, food, and jobs—abruptly come to an end. Thrown into uncertainty and precarity, students have been organizing mutual aid networks to make up for the losses.
Within the first two weeks of March, universities and colleges across America made the decision to end in-person classes, switch to remote work for nonessential staff, and, for the most part, asked students to vacate dormitories. Because this happened just as most students were preparing to leave for or were on spring break, thousands of students found themselves in limbo—scrambling to arrange flights and travel plans, to arrange storage and new housing arrangements.
Students like Shivani Nishar and Xochi Cartland learned in early March that Brown University would make an abrupt move to remote learning. They met with organizers on campus to identify needs and coordinate a response. “We identified five key areas: housing, food security, financial security, transport and mental and physical safety that needed to be addressed,” they said in a joint e-mail statement. “Concerns we had included what the burden of proof would be to stay on campus, if hourly workers would continue to be paid, and what would happen if students had to be quarantined in an abusive family environment, among others.”
Project LETS, a national grassroots organization, provided assistance to student organizers at Brown as they coordinated safety trainings for students, created a crisis line, and offered financial assistance. A spreadsheet to coordinate housing, storage, and transportation needs was organized by Housing Opportunities For Everyone (HOPE).
Students at the University of Pittsburgh and Wesleyan University also used spreadsheets to coordinate mutual aid. “There are three or four spreadsheets out there—but people can use a form if they don’t feel comfortable. There’s a spreadsheet for emotional support, for housing and storage and then a monetary support fund that people can contribute through Venmo,” said Anaïs Peterson, a student helping to coordinate mutual aid efforts at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We have no idea what’s going on in each other’s lives right now,” they said. “There’s so much to do in terms of taking care of ourselves and absorbing so much new [information].”
Student organizers said that mutual aid worked in two ways: spreadsheets and forms that allowed students to directly contact each other if someone could meet a need of another person, plus a general financial relief fund that doles out funds to students in need. At Wesleyan, in addition to organizing housing and other mutual support efforts, students in student government took action to support a GoFundMe created by and for low-income first-generation students.
“We donated $100,000 of our remaining money that would otherwise be used for clubs and other things to that fund,” said Katelin Penner, a student at Wesleyan. “Then we donated another $80,000 to a general fund that would go towards other things, like reimbursing people for child care.” Penner also runs a Twitter account, called @CovidMutualAid, which compiles information on student-run mutual aid funds across the country.
While most students usually worked in coordination with other initiatives and groups organizing in surrounding communities, the mutual aid project at Duke University—primarily organized with a Facebook group—grew to include and serve the needs of the community as a whole. Because of this, student organizers at Duke said they anticipate that the mutual aid Facebook group will continue to support the needs of the community at large, even as the immediate consequences of the virus recede. “There’s potential for some of our resources to transition to community concerns, especially around assistance for low-income, unhoused, and incarcerated people in Durham once Duke community members have received more assistance from the university or made it back home safely,” said Duke students Gino Nuzzolillo and Jamal Burns in a joint e-mail.
According to Peterson, the term “mutual aid” itself is confusing for some students who are unfamiliar with organizing spaces. “People don’t necessarily understand where that’s coming from or what it really means,” Peterson said. “Something I did when we created our Instagram for the Pitt mutual aid effort was a seven-picture-long Instagram story that went through what mutual aid is in an anti-capitalist framework; how it’s not charity, it’s not transactional.”
At the same time, according to Nuzzolillo and Burns, without students on campus, reaching an atomized network of students was difficult. “Part of the issue is that people’s lives remain chaotic and unstable while everyone tries to address their material, familial, personal, and academic issues,” they wrote.“People may not know what exists to support them, so we’ve tried to vigorously spread word about our resources and infrastructure.”
And because the students leading these efforts are themselves in precarious positions, while student organizers could count anywhere from 30 to 500 students involved in mutual aid efforts, some said the bulk of the organizing efforts frequently fell upon a few students.
“We were all struggling with how this transition impacted us while also putting in hours to make sure that those around us had support networks to rely on,” wrote Nishar and Cortland. “While students should absolutely be a part of this support effort, we shouldn’t have been the only reliable resource.”
According to Peterson, this was the case at the University of Pittsburgh, as well. “It’s hard not to want to help everyone and donate as much money as you can find. Everyone has really valid needs,” they said. “More [monetary] requests come in than we can fill. And it’s hard to say, ‘I’ll just cover this one as an organizer.’ We can’t keep doing that. It’s not a sustainable thing.”
Students are now getting used to the new normal. Spring break is now over and Zoom classes are in session. Still, students say, now that they’ve seen how mutual aid networks can be built and grow, they’re not likely to let the experience go. “I think this should be something that goes beyond Covid. This was a way that our community was able to really come together,” said Penner. “That’s something that we should really be conscious about bringing beyond this short term crisis.”