Many mutual aid groups have sprung up online in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, swelling quickly to include thousands of members. In contrast, the nonprofit Mutual Aid Network of Ypsilanti (The MANY) was established before the outbreak and aims for "slow and calm" growth to continue helping people long after the outbreak is old news.
"We're taking on people in a really intentional and slow-paced way. We're hyper-localized and don't want to become a large catch-all group," says The MANY co-director Payton McDonald. "We want to sustain ourselves as a long-term, trust-built group focused not just on active mutual aid as a nice thing to do for people, but truly building cooperative spaces based on (prison) abolition, anti-capitalism, and direct, horizontal democracy."
McDonald says The MANY is about a year old, and was "just on the cusp of beginning to break out and do a number of in-person meetings and get people plugged in" when COVID-19 hit. The group had to change its strategy and has been hosting conference calls to update members, partners, and other interested community members.
The MANY's signature "Pass it On" program grew out of efforts to apply Food Gatherers' "rescue" model to usable home goods, cleaning supplies, and other non-food items that retailers might otherwise throw away for various reasons. The MANY recently used this program to distribute a large shipment of toilet paper and paper towels just as local stores were beginning to run out. The organization is currently soliciting other donations from local grocery, big box, pet supply, and auto supply stores.
The MANY distributes those items through the food pantry at Beautiful Gate International Church, 1225 S. Congress St. in Ypsilanti, as well as providing supplies to the Ypsi Gathering Space and Peace House Ypsi.
"Their work is supplemented by some of our redistributed goods, like soap and cleaning supplies that the houseless in this community are in desperate need of," McDonald says.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, The MANY had been doing support work for the pantry at Beautiful Gate, but the pantry is currently closed for the virus. McDonald previously worked at Food Gatherers and says that organization is the go-to resource for food rescue from retailers.
McDonald says he believes "more people than ever" are questioning the concepts of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
"We're at a point of upheaval right now, and people are looking for this kind of language and analysis, with talks of rent strikes and building housing cooperative networks as alternatives to landlords," he says. "That gets me excited. It's a hopeful message, and we see a lot of change on the horizon. The coronavirus is invoking more mutualism."
He urges anyone who wants to provide mutual aid to friends and loved ones to make "proposals, not promises."
"The number one thing we're asking people to do is to take stock of what they want to do, and what their capacity and skills are, and what they want to offer," McDonald says. He says assessing the time and energy you have and then offering specific help and skills is more useful than asking, "How can I help?"
Anyone who is interested in learning more about The MANY can follow the group's Facebook page or Instagram for updates about future conference calls and meetups later this year when it's safe to host in-person gatherings. The organization will hold a virtual meeting on the Pass it On program this Thursday. More information is also available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.