Lessons From Mutual Aid in Social Justice and Survival
Community support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings against racial injustice around the world prove the necessity of mutual aid for survival during times of crisis, and beyond.
For many people in the U.S. (and beyond), community support becomes necessary for survival when disaster strikes. Government programs often have barriers to access, take too long to kick in, or fall short when it comes down to it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid programs kept people alive, as neighbors helped neighbors access food and basic necessities. During the Black Lives Matter uprisings, mutual aid supported community members to continue demonstrating for months on end. Faced with the climate crisis, and environmental devastation like fires, communities in many areas have survived by taking care of one another, on the ground. These community support systems weave a fabric of support that has proven essential in recent years. Given the realities of the climate crisis and all that that will bring, volunteer community support and mutual aid will likely become even more critical into the future.
The following are examples of how mutual aid has supported anti-racism, crisis survival and social justice movements.
Community Mutual Aid Blocs Helped Sustain Portland’s 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests
At any given Black Lives Matter (BLM) event in Portland in 2020, you might encounter what looked like a farmers market stands, with woven baskets full of fresh veggies, fruits and flower cuttings. Look a little closer and you might have come across an “Abolish the Police Lettuce Mix” or a fruit basket with a hand-painted sign that read “billionaires are not essential.” This would be the PlantBloc mutual aid booth, where everything was freely donated and given away by Portland’s gardeners and plant lovers to support the movement against racism, and justice for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people.
PlantBloc operated only through volunteers and donations and did not accept any money. The mutual aid collective gathered donations through word-of-mouth and social media outreach on the PlantBloc Instagram page.
Rae, a PlantBloc volunteer, said people tried to donate money at events, but removing money from the equation has created a special kind of exchange.
“One of the reasons that just feels good is that it’s an energy exchange, it’s not about money,” she said to April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute in 2020. “It’s about sharing resources and knowing that we have plenty of resources to share.”
As soon as PlantBloc was up and running in August 2020, Portlanders were ready with donations. Damanay Iqwé, a volunteer with the group’s communications team, said PlantBloc was set up in just a couple of days, and as soon as they put out a call for donations, boxes after boxes of plants began to arrive. At their first event, they estimated that they redistributed at least 300 pounds of food, houseplants and flowers.
PlantBloc allocated its community donated garden herbs, veggies, fruit, tea, flowers and houseplants to support BIPOC neighbors and the BLM movement. Members of the group with green thumbs, herbalism skills or experience with food justice, offered gardening tips, plant preparation advice and education—and the group also shared information about upcoming protest actions.
“It’s become a beautiful association of people that are all working to educate the public on creating their own systems of food, rather than relying on the systems that aren’t serving us,” said Iqwé. “Gardening is a revolutionary thing. If you create your own food, you aren’t dependent to get your food in the systems that aren’t feeding us. [The existing systems] are giving us genetically modified food, they’re giving us all kinds of stuff that we don’t have control over. When you are a gardener and when you create your own food and your own medicines, you’re able to have more control over [the whole process].”
Iqwé, a founding member of PlantBloc, said as a Black man in America getting involved with the BLM effort wasn’t a choice so much as the necessary defense of his own life.
“I’m just here because my life matters,” Iqwé said, noting that there is no official entity or charter for the BLM movement in Oregon. He says his first protest experience was in 2014 with Teresa Raiford, who is the founder of Don’t Shoot Portland, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—which sparked some of the first worldwide BLM protests.
“I’ve been involved in trying to amplify my voice since then,” he said. “Being involved is, to me, a necessity. What am I going to do? Sit on the sidelines? Any soft skill, any hard skill, any skill I can provide to this movement, to push it forward so that it can be proven, finally, that my life matters, I will lend—which is why I’m one of the people speaking to you now, in the communications group [for PlantBloc].”
Iqwé said, for him, the BLM movement was a long time coming. His relatives were some of the first Black people ever allowed to move into Oregon, as Oregon’s racist Black exclusion laws long-prevented Black people from living in the state. Iqwé’s great-grandparents were able to move to Oregon “because Henry Kaiser wanted to have poor laborers in a small town called Vanport.” Vanport was “not well taken care of,” and after a historic flood wiped out the entire city of Vanport in a single day in 1948, Iqwé said his ancestors escaped.
“That was the very first gentrification of Black people in Oregon,” Iqwé said. “We’re all using our skills to hopefully create a situation where my son doesn’t have to fight through this [systemic racism]. My father fought through it, my grandfather fought through it, my great-grandfather fought through it. Now I’m fighting through it so that he [my son] doesn’t have to.”
PlantBloc lent its mutual aid to causes outside of BLM protests—like distributing lung-supportive herbs and teas during the weeks when hazardous fire smoke choked Portland this summer—but their focus was on the ongoing movement against racism.
Rae, an avid gardener who grew up on a small farm of about three acres outside of Eugene, Oregon, complete with goats, chickens and some ducks, started to volunteer with PlantBloc because, she said, she wanted to put her privilege to use to support the BLM movement and make gardening more accessible—especially for BIPOC people in Portland.
“It took me a long time to realize the privilege I had in understanding where my food came from and being so connected to it,” she said. Over time, she also came to realize how inaccessible many of the existing community garden spaces in Portland can be.
“Even for someone like myself, who’s white and has some garden knowledge, those spaces require a lot of time, commitment, and resources, and they can be pretty uninviting,” she said. “It’s really magical to see how well people respond to the PlantBloc events.”
She said she’s involved with the movement because she believes that Black lives and Indigenous lives matter, and it’s important to her to donate whatever skills she has to help make a change.
“As a woman, the rights I have, the privileges I have, are thanks to Black women,” she said. “Black women have done so much for me, and [for me] to not be part of the BLM movement would be disrespectful. I’m just bringing what skills I have. I have a master’s degree, I have an education. I’ll bring a skilled analysis and wield what privileges I have—or I will go out and dig in the dirt for five hours in the rain. That’s fine. I just want the world to change.”
PlantBloc is among a series of “blocs” that developed out of the BLM movement in Portland to support people out in the streets protesting for long hours and to mobilize community engagement. For months after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020, Portlanders continued protesting, rain or shine, for justice for Black lives. Community members seeking to bolster the cause donated their skills and supplies, and formed a series of supportive mutual aid groups or “blocs,” which bring a range of offerings to the BLM protest events, and sometimes to vulnerable neighbors in need of help.
Among the more active blocs in Portland was Snack Bloc, which worked to spread awareness and seek involvement in the BLM movement in Portland and the surrounding region since 2017. They brought donated food and COVID-safe snacks to in-person protest events, and their social media channels helped to spread the word about vigils held for victims of police violence, BLM protest events and rallies. Throughout the pandemic—and in response to the economic difficulties it brought—Snack Bloc also worked to connect people to supportive resources and social programs.
According to their website, their mission was “to support the resistance, one snack at a time... by providing food, supplies and camaraderie for BLM activists confronting neo-fascist actions in Portland.”
After the lethal October police shooting of Kevin Peterson in Vancouver, Washington, which is just 15 miles from Portland across the Columbia River, Snack Bloc shared information about a vigil for Peterson, stating in an Instagram post:
“Rest in power Kevin, we’ll be screaming your name. He was only 21. He had a daughter. He was a son. He had a family. He had friends. He is a man who is no longer with us.”
In addition to directly supporting BLM actions, Snack Bloc rallied against military drone testing in Portland and worked with various efforts to feed and provide emotional support to people in need, in collaboration with regional collectives and organizations like the Peacekeeper Society, located on the Yakama Nation Indian Reservation in Washington State, Don’t Shoot Portland, Symbiosis Portland and others.
The list of blocs that Portlanders formed to use their skills in support of mutual aid and BLM is long. There was a Beauty Bloc by hairstylists donating haircuts; there was a Care Bloc focused on aftercare and on the ground trauma recovery for protesters; there was a Grocery Bloc that brings groceries to vulnerable people during the pandemic and beyond; there was a Bread Bloc offering baked goods to people on the streets; a Blunt Bloc “keeping spirits high”; a Barista Bloc that brought hand sanitizer and hot drinks to houseless communities; a Pet Bloc that connected mutual aid donations to help people struggling with pet care costs; Black Bloc Tattoo offering free tattoo designs to BIPOC community. The list goes on. These blocs offered a show of solidarity and strength by Portlanders who continued their concerted efforts to rally behind the BLM movement.
Community Fridges Popped Up Across America for Mutual Aid Amid the Pandemic
Hunger and food scarcity were already issues for many Americans who struggled to put food on their tables prior to the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since many businesses were forced by the circumstances of the pandemic to shut down, millions of workers were displaced, causing U.S. unemployment rates to skyrocket. Following the outbreak of the pandemic in March of 2020 and its economic impacts, large swaths of the American population struggled to feed themselves and their children. The impacts of the virus and the irresponsible response carried out by the Trump administration worsened the already serious hunger crisis in America. More than 54 million were expected to experience food insecurity in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.
To set up a community fridge, organizers find a willing business or residence that will let them plug in a fridge in an accessible outdoor location. The fridges are stocked by donations from community members with extra food to spare, or local bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, food pantries and sometimes farms looking to offload extra food. Inside a community free-food fridge, on any given day people will find fresh veggies, dairy products and other basic perishables meant to feed community members struggling with food access. Stacks of non-perishable items are often also found in baskets or crates surrounding the fridges, up for the taking.
This community-led solution to hunger began gaining speed beginning around February 2020. Thadeaus Umpster, a longtime organizer with the mutual-aid-oriented anarchist collective In Our Hearts (IOH) NYC, said in a 2020 interview that is when residents working with IOH installed New York City’s first community fridge in Brooklyn.
“Our goals in doing this are to make sure that people have enough to eat, and also to address food waste,” he said in a 2020 interview with Independent Media Institute. “Another thing that we’re very focused on with this project is helping to build stronger, more resilient, self-sustaining, autonomous communities.”
Umpster has been involved with community organizing efforts focused on addressing food waste since 1999, when he first became involved with the local Food Not Bombs project. He said the issue is not one of food scarcity in America, but of distribution and access. According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food waste makes up 30-40 percent of the American food supply. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, that equated to about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.
The USDA website states that this much food waste impacts society, as “[w]holesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills,” and “[l]and, water, labor, energy and other inputs are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food.”
Umpster noted that food waste worsened with the onset of COVID-19 as restaurants and hotels and other major buyers of food from farms and suppliers began to shut down and farms across the nation dumped their produce and dairy products en masse.
“Even before COVID, though, that was happening on a regular basis,” he said, noting that nearby chain grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, in particular, throw out “tons of food” each day, and have done so for years.
Since early February when the initial community fridge was set up in Brooklyn, the effort has grown “exponentially,” said Umpster. There were so many community fridges in New York City by mid 2020 that he had lost count, but he guesstimated that there were at least 40 of them throughout the city. He also spearheaded an effort to organize community fridges across the nation, by connecting hundreds of organizers and volunteers using the encrypted messaging app Signal. As community fridges gained attention from the press, volunteers and organizers interested in starting community fridges in their own towns began to reach out by the hundreds, he said, so IOH created free-food fridge groups via Signal for the various neighborhoods in NYC as well as different cities around the United States—stretching all the way to Los Angeles.
He said the free-food fridge project has been a connection point for communities as much as it has been a source of physical nourishment. Of his own neighborhood in Brooklyn, he said the project has allowed him to get to know the names and stories of many neighbors he once only waved to in passing.
“It’s a much more tight-knit community than it used to be,” Umpster said. “People are watching out for each other more and working together more and supporting each other. It has just become a lot better—and it’s not just on my block that I’ve seen that. I’ve heard from people doing fridges and other neighborhoods [that] it’s very much the same thing.”
Art and Free-Food Fridges
To spread the word initially about the free-food fridge effort, Umpster said IOH put up signs and did ample outreach on social media; however, he said the artists who have painted and transformed their local community fridges are largely responsible for generating attention and awareness about the effort.
“A friend of mine who paints under the name HUGO GYRL painted one of the earliest fridges we have, and it changed the whole vibe, the whole feeling on the block that it’s on,” he said. “It made it into the spot where journalists and photographers wanted to come take pictures and spread the idea of what we’re doing.”
Colorful, diverse and elaborate designs cover the community fridges that now dot America, and in large part that artwork is created by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists who have either donated their time and creativity to the cause, or have been paid a small fee for their labor.
On one side of a refrigerator that stands on a sidewalk in New Orleans, two alligators encircle a woman with dark mocha skin wearing a tattered white slip. Her hair is a single braid that reaches the ground. She stands with her right foot on top of an orange snake. Above her, white birds seem to be flying toward a celestial body. Below her, two white Bengal tigers prowl between two halves of a papaya. This is just one of several paintings created by artist Sydney Calderon in support of New Orleans Community Fridges (NOCF), which was a mutual-aid effort setting up refrigerators around the city that offer free food to community members, many of whom currently struggle with hunger.
The fridge arrayed with Calderon’s paintings is just one of many community fridges that were set up outdoors across New Orleans and around the nation by activists looking to provide mutual aid in their communities in response to the economic realities of COVID-19.
Calderon said community art provides a greater narrative around the value and worth of art. She says on a personal level she has been undergoing a “long process of unlearning” the things most of us are taught to assume about fine art, “most importantly, rejecting the idea that fine art is centered around wealth/whiteness.”
“There is absolutely a place for BIPOC in the world of fine art, and I often feel very inspired to depict BIPOC in classical art themes,” she said, pointing out her use of baby cherubs holding a banner that carries messages like “free food” and “community fridge” on one side of the fridge she painted for NOCF.
Race Inequities and Food Access
Umpster said most of the free fridge project’s Instagram followers, close to 71 percent according to self-identification on Instagram, were women. And, women of color were largely responsible for the spread of the free-food fridge movement, as they are behind most of the organizing efforts around the United States.
“This movement is very much a women-of-color-led movement,” he said. “It’s mostly women of color who are setting up these fridges, keeping them stocked and making sure their things are running smoothly.”
Brynn Comeaux, an organizing member of NOCF—which has been live for just a short time, having begun in July 2020—pointed out in an email interview that food access issues are inextricable from racial inequities.
“When you look at a map of the city, it’s no coincidence that areas experiencing higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity are also areas that lack access to fresh, affordable food,” she said. “They are also areas with higher populations of African Americans, Latinx, and Vietnamese residents. Going even further, you would see that these areas are notoriously undercounted and underrepresented in the census. What that means is that outside of a pandemic, in New Orleans it is hard to determine exactly what portion of the population is food insecure. And even if a need is determined, it is often underfunded. These issues are only exacerbated in the event of a global pandemic or natural disaster.”
The same trends held across the United States, as food insecurity is typically heightened for Black and Hispanic populations. And, as detailed in a New York Times article, the pandemic deepened those existing disparities.
As a national study, “Examining the Impact of Structural Racism on Food Insecurity: Implications for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities,” published in 2018, notes, “An analysis examining trends in food insecurity from 2001 to 2016 found that food insecurity rates for both non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic households were at least twice that of non-Hispanic white households.”
Comeaux said the free-food fridges are “a physical manifestation of ways we can directly give back to our community.”
“Given the nature of how we have had to shift socially and as a community during the pandemic, the fridges offer us that way to connect that seems so far away these days,” she said. “We have seen folks starting their own fundraisers to support this project. We have seen restaurants cooking a little extra for their family meals or adding pay-it-forward options to help keep the fridges stocked. We are also starting to see culture-bearers of the city like Mardi Gras krewes and the BIPOC artists… come together to make this uniquely New Orleans. Everyone has their part to play. Our hope is that movements like this normalize mutual aid. This is solidarity, not charity.”
Across the nation, people who were able to volunteered to offer free delivery of food and household supplies to the most vulnerable members of their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020. Volunteers all over began sewing masks, distributing hand sanitizer (often from distilleries, breweries and other local businesses that began making and donating it) and other cleaning supplies, and offering free grocery deliveries to people who were advised not to leave their homes. Beginning in 2020, a mass mutual aid effort developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addison Winslow, a community organizer in Chico, California, helped to lead the charge with the local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), to bring mutual aid to the area’s most vulnerable. The region is no stranger to mutual aid efforts and emergency volunteer mobilization. After the Camp Fire devastated and traumatized the nearby Butte County hill towns in November 2018 and Chico was heavily impacted by smoke, the region required a mass mobilization effort by volunteers and community to offer aid and work to accommodate the surging population when “Camp Fire refugees” arrived in Chico. According to Winslow in a 2020 interview with April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute, the area had not had a “normal” day since the fires, and because of this, in some ways local aid groups were ahead of the curve in Chico. For example, due to the fires, their DSA group already had stockpiles of N95 masks—some of which they recently sent to a group looking to start mutual aid efforts in Toledo, Ohio.
“Mutual aid is like disaster relief,” he said. “It feels like picking up the pieces that are falling all over the place.”
Winslow added that it was also an opportunity to push forward the vision for a more caring, cooperative society that sees housing and health care as human rights for all people.
“When a lot of people are paying attention to what happens [during a crisis], it shows who’s available as leadership, who’s available as support and what sort of principles are the most pronounced in our society,” he said.
Winslow said mutual aid and community volunteer efforts are a sort of antidote to fear-based responses to crises, such as hoarding toilet paper and other goods.
“We’re providing the alternative to that… a light for society on the other side of people worrying about themselves at the expense of the rest of society,” he said. “We can work together as a community.”
As many of the volunteer networks normally operating in Chico were largely composed of retirees, and people aged 65 and older had been advised by the governor’s office to stay indoors, Winslow said younger volunteers in the area were working to fill in the gaps however they could. And, he noted, there were several other groups in the region providing services, mutual aid offerings, and other support initiatives.
At any given time, a group of between 10 and 30 DSA volunteers manned the phone lines of the hotline, accruing supplies and financial support, and delivering goods to the community’s most vulnerable—from low-income seniors and people with immunodeficiencies, to houseless communities with limited-to-no access to basic supplies and information about the pandemic since libraries and other primary resource hubs they normally have access to were shut down.
Volunteers from the DSA began finding or making hand sanitizer and hiking into creek beds and other areas where many of the region’s homeless encampments were located, offering them supplies and updating them on the situation.
Similar efforts to those in Chico began to mount across the country. A public Google spreadsheet, the “Database of Localized Resources During COVID 19 Outbreak,” offered a catalog of mutual aid efforts underway. Anyone could search for their nearby aid groups and make a localized request for supplies or support.
The database was created in a collaborative effort by local organizations and individuals across the country, with a credit line at the bottom of the welcome page that read, “This database wouldn’t exist without the collaboration of the Rad Comms Network and without the hard work of many other folks doing what they can to catalogue efforts across the country.”
Many creative, autonomous efforts to provide free or subsidized food and other resources to communities hit hardest by the pandemic formed all over, such as the new free grocery program in Tucson, Arizona, dubbed the Tucson Food Share, or efforts by volunteers for the People’s Breakfast Oakland who donned gloves and N95 masks to hand out pre-packaged meals to houseless locals. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Socialist Rifle Association opened a physical space where they distributed free groceries and medical supplies to community members suffering financially after losing their jobs. Volunteers in Portland, Oregon, gave out hand sanitizer, Lysol spray, and other safety supplies at a resource fair and information session on pandemic preparedness organized for street medics and first responders. These are just a few of the hundreds of local, volunteer efforts that took place to provide mutual aid at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these efforts were detailed in an article published on It’s Going Down, which is a digital community center.
Oregon Fire Recovery Continued after Megafires through Mutual Aid
The summer of 2020 was a time of fire and devastation for much of the Western U.S. The combination of human-caused climate change and pervasive forestry mismanagement created the conditions for August 2020’s thunderstorms to cause record-breaking wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington (as well as additional fires all across the Western states into September). Because of the many factors—torrential winds, hot and dry terrains following drought and logging practices like clear-cutting, worsening storms due to climate change—the situation quickly grew into a disaster as individual forest fires connected and turned into megafires and scorched more than 10.2 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,000 buildings and took at least 37 people’s lives. In the midst of a global pandemic, people were forced to evacuate to crowded public spaces, as toxic chemical smoke made the air unbreathable and entire cities were advised not to open any windows or go outdoors, for weeks on end.
Those who were not impacted by fires might not realize how long it takes to recover from them. In Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley communities of Talent and Phoenix, just north of Ashland, many remained homeless more than a year after being displaced by the fires. The area, home to about 80,000 people, remained in full swing fire recovery mode well into 2021, long after the destructive Almeda Fire incinerated entire neighborhoods in early September 2020.
The fire particularly impacted low-income communities, burning up entire mobile home parks, which accounted for three-quarters of residences lost in the Almeda Fire. Many of the people most affected by the fires were Latinx immigrants—many of whom were farmworkers—and their families, who were unable to qualify for basic safety nets like bank accounts, housing insurance and recovery loans. In addition to their homes, these people lost their life’s savings, their jobs and any semblance of stability they’d had before the fire.
Dani Leonardo, a longtime Ashland resident who works with the nonprofit Post Growth Institute and volunteers with the local foundation Mi Valle Mi Hogar / My Valley My Home (which supports Latinx communities in Ashland and the surrounding region) pointed out that the Rogue Valley already had an affordable housing shortage prior to the fire. Following the fire, this shortage turned into crises for low-income immigrant communities.
Laura Loescher, an Ashland resident who works as a philanthropic adviser and leadership coach, noted that while Ashland is a more affluent community, the communities that were most devastated by the Almeda Fire were more lower-income, worker-based communities living in mobile homes and other small neighborhoods.
“It was so heartbreaking that the economic divide and injustice and inequality that was already present was furthered [by the fire],” she said. “Many people were aware of that divide, and in a couple of days right after the fire, there was no sense of what the official response would be or what the [relief] agencies were doing. There was no sense that anyone was coordinating anything. And so, regular people just started jumping in and offering things.”
Directly following the fire, the towns of Phoenix and Talent were inaccessible by car and people were living without access to power, water and basic supplies. Leonardo was among a group of volunteers from Ashland who organized a mutual aid effort on bicycle called the Ashland Bike Brigade directly following the fire. They loaded up their bicycles with basic supplies like water and toilet paper and rode through smoke and heat to offer aid.
“It was a unique, feel-good thing that came together in the first days after the fire,” Leonardo said. “There were people who were literally just stranded out there without drinking water. A few people here in Ashland learned about this—and one person, in particular, Donnie Maclurcan, who I work with at the Post Growth Institute—and rallied a small group of us.”
The first day following the fire, a small crew loaded up as much bottled water as they could carry, biked to Talent from Ashland and handed out water to anyone around, amid the still-smoldering ashes.
“It was both devastating and beautiful and I feel privileged to have been a part of that,” Leonardo said.
The initial bike brigade group, on the first day following the fire, was made up of just about eight people. The next day, 100-plus people from Ashland showed up for the effort.
“It was just this epic response from the community,” Leonardo said.
Over the next week or so, the Ashland Bike Brigade morphed into a larger mutual aid effort. People began to donate additional supplies—like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, face masks, food and clothing—as well as other forms of immediate relief. Many of the people who had taken an interest in the bike brigade began to help with things like coordinating volunteers, directing supplies to the correct places, and so on. The Rogue Volunteer Initiative, whose headquarters happened to be directly next door to where the bike brigade organizers were meeting, joined forces with the project. The efforts merged, and the Rogue Volunteer Initiative became a volunteer coordination and mutual aid organization hub, which at its peak encompassed 10 different distribution locations for supplies and resources around the Rogue Valley, all operated by local volunteers. The Rogue Volunteer Initiative also became a community Facebook group, which Leonardo said jumped from zero to 2,000 members in just over a week. The online group provided a space for people to match offers with needs organically.
“The positive impact and support that the volunteer initiative effort, including the Ashland Bike Brigade, was able to make is really immeasurable,” Leonardo says.
After the initial community rallying response began to slow down a bit, Leonardo said, the local foundation My Valley My Home became a sort of umbrella for the efforts of the Rogue Volunteer Initiative and the bike brigade. As of December 2020, there was just one community volunteer distribution site still in operation in Phoenix, but the Rogue Volunteer Initiative Facebook group remains active. Community members continue to use the group to connect people with supplies; some people post offerings of furniture they have to give or share information about local events related to fire recovery and response.
Long-Term Recovery, Listening Circles and Earth Altars
While larger aid programs like the American Red Cross and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) did show up to aid with fire recovery efforts in Phoenix and Talent, they only participated in the immediate emergency response, Loescher said. After the early relief stage of recovery concluded, those groups, for the most part, left. Long-term fire recovery has fallen to the generosity of community members, via donations, home-sharing, and mutual aid organizing.
In addition to on-the-ground mutual aid volunteer work, a significant influx of money donations from the community—including some creative fundraising initiatives—helped to sustain the community-led fire relief efforts. Loescher said she was heartened by the many donation stations that cropped up around the community—including one at the local Shakespeare Festival theater, which was closed to the public because of COVID-19.
“It was absolutely stunning to me [to see] the generosity of everyone wanting to help and do something [and] the level of coordinated action that began to happen among people who don’t know each other,” she said, noting that social media was a key tool to organize people. While she said goods donations were essential, she realized early on that the community would need an influx of money.
“There were a lot of donations pouring into nonprofits, but that wasn’t going to help a lot of the people who had lost their homes, who might’ve been undocumented or otherwise unable to access certain agency funding—plus, agency funding is limited in what it can be used for,” Loescher said.
So, being a philanthropic adviser, she reached out to her clients and connections.
“I just sent out a letter to a bunch of my clients and friends and family members and started raising money from outside of the community that I could then give directly to people as cash,” she said. Because she doesn’t speak Spanish, she contacted the people she knew who were connected with the local Latinx community and invited them to be the flow funders.
She called the effort the Community Resilience Flow Fund. At first, she raised money in large chunks from clients and friends, and then as word spread, money started coming in from the grassroots.
“I just started getting $50 and $100 sent to me on Venmo, [which I used to withdraw] cash,” she said. She then gave the money to four volunteers she had operating as flow funders in the community. “I would just give them cash and they would [distribute] it directly to families [in need].”
Flow fund donations continued to trickle in over the months, and by January 2021 Loescher had raised and given out about $120,000 in cash directly to families, in addition to other funds she raised for relief organizations.
In addition to working as an adviser and coach, Loescher is an artist, and as a way to contend with the grief of 2020 on a personal level, with the pandemic, racial justice upheavals and the enormity of the climate crisis, she began to create Earth Altar art pieces in 2020.
Her Earth Altars pieces are “impermanent art co-created with nature,” according to the website, and are made with material found in nature that is arranged in mandala-like circling patterns and shapes. They are circles of deep green fern leaves interspersed with orange trumpet flowers; spirals of bright blue chicory arranged with petals and acorns. They are eye-catching patterns of grasses, ferns, sticks, seeds and nuts and flower petals, leaves and rocks arranged in “beautiful ways.” If it is something that can be found walking around outdoors in Ashland, chances are good it will appear in an Earth Altar. After she arranges the altars, she photographs them, and the effect is a striking contrast of bright, circling color against a dark backdrop.
Loescher started out creating Earth Altars, one each day, for herself as a personal practice that helped her feel grounded and connected with the planet. Eventually, she began to share her art with the community and was offered an art show where she could display the altars via wall-hanging canvases and greeting cards. After the devastation caused by the fire, she had the idea to turn them into part of the relief effort.
“[After the fire] I immediately decided that that art show was going to be a fundraiser for this flow fund,” she said. All proceeds from the art show went directly into the flow fund toward fire relief, and then she donated art to families and local businesses impacted by the fires.
She also worked with local filmmaker Katie Teague to organize an event for families who had been impacted by the fire as well as those working on the front lines of disaster relief. They gathered people to create a Community Resilience Earth Altar as a healing ceremony, in a field near the location where the fire started in Ashland.
“We got a bunch of donated flowers from local farms and pulled together a group of people to create this giant altar,” she said. “It had a tree of life in the center, [four smaller circles] representing the four directions [and the four triangular sections coming out of the main central circle] representing each of the communities that were impacted.”
Loescher said in 2021 that fire recovery in the Rogue Valley was far from over. Because of a serious housing shortage, there were still many people without homes, people living in trailers, and families sharing space with generous neighbors or living in hotels and motels.
“One of the biggest challenges is that people are having to move out of the area, and [they are] the workforce and the backbone of the local economy,” she said. “[Having to leave] has a negative impact on them personally and on their families, and then also on the local economy here… families have broken up as marriages have ended out of the stress of dealing with [the aftermath of the fire], so now there are a lot of single moms with their kids, trying to make their way through this situation. What I’m focused on right now in particular [with the flow fund] is helping these single-mom families.”
Leonardo said in addition to the initial triage of the fire’s damages, My Valley My Home started to focus on what recovery means into the long term.
“[My Valley My Home is] looking at how to help ensure equity and inclusion in the long term, as we rebuild,” she said. “There are two catchphrases I’ve been thinking about in the last few months. One is ‘it’s a marathon and not a sprint,’ and another is ‘we’re building the plane and flying it at the same time.’ There’s something unique about the challenges of such an immediate and dire crisis that also has these long-term consequences. We need to create and build mechanisms that will carry and get us all the way through the marathon, but can also respond to that immediate need.”
My Valley My Home offers mentorship and support groups and held weekly listening circles and storytelling events in various places around the Rogue Valley, for individuals hit hard by the fires to share their stories with each other and be listened to.
“It’s also about having a place to put their grief,” Leonardo said. “One of the things I think that we are collectively aspiring toward [via My Valley My Home] is to create a model [for future aid and support] that can be replicated.” And, she said in order for the response to be worthy of replication, all of the elements involved in true recovery and creating a healthy community must be present in the effort: grief-tending and well-being, mutual aid and people-care, sustainability and environmental justice.
How Californians Came Together to Deal With Wildfires During the Pandemic
It was no fluke that the entire western U.S. was choked by wildfires and blanketed by smoke in the summer of 2020. The global climate disaster promises worsening fires, floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters. The rate of these disasters has doubled over the last 20 years, and this rapid increase is caused by humans, according to the top climate researchers around the world. On October 12, the United Nations warned that the Earth will become “an uninhabitable hell” for millions of people if world leaders continue to fail to take drastic actions necessary to curb the climate crisis.
In a report released in 2020, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction calculated that at least 7,348 major disasters had occurred between 2000 and 2019. The report, titled “Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview of the Last 20 Years,” estimates that these disasters cost 1.23 million people their lives, impacted 4.2 billion people, and cost about $2.97 trillion in “economic losses worldwide.”
In an effort to mitigate increasing climate impacts, many cities in the U.S. are implementing climate emergency preparedness plans. And at a micro-level, individuals around the nation are working to mobilize their neighborhoods to prepare for increasing climate impacts. In the surf-meets-redwoods city of Santa Cruz, California, about 70 miles south of San Francisco, a coalition of neighbors came together mid-pandemic to mitigate the potential impacts of foreboding disasters. The neighbors were prompted by the efforts of one woman, Nora Shalen*, a small business owner who became increasingly concerned by the research reports coming out about climate change. Her neighborhood formed an emergency preparedness network to offer mutual aid and a plan for resiliency when faced with increasing challenges in the future.
As it happened, the network was formed just in time, before the devastation struck the Santa Cruz region. While much of the West Coast has experienced historic wildfire impacts in 2020, the blaze in Santa Cruz, dubbed the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires, caused some of the worst damage to date. As James Ross Gardner wrote in a September 28 New Yorker article, “of the more than seven thousand five hundred structures damaged or destroyed by California wildfires so far this year, C.Z.U. burned a fifth of them.”
And, Gardner further reports, “Climate change undoubtedly played a role, scientists affirm. The fires this summer resulted from a confluence of factors, including a severe drought that California began experiencing in 2012 and this year’s unprecedented heat waves, in August and early September, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a University of California wildfire expert, said, adding that, together, these factors produced ‘a condition in California where our fuels are basically drier than they’ve ever been. … Then we get this slightly unprecedented lightning storm’ with thousands of strikes ‘within thirty-six hours.’”
In Santa Cruz, the smoke grew so thick over the city that daytime passed for night. Residents were ordered to evacuate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and local aid workers and volunteers rushed to piece together emergency shelters that would allow for social distancing.
Shalen, a Santa Cruz resident of 17 years, recalls having to turn on her car headlights to see in the middle of the afternoon. She said having the emergency resilience group helped the neighborhood to navigate weeks on end of unbreathable air, darkness and encroaching fires.
“One piece of feedback people kept giving me was that before we started doing this they were feeling really anxious and alone about the pandemic, about what’s happening in the country,” she said. “They realized once they started participating [in the emergency preparedness effort] that they were feeling a sense of well-being, feeling connected, feeling empowered.”
How to Start
While Shalen had no community organizing experience and wasn’t sure how the idea would be met by her neighbors—many of whom she had never spoken with before—she decided to take action. She began by distributing flyers in the neighborhood and inviting people interested in the project to email her. She said it’s important to note that she, along with her husband, framed the initial outreach as an invitation to people to enter into a mutual aid agreement and bring their best selves to the project.
“All this happened organically, as people just wanted to find a sense of purpose,” Shalen said. “I didn’t really know these people and it was a lot to ask of strangers, so my husband and I wrote this email introducing the idea of mutual aid. This turned out to be very important, it’s what distinguishes what we’re doing from other neighborhoods,” she said. “We explained that mutual aid is based on an ethic of mutuality, care and resourcefulness, and attending to the most vulnerable. I really wanted to start off with a certain mindset rather than saying, ‘This is scary.’ It was about introducing the idea with an expectation of agency and capability in the face of disruption.”
In the email, she linked to an article predicting that the 2020 fire season would be worse than the previous year and explained that because the pandemic was already impacting the city and county emergency budgets, in a widespread emergency, those emergency services were likely to be overwhelmed and residents faced the possibility of having to be their own first responders.
“I mentioned [in the email] that if we approach these preparedness exercises [prior to an emergency], we will make a giant leap in our ability to respond or to have a resilient outcome; and if we choose to go it alone, we will all be weakened,” she said. “If [we recognize] that we are each other’s immune system, and we prepare, it will strengthen each of us individually and make us all more resilient. I also said that if we have a clear plan, it helps our chances of being able to think clearly and calmly as a group.”
Then, a small coalition of interested neighbors began to hold meetings online, then in socially distanced ways outside. The group quickly grew into a structured one, with each person working together to come up with a plan to tackle any given emergency and assist neighbors in need. While not every household was interested or able to participate, those involved took stock of what resources and skills they collectively had to offer by filling out shared Google Document questionnaires. They shared specifics about their professional skills, adjunct skills, medications and/or special needs during a given emergency. The group discovered that the few blocks of residents who had responded to the survey had all the requisite qualifications needed to form an emergency preparedness team: they ranged from doctors, nurses and EMT workers willing to become emergency medics, to mental health professionals, firefighters and many others who offered a range of additional skills. From there on, they began to form teams based on specific skill sets.
In an initial Zoom call, they reviewed their basic emergency prep plan, agreed on an emergency meeting place, and one family offered their home as a care shelter for seniors and/or families with small children that might be vulnerable during a disaster. Another person offered their home as a place for anyone experiencing emotional or physical trauma.
“If you can have some basic clarity, [decide on] practical steps and roles, it makes a big difference,” Shalen said. “We all know where to meet and have a place where we can go if we’re injured. If you’re elderly, you have a place to go where you will not be alone and there will be someone to help you.”
Among the group’s many Google Documents is a personal preparation sheet, which includes a checklist of items to include in an emergency grab-and-go bag, how to prepare for fires or an earthquake, how to prepare for a three-day emergency or a month-long emergency, and so on.
Shalen said that because the Santa Cruz neighbors prepared themselves for a number of potentially dangerous scenarios—from earthquakes to water shortages—prior to the fires, the group was able to mitigate feelings of panic or helplessness when the fires hit. Her hope is that their neighborhood collaboration can serve as a replicable model for how any community in any part of the country might become better prepared.
Mapping the Neighborhood
One of the resources the Santa Cruz group used is a program offered by the Emergency Management Division of the state of Washington called Map Your Neighborhood (MYN). This program offers step-by-step guidance to improve emergency preparedness in small neighborhood communities. According to the MYN website, the idea is “to improve disaster readiness at the neighborhood level, 15-20 homes or a defined area that you can canvas in 1 hour.”
The group also looked to Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs, and two members completed an online CERT training through the University of Utah, followed by a COVID-compliant in-person CERT training in Santa Cruz.
Richard Roullard, one of the members who completed the training, said CERT has been a key resource. “Much of what we were trying to create [in our neighborhood] already exists,” he said.
Once the group had formed and agreed to participate, Shalen sent each member a bright yellow folder including the MYN program’s nine crucial steps to take immediately following a disaster. The folders also included an emergency contact list the neighbors had filled out online and a map of the street, as well as a laminated sign to indicate whether anyone needed assistance with one side reading “HELP” and the opposite side that said “OKAY,” which the MYN program recommends placing on the front door or in a window visible from the street during an emergency.
The neighbors also masked up to meet in person and walk around the neighborhood, physically mapping out the locations of potentially dangerous utilities, like gas and water mains, electrical lines, etc., in their surrounding blocks, as recommended by MYN.
“We all put on our masks, and we brought our folders, we showed up at our meeting place and then we went from house to house and carefully marked and took note of where the gas and water turn-offs were,” Shalen said. “What was really amazing is that everybody had a blast. People were talking to each other, everybody was getting to know each other. And in the end, we put a portable speaker at the center of the street and we had a little dance party and raffle to celebrate.”
Next, the group formed action teams within the larger group.
“Everybody was so energized by the in-person MYN event that during the next Zoom call we started thinking about our different skill sets,” she adds. “It turns out, we have two retired surgical nurses, a firefighter and a paramedic [along the street]. There are several neighbors with wilderness survival skills training… We have people who know CPR or have emergency first responder training.”
The group created an emergency medical responders’ team, an emergency radio communications team, and a team dedicated to going door-to-door to check on seniors, differently abled individuals, or those with little kids. Several neighbors with professional water resources expertise became dedicated to a water resilience information team. One member created a Google Drive folder dedicated to water, which includes a dynamic FAQ where neighbors can post questions for the member to respond to.
Another group, made up of trauma survivors and mental health experts, formed as an emotional resilience team dedicated to helping those experiencing a fight-flight-freeze trauma response or other mental health impacts during a given emergency. Shalen, who joined the emotional resilience team, says it’s been critical to offer this kind of support throughout the fires and pandemic.
“The emotional resilience team is what distinguishes our group from other neighborhood disaster approaches that focus on known impacts of natural disasters and are often motivated by fear,” Shalen said. “Our approach is more proactive. The emotional resilience team has emotional first aid tools for emergencies, but we also have practices for strengthening trauma resilience in advance of an emergency. My hope is that this will create the conditions for our street being an island of sanity and stability as things unravel in unpredictable ways following the election.”
Plan in Action
Not long after the emotional resilience group was formed, the skies darkened, the air outside became unhealthy to breathe and emergency evacuation orders began to take effect as the wildfires began to threaten Santa Cruz. While Shalen’s neighborhood is located closer to the ocean, and most of the fire devastation happened up in the forested hills, she said she and her neighbors were aware of the fires that had spread to destroy entire towns in Northern California recently so they were on alert. She adds that rather than panicking or adopting an “every house for themselves” attitude, Shalen’s neighborhood put their plans into place.
“It was really good that we had a system in place,” she said. “We all had roles. We had clarity about a lot of things, and mostly we had the trust and communication, and that was what we relied on the most.”
The team assigned to check on neighbors who were elderly and/or differently abled began to go door-to-door every day. Neighbors stayed in communication and took advantage of the support system.
“We knew who the vulnerable people were,” Shalen said. “We went to their doors and asked ‘Are you doing okay? Can we do anything for you? Do you have any concerns?’ A lot of the seniors really just wanted to talk because they felt alone, [since] they don’t go online as often or stay in constant communication in the same way.”
Since the fires, more neighbors have joined the resilience group.
“We had a resilient response and it actually made us feel closer,” she said. “What’s really nice is I now have some very good friends on the street, which was kind of a happy accident… it’s been deepening the trust among us, and there’s a lot of appreciation. All of us are so glad we had this in place.”
She adds that looking toward the future, with the election and the uncertainty that lies ahead, she is especially glad the resiliency group is in place.
“I’m glad we started with the mindset of collaboration, care for the vulnerable, and coming to it with our best self and a sense of inner resourcefulness and agency,” she said. “I think what lies ahead is going to come down to your capacity for self-regulation. And I think we really do need each other. Even if it’s just a few neighbors, our capacity to endure what lies ahead will be much more enhanced if we have a foundational mindset that we are in this together. It creates a better chance of group and individual emotional resilience. It helps our capacity to remain clear, calm, connected, flexible, compassionate and collaborative. It ensures a much more resilient response to whatever comes at us—whether it’s social unrest or even violence, or overlapping things that we can’t anticipate.”
*Name has been changed to protect their identity.