One of the most important developments during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise of mutual aid organizations. Many volunteers throughout New Jersey have made extraordinary efforts to provide food and other supplies to members of their communities during difficult economic times and major concerns about public health.
One of the first such organizations created in New Jersey is Mutual Morris.
Photo: New Jersey is Mutual Morris team
When interviewing three members of Mutual Morris, Theresa Markila, Renee Shalhoub and Lily Benavides, one of their primary concerns was to make clear that the purpose of mutual aid was community empowerment and making certain that all within a community have the resources they need -- a roof over their head, food on the table, and clothes to wear -- something that government at all levels often fails to provide.
"We are stronger when we all become involved in the process of providing for the community's needs and are part of something that allows us to do that,” stated Renee Shalhoub.
Mutual Morris began in mid-February 2020, as founders Theresa Markila and Renee Shalhoub realized that many people in Morris County might soon find themselves in need of groceries and basic supplies. They knew that while COVID-19 did not cause the economic divide, it would both expose this inequality and make it worse. As people lost their jobs or were ordered to shelter in place, many were either unable to afford the necessary supplies or were concerned about going out to the store and putting their health at risk.
The organizers began to pass out fliers with information and recommendations about taking care during the upcoming crisis - - and distributed hand soap and oranges. At the same time, they began fundraising. While there was strong support for their efforts from the start, what was raised was never enough to address the need.
What started as an effort that assisted 30 families, now assists upwards of 500 families, 30 - 40 families per week. Families in the network live in almost every town in Morris County.
"In the first weeks of this process, I would be on the phone for 14 hours a day," said Lily Benavides, one of the organizers of Mutual Morris. "As soon as I hung up, someone else would call, needing help, wanting to volunteer, wanting to be part of this effort."
While addressing the crisis created by a food shortage, organizers also strove to provide "culturally relevant" food and food that meets people's dietary restrictions based on health issues or food allergies, not simply any food that might be available. The Mutual Morris team worked to build relationships with the families, in order to create a more cohesive community and to find out what people really needed and wanted.
"We have to respect people's autonomy and the choices that people make,” said Renee Shalhoub, one of Mutual Morris’ founders. "We want to provide food that people enjoy. No one is less than anyone else. All the families are part of our family. We treat them that way."
"We are not providing charity; we build and maintain relationships with community members who are part of our conversations and decision-making processes and who often become active volunteers and contributors to the network in their own ways," said Theresa Markila.
The organization's long-term vision includes providing fresh food to all by growing much of it. Food sovereignty and self-sufficiency are important elements of a strong, empowered community. The creation of worker cooperatives and other challenges to capitalism are also parts of the ultimate solution.
Recently, Mutual Morris organized a book giveaway for the holidays. They hoped for hundreds of donated books, but instead received thousands. They received so many books that they have placed a hold on the drive and ask that instead of donating now, people might tuck the books away in preparation for subsequent book drives in the weeks and months ahead.
Additionally, community members are making holidays crafts that will be sold at two holiday festivals, including one on December 12th in Hopatcong.
After months of relative calm, following the reopening of schools and the reopening of much of the economy, Mutual Morris is becoming busier again as the numbers of people with COVID is on the rise. They are in need of volunteers to help with buying and delivering food and working social media. All volunteers in the community will follow safety protocol and be asked to wear face masks and gloves. Delivery is contactless.
For more information and support, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For help with food or supplies, call 1-800-535-9383.
To volunteer, contact Theresa at 973-876-6618 or Renee at 973-476-3359.
Mutual Aid Morris has helped to form a federation of affiliate mutual aid groups in New Jersey including Union County Mutual Aid and Mutual Passaic County. (See below for descriptions.)
Union County Mutual Aid formed in March of 2020 in response to the economic hardships that were befalling their community due to the covid pandemic and the local and state government’s failure to meet people’s basic needs. UCMA is run by volunteers from throughout the county who were inspired by the organizational strategies of Mutual Morris in northwest Jersey. Mutual Morris has been giving guidance and support to UCMA since day one. UCMA members have been able to get culturally relevant and quality groceries delivered to those in need, either due to economic hardship or due to their need to isolate because of health risks. Members have also run food giveaways and winter accessories/coat giveaways.
With the impending housing crisis coming up members are also working on a Housing “know your rights” training for those facing a loss of housing.
UCMA stands by the motto of “solidarity, not charity.” They adhere to the standard practices of mutual aid and seek to build and strengthen their community by working together to figure out strategies that meet each other's needs, such as food, housing, and any basic necessities. Core organizers have begun talking about trying to create a network of services from appliance and home repairs, to babysitting, pet care and even mental health services. All of these services would be provided by community members and delivered to members in need. The potential services provided can be broad and will be based on the communities’ needs.
For assistance call: 1-800-535-9383
Craig Cayetano, lead organizer of Mutual Passaic County writes, “I was furloughed during the beginning of the pandemic for a few months and saw friends start Mutual Morris, who, along with North Jersey Mutual Aid and groups like Silk City Socialists, were helping out locally. We ended up feeding over a hundred families across Passaic County by the end of May. We are re-organizing now since families have been reaching out again and want to prepare for winter.”
To help with volunteering, ideas, time or to donate find out more on their Facebook page.
The Newark Water Coalition is a group of members from various organizations across Newark. The Newark Water Coalition shows up with clean water in Newark where we need to. Our intention is to cultivate a self-determined local, national, and international community of people who recognize the connection between systemic environmental racism and capitalism. NWC fights to liberate clean water as a source of life for all, particularly the oppressed and vulnerable. We provide masks, hand sanitizer and clean water for homes, distributions, and mutual aid groups. People can volunteer for distributions every Saturday - 7 Wilson Ave Newark Nj 07105 from 11am to 3pm. The Newark Water Coalition is looking to launch several projects from more distribution locations to community lead testing programs. The coalition is always looking for volunteers to do website work, produce content, manage and help raise funds and various operational tasks. We have serviced over 200 families in 16 days of operating the Water Box which is a mobile filtration unit donated by the non-profit organization called 501CTHREE.
Our underlying philosophy of mutual aid is self-sustainability. Communities can show up for other communities by sharing the resources, skills, and time that they have to uplift and help one another. When you can provide for a community it is the biggest act of radical love there is. All struggles are interconnected, and mutual aid connects the dots even more for folks. Mutual aid when thought of as a tactic for liberation can be powerful. Come join the fight!
Editor's Note: Madelyn Hoffman, a seasoned activist, was director of the Grass-Roots Environmental Organization and director of New Jersey Peace Action. She was Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential running mate in New Jersey in 1996. The following year she ran for New Jersey governor as a Green. She also ran as a Green for U.S. Senate in 2018, receiving 25,150 votes, and ran for the same seat again in 2020. You can read more about Madelyn's achievements here.