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Dec 10, 20

Building Community and Support Around Sustainable Mutual Aid Projects

Report from Northern Colorado Community Mutual Aid and Defense on suggestions for ways to build community and support around mutual aid programs.

An important part of building sustainable mutual aid projects, especially those survival programs that seek to redistribute expensive gear that cannot be easily appropriated, is a consistent effort to reach out to new people who may have excess supplies and are willing to give them but have not given them away yet.

This can often be done through interpersonal networks, but gear like tents, sleeping bags, and winter clothing, vital to the survival of the unhoused, are rare and expensive, limiting mutual aid projects around providing for unhoused neighbors. Moreover, social media invitations,  while effective at reaching larger audiences, run into similar problems with cost. In cities and communities where the situation of the unhoused is as dire as in Northern Colorado (as is likely the case), relying upon a slow trickle of goods donated by those who are already engaged in radical projects or who may follow a mutual aid group on social media is insufficient, with deadly results.

In light of this, members of our mutual aid committee and close comrades developed what we believe to be a novel system of soliciting materials for mutual aid drives that delivers large quantities of survival goods on a short time frame with minimal cost and time commitment.  This method, based on a project many Scout troops engage in, resulted in the collection and redistribution of hundreds of pounds of food, clothing, toiletries, and survival gear for unhoused people in our communities, and can be replicated by any mutual aid group.

The project itself can have its work divided into three types and we found each to take roughly the same amount of time, with the final steps taking the longest. The timetable for the project was a few days longer than a week, including the wrangling of friends to participate in distribution and securing a place to store the goods after we learned how much was donated.

First, we collected brown grocery bags from a local “woke” store. Calling ahead and explaining the project yielded a few hundred bags we were able to pick up within an hour. To these bags, we attached a single sheet of paper explaining the project, our organization, and the purpose of mutual aid, with our contact info bookending.

After determining the neighborhoods we deemed most likely to have and share survival gear, teams of two or three spread through a local city. Leaving the bags, with their attached notes, on door handles and in door-jams, teams were able to cover between 50 and 100 houses per hour. Most of this work was done in one go the Saturday before collection, though a significant amount was done on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week.

Copy of our outreach flyer.

On the day of collection, groups of two and three drove around the neighborhoods where bags were left and collected the donated items. This step took many trips, as the goods collected surprised us in terms of quantity and we had to frequently unload our full cars to fit more supplies. We took what was gathered, sorted them into food (canned and otherwise), clothing, survival gear, and toiletries, then stored them.

In total, about twenty hours of work – with many opportunities to streamline the process – yielded monumental results. We intend to repeat the process in the communities we serve and are keeping a map of whatever neighborhood we visit so as to not repeatedly hit any one place.

Some tips and ideas for improvement:

  • Leave thank you notes when picking up bags.  This will give you a clear number of places that donated and will build good will with your neighbors. Remind them why their help matters, they may choose to become more involved in mutual aid because of your labor.
  • Experiment in the sorts of neighborhoods you leave bags in. We found success in neighborhoods with mid priced rentals and cheaper homes, as well as in older neighborhoods. We did not find as much success in student neighborhoods. These are local conditions, though, and hitting a variety of communities can give you a better idea of where your labor is best spent.
  • There are plenty of easy ways to compartmentalize tasks in this, which may be useful in guaranteeing safety of participants while also bringing newer/less known people in. Distribution of bags comes to mind first.
  • Turn around time should be quick, but not too fast. Anecdotally, it seems like neighborhoods we hit on Tuesday and Wednesday donated at higher rates, but not enough data was collected to test this. Collecting goods any more than a week after leaving bags seems like it would lead to worse results, as may collection within a day or two of distribution.
  • Incorporating local events or referencing the season may be a good way to increase donations. A supply drive around Christmas may be more bountiful than one in mid-January, for example. In cities where anti-homeless persecution is well known, this information can be used to drive home the need for those extra goods a household may have.
  • Be aware of the weather. We distributed during a windstorm and this blew away a number of bags, decreasing donations in that neighborhood.

A project like this is easily to replicate and has shown results. With some small changes, it can provide a covid-safe, easily expandable and labor saving method to mass gear collection. Let us know how things go, if you try this method: [email protected].

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