June 17, 2020

Princeton Mutual Aid Fuses Diverse Community Groups and Individuals

By Donald Gilpin

“Solidarity not charity” is the slogan for Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), the three-month-old local branch of a nationwide organization seeking to “build community and work together towards a more just and equitable world.”

Since March, PMA members “have connected neighbors with groceries and medicine, bikes and bassinet, clothing and shoes,” according to the draft of a PMA op-ed. “Members have shown up at protests to support black lives, abolish prisons, and end racist policing. People previously unknown to each other have negotiated to lower each other’s utility bills and helped pay rent.”

Students adjusting to remote learning have received books, laptops, and printers. Other students have met with tutors. Musicians are planning mini-concerts for seniors, and new friends are checking in on neighbors who may be feeling isolated.

“We are learning and listening and thinking and building together, wrestling with hard discussions and showing up for each other,” the op-ed draft states. “What powers these actions is our shared conviction that our wellbeing is interconnected and interdependent; that none of us can be truly free or safe or well — until we all are.”

PMA was created in large part by students collaborating with other activists and locals, and it developed as an intergenerational, multiracial, cross-class collective. Shuk Ying Chan, a Princeton University graduate student in politics, was a member of the original Princeton group that gathered in March. “PMA is unique and important to me because of our emphasis on empowerment and solidarity, rather than charity,” she wrote in an email. “This means that we recognize people who are in precarious situations because the political, economic, and social structures that we live under are deeply unjust.”

She continued, “Communities across the U.S. have been struggling with deep and entrenched inequalities for decades, and Princeton is no exception. In the face of injustice and vulnerability, helping one another isn’t altruism. It’s just a basic requirement of morality.”

Explaining the political inclination of the organization, she noted, “Unlike some charitable organizations, we do not shy away from activism and agitation for structural change, because we recognize that individual relationships of solidarity are valuable but ultimately insufficient to secure the rights, resources, and opportunities that people are entitled to in order to pursue a reasonably decent life. For that, we need to keep pushing for structural change.”

PMA members have been involved in campaigns for immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, police reform, the Black Lives Matter movement, and others.

The work of PMA is focused on “meeting individual asks” and partnering with local organizations. “Our members build a relationship with the neighbors they’ve delivered things to and check in with them regularly to see how they’re doing,” said Chan. “Sometimes a neighbor joins PMA as a member, too.”

PMA works with Unidad Latina en Accion NJ and Princeton Mobile Food Pantry in delivering food packs, and with Witherspoon Street Presbyterian church in distributing masks and communion kits. They plan soon to offer ESL classes for locals who don’t speak English as a first language.

Anastasia Mann, a historian of U.S. social welfare and a 20-year Princeton resident who has been involved in various nonprofit and government endeavors from LALDEF to the Princeton Civil Rights Commission, was one of the initial participants in PMA. “Mutual aid has found its moment because in mutual aid we take care of us,” she said. “We believe people when they say what they need and then we try to help them get it. It’s non-partisan and the self-help idea is as old as time. In fact, although PMA grew out of this crisis, the ideas have been around for a long time. They were developed mostly by black women and others for whom existing systems never worked — communities where individuals have always had to take care of each other.”

Mann emphasized how inclusive and collaborative the PMA group is, “a mutual aid enterprise that is multi-faceted and always evolving.” She wrote in an email, “The MUTUAL piece of mutual aid is very real. Everyone who participates benefits. Most of us have gotten handmade masks through mutual aid, some have acquired much-needed bicycles, all of us are benefiting from the camaraderie and espirit de corps of working to build a fairer, more just, and inclusive world.”

Mann described how last week the mother of a high school student let them know that her child was about to celebrate their 16th birthday. She was out of work and didn’t have money for a cake. A neighbor saw the request on the PMA spreadsheet and picked it up. Her own child had just turned 16 so she knew what was called for, and ultimately the birthday celebration included a made-to-order cake, dinner for the family, balloons, and a banner — all delivered to their doorstep. “By all appearances, a very sweet sixteen,” said Mann.

Hrishi Somayaji, a Princeton University chemistry graduate student, has also been involved with PMA from its inception. “As I see it, PMA is a valuable resource, especially for connecting the University community to the rest of the town,” he said. “These connections frankly do not happen much at all. As a University grad student, I have met dozens of people I would not have otherwise and formed valuable relationships with many of them.”

He continued, “What we want to do is to build an actual tight knit community in Princeton, to mitigate the asymmetry, and to work against the racial and class segregation present in this town. A tighter community network is stronger in pushing for change on the local level. PMA has at its core a mission to get stuff done, plain and simple.”

Fatima Mughal, a local public school teacher, activist, and community organizer, described PMA as “a source of light in a very heavy time.” She explained how her friends saw how many neighbors and acquaintances had had hours cut or were losing their jobs, worrying about putting food on the table, and paying their rent. “We knew that our system does not have social safety nets in place to support folks in this situation, and we were inspired by the mutual aid networks that began popping up across the country,” she said.

What began as a phone call involving about five people grew into a community-wide network of more than 170 of all ages and backgrounds, Mughal said. “We’re really excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish and how much we’ve grown in the last two months, but we also recognize we have a long way to go to truly encompass the concept of mutual aid,” she wrote in an email. “We also recognize that it’s not a new concept. Mutual aid is something that marginalized communities around the world have always done as a means of survival, just not using that title.”

She added, “Our goal is for our network to build bridges across the diverse communities of Princeton and continue on past the pandemic, because we know this emergency did not begin, nor will it end, with COVID-19.”

“PMA needs support,” Mann wrote. “We spend about $2,000 per week just on groceries and need to replenish that weekly, plus lots of other things, including cash asks, that arise. People can look at the website, princetonmutualaid.com, to see how they might want to participate.”