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Organizers Say COVID-19 Demands Solidarity, Not Charity

Poster in a bookstore window
A poster for Richmond Mutual Aid and Community Care posted in the window of Chop Suey Books. (Photo: David Streever/VPM)

Food, clothing, medicine, and sanitary products are just some of the many items being distributed by RVA COVID-19 Mutual Aid and Community Care during the pandemic.

According to Ayanna Ogaldez, a founding member of the group, they originally formed two years ago to provide assistance to people without heat during a cold snap. “Folks that are left-leaning here in Richmond, anarchists and folks like that, got together because we realized that the city's response, specifically to houseless folks in Richmond, was not sufficient,” she said.

She says with the coronavirus outbreak, they’re again seeing gaps in the city response, and are trying to support people in their community more directly than non-profits or charity groups. “We're filling these gaps, because there are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks and aren't getting what they need,” she said.

Now Ogaldez and others are turning their efforts to providing necessities to those struggling with the effects of extended lockdowns. One of their most common requests is for fresh produce and kids’ snacks. Ogaldez says, “Richmond city schools are closed for the rest of the school year and so a lot of kids are without that meal that they would get at school.”

Supplies are donated by individuals, community organizations, and local businesses. One such business is Idle Hands Bakery, located in the Fan, which has provided loaves of bread. Proprietor Joe Metzler has been distributing bread not only through RVA Mutual Aid, but also through other community organizations and the bakery’s storefront. In March, Metzler set up a gofundme campaign to help keep the bakery open and ensure his employees are paid.

The campaign met its goal of $20,000, and in a statement on the campaign page, Metzler said, “I’ve floated one pay period and can float the next even though the staff is not on the schedule and not working. I’ve been able to pay April’s rent and should have May covered as well. And more importantly, I’ve been able to continue to bake and hand out (from a distance of course) bread for free to so many people who have lost their jobs.”

Kalia Harris, a local community organizer involved in RVA Mutual Aid, explained they don’t consider their work a form of charity. “The difference between mutual aid and say, charity or nonprofit work, is that we are just people in community with one another,” Harris said. “And where state powers may have... their responses, they don't always target that at the most marginalized folks in our community that need that support.”

Ogaldez says that the group has been aware since the beginning of the risk that distributing aid might inadvertently spread the coronavirus. She says they’ve abided by strict sanitation guidelines to minimize the risk: “You have to sanitize your car, you have to wear gloves and a mask. If you're in our space where all of our supplies have been sanitized, you have to have washed your hands and you have to have a mask on.”

One of the most important organizing tools the group has used is a Facebook page, where in addition to calling for donations and assistance, members of the community can post requests that aren’t covered under their normal donations. “Sometimes we'll put on the group like, ‘Hey, we need a mop,’ or something that's just completely random... and so that's where you'll see folks in the digital community kind of coming together and helping to meet those needs as well,” Harris said.

In the long run, Harris hopes the model of RVA Mutual Aid will lead people to view their communities differently, even after the coronavirus outbreak subsides. “What does it look like moving forward for us, knowing that the state's not meeting our needs?” Harris asks. “And what does it look like for us moving forward to take care of each other and to include that in our governance?”

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