Words by Kass Degus
Photos provided by organizations
Mutual Aid has become a crucial aspect of community organizing and support in cities across the United States. Here in Rochester, Mutual Aid organizations provide essential services and resources to those in need, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. These organizations operate on the principles of solidarity, collective care, and direct action, with the goal of building stronger, more resilient communities.
We want to spotlight just a few of the many Mutual Aid groups that are active in our community and highlight the ways they’ve positively impacted our city. We interviewed five local organizations about their work and contributions to Rochester’s vibrant culture of activism and social justice.
Who are you?
REACH Advocacy Inc.: We assist people experiencing chronic homelessness in Monroe County. REACH promotes housing as a human right by providing shelter and housing, and by advocating for housing justice.
490 Farmers Inc.: We are a community garden that is maintained and constantly improved upon by the community it serves. We have individual garden plots alongside our other projects, all designed to combat food insecurity here in Rochester. The Farm also plays host to workshops and other community events. 490 Farmers believes that food is a human right; that everyone has dignity; and that gardening is good for the soul.
Being Black in the Burbs: We’re a grassroots organization focused on highlighting and combating anti-Black racism and discrimination, and poverty. We also provide the suburbs’ local governments, organizations, and individuals with the tools and resources they need to become anti-racist. This includes community education, access to anti-racist curricula, and instruction in advocacy for equity. While our group centers and lifts Black and Brown people who live in the suburbs, we provide material support, aid, and assistance to people of all ethnicities and from all walks of life.
Recovery All Ways: We are a 501c3 nonprofit that meets people where they are on their path to recovery. One size does not fit all when it comes to recovery and we know that first hand. It is our mission to support anyone affected by substance use disorder, mental illness, and/or homelessness. Whenever. Wherever. Forever.
Rochester Mutual Aid Network: RMAN is one of the organizations that started when the COVID lockdowns began. We first focused on disaster relief, making sure folks could get their day to day needs met during a global pandemic, and we still work in that space. We’ve also grown into an organization that promotes education through our skillshares, as well as developing more robust systems of care through our partnerships with organizations, like 490 Farmers.
RAW Community Event
Mutual Aid is a broad term—how does your organization define it?
REACH: Mutual Aid means walking alongside people experiencing trauma, and providing support and respect for each individual and their unique needs.
490: Mutual Aid is coming together with our community to grow, build, and learn. We don’t try to prescribe solutions to the problems faced by the people we live with; instead, we invite them to the table so we can figure it out together. Mutual Aid is not charity, but rather building resilient networks that can help us all overcome the challenges we face.
BBitB: Mutual Aid runs from the bottom up and builds community—meaning the folx that contribute the most to Mutual Aid are not wealthy. The most important piece to Mutual Aid is equity and eliminating barriers around the people who need help. Mutual Aid is knowing this world has enough food, housing, and water to meet basic human needs, and more! Mutual Aid is unlearning the systems that shamed people for being poor and acknowledging the failure of the government and its officials.
RAW: Every Sunday, no matter the weather, a group of volunteers hand out bagged lunches, hot coffee, clothing, hygiene kits, NARCAN, and so much more to those who need it the most in our community. Another group also fills up backpacks and sets out on foot to literally meet people where they are with supplies—supplies that very well could be life saving. Our group also picks up and disposes of used syringes. This is Mutual Aid.
RMAN: To us, it is the antithesis of capitalist modes of production and consumption. Capitalism is fueled by the need for growth and profit; Mutual Aid systems are based around need and sustainability. Mutual Aid seeks to improve everyday living conditions through direct, immediate aid, but it also seeks to build sustainable systems outside of capitalism so we can live peacefully and sustainably. There is no competition for capitalism, people don’t have the chance to choose a different life, a different way to live and produce the things they need. Those who are struggling are held hostage by the life they were born into. Mutual Aid systems, long-term, seek to build a parallel system of production through cooperation. We want to be able to meet our own needs so folks can choose to live a life of Mutual Aid, instead of being coerced by the risk of starvation and state-sponsored violence to continue their lives under capitalism.
Being Black in the Burbs
What are you focusing on right now?
REACH: We have a three-fold mission: we shelter persons experiencing chronic homelessness through Project Haven, a multi-site supportive transitional shelter system; we plan to build a tiny home village, Edgerton Meadows, to provide a small, supported, affordable home for persons experiencing homelessness living on very low incomes; and finally, we advocate for housing as a human right by educating others and collaborating with other community organizations working towards the same goals.
490: As much as we wish we could point to a slew of great new initiatives and projects, the Farm is currently focused on protecting what our community has already built. The city government and the state Department of Transportation are pushing us to remove key things from the Farm, such as the Children’s Garden playset and many of our benches and tables.
BBitB: We are focusing on building a broader Mutual Aid community through our subgroups, Mutual Aid (sustainable living, planning and events), Housing Education and Advocacy, and Education Equity. The foundation is set and now we are working on outreach.
RAW: As always, RAW is focused on supporting anyone who struggles with a mental illness, substance use disorder and/or homelessness. With no judgment, just open arms and love.
RMAN: We’d really like to move more into physical spaces. RMAN started online—obviously, we have folks out in the real world shopping and delivering, but our community exists almost exclusively online. Getting a physical space to share with other direct action organizations would help solidify the relationships we already have, and allow us to be even more effective. Our friends at 490 Farmers have a thriving community for many reasons, but one that sticks out is their ability to work and share space together. We would love to experience that in RMAN.
Why do you think the Mutual Aid scene in Rochester is so active?
REACH: We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Rochester community over the last eight years. Monroe County includes many people who willingly give their time, talents, and financial support. REACH began with community volunteers who saw a need to create shelter for people without a safe, warm home. Our organization is one of many addressing various needs in our community. Simply: Rochester is a caring community!
490: Rochester is one of the poorest cities of its size in the entire country. We are wracked by the hollowing out of public services in the name of security funding. The people of our city have recognized this, and are coming together to provide for each other.
BBitB: During the pandemic, more people (including our group) wanted to learn more about Mutual Aid and become involved. We think Mutual Aid is so active in the Rochester area due to the consistent failure of government agencies. There has been little to no progress in addressing poverty, leaving community members to turn to each other for solutions.
RAW: We believe that gaps in services and systemic issues are the reason. People see a need and a broken system and want to make a change.
RMAN: Rochester has always been a hard town. When folks understand struggle, they understand how important community is to surviving that struggle. We see hardship around every corner:folks are very eager to help as soon as they see an actionable opportunity. Seeing folks strive to help one another as best they can solely because it’s the right thing to do is a powerful experience. It allows folks to imagine a different world. COVID really lit a fire in folks—our community came to realize that we can’t depend on the existing systems if we want to live safe, dignified lives. When we start to connect with the folks around us, though, who are experiencing the same issues, we can often find what we need to make it through. That hope for a new world can fuel us to build the world we want to live in.
A REACH Shelter.
How can the community best support your work right now?
REACH: Anyone interested in learning more about us and how they might help can log onto our website and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, where current needs are listed. There are opportunities for volunteering in our shelters or by joining one of our teams such as Tiny Homes, Development, Shelter, or Advocacy. If you can’t volunteer, monetary donations are always needed.
490: As we continue to engage with the city and state about being able to keep our bees, benches, free food pantry, and children’s space, we are looking for community support. Please keep an eye on our social media channels to see what actions we are hoping folks can take on our behalf. Or, come get to know us in person!
BBitB: The community can best support us by joining our organization. We have a fiscal sponsor and we can take larger donations. Our donations are distributed back into the community via Mutual Aid requests and creating community gardens. Also, if community members or organizations know of grants that can help us grow, feel free to reach out through email.
RAW: We feel the best way to support our mission is to remember that we are all human. We all deserve love and acceptance. We all deserve food, housing and other basic human needs. Offer a smile, eye contact, or even a conversation. Make someone feel loved and worthy.
RMAN: Volunteer and help with logistics—recently we’ve been short on drivers, purchasers, and hub runners. Many hands make light work. We also always need donations to keep up our regular request fulfillment
How can folks get involved with your organization?
REACH: Our website, https://reachadvocacy.org, has all the information you need to get involved, or you can email email@example.com with specific questions.
490: Starting the first week of May, we have weekly volunteer nights at 5pm on Wednesdays. We’re always thrilled to see new faces at the Farm—all of us look forward to getting to know you. You can also reach out to us online at https://www.490farmers.com/contact-us
BBitB: We are currently welcoming the community to join our organization. The subgroups were created by founding members to give folx a platform to build a community we all want to live in. Please contact us via email or through our linktree if you want to become involved. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://linktr.ee/blackintheburbs
RAW: If you are looking for a hands-on opportunity, come down any Sunday from 10am–1pm on Joseph/Langham to help us hand out over 140 lunches and other supplies to our unhoused neighbors. You can also sign up to help prepare the bagged lunches we hand out each Sunday. We always have a list of current needs and materials we are looking for and four convenient drop-off locations. Clean out those closets! We accept all weather-appropriate new and used clothing items. Contact us by phone or email with any questions, and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to stay updated.
RMAN: There are the standard ways—volunteer, become a recurring donor (please), and talk to your friends about us and our work. We also have a vibrant Facebook group that helps connect community members. But more broadly, our goals are achieved when the community takes care of each other. The best way to support our work is by supporting your neighbors, especially those most vulnerable. It’s sometimes the work RMAN does, but it also can include looking after your friend during a hard time, political activism, giving that cash to the person asking for it, tending a community garden. There are many ways you can show kindness and be part of the community.
Mutual Aid has become a powerful force for social change in Rochester. Through grassroots organizing and community support, these Mutual Aid organizations are able to provide vital resources and services to those who have been traditionally marginalized and underserved. By prioritizing solidarity and collective care, these organizations have created a culture of mutual support and resilience that has strengthened the fabric of Rochester’s communities. If you’d like to support any of these organizations, reach out and find out how you can get involved.