From Chaos, a Community
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Campus mutual aid networks are redefining student relations.
By Claire Shang.
“I know it’s crazy,” said Rebecca Galloway, pausing mid-thought. “It’s not the best system, but it’s worked so far.” Galloway, BC ’23, was patiently and fervently explaining how Students Helping Students (SHS), a Columbia mutual aid group she helped form in July, distributes funds to undergraduates. In the summer, a volunteer would offer their personal Venmo account, change the username to the “helpingstudentscu” handle, and send funds directly to requesters until they had reached Venmo’s weekly transfer limit of $4,999, logging transactions on a shared Google Sheet in real time. They usually hit the cap within a few days, when the username would then be passed onto the next team member—at one point, the changeover was so rapid that one volunteer’s Venmo handle was changed to “helpingstudentscu4.”
Direct, slightly haphazard, and focused on one goal—disbursing money to students as quickly as possible—SHS has distributed $38,200 since July 29. Any student who filled out a request form, which was posted on SHS social media accounts and remained open until mid-September, was eligible to receive aid. In total, the group has raised $46,000, though organizers were quick to highlight another figure: $163,248, the total aid requested.
As the pandemic struck New York, the collective acknowledgment of need reverberated city-wide. In a May piece for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino described the proliferation of mutual aid groups in near-awe: “Suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere.” A website called Mutual Aid Hub tallies 59 New York mutual aid groups, though as Tolentino explains, any such quantifications are misleading, as most organizations “do not seek or receive much attention.” Mutual aid groups typically represent and serve a neighborhood or series of blocks—a community, however it may be defined. Connected by loose geographic affiliation, volunteers act together to directly help their neighbors: they redistribute donations, deliver groceries, provide childcare. These services don’t come with preconditions, but are instead delivered with the understanding that individuals know what they need and should feel encouraged to ask for it.
As institutions across the city and country closed, stalled, or otherwise faltered, Americans witnessed—and many participated in—this shift towards community care. In part, this reciprocity complemented rhetoric surrounding mask mandates, distance requirements, and the general need for individuals to change their actions to maintain the safety of their communities. And, as Tolentino suggests, opting into mutual aid networks was also a way for individuals to reclaim agency and enact localized change as they waited for larger governmental solutions that never came.
But despite mutual aid’s seemingly spontaneous emergence in response to the pandemic, it’s far from a new phenomenon—it’s only now been propelled into the mainstream by a wave of media coverage, which presents mutual aid as an immediate solution (“How to help people during the pandemic, one Google spreadsheet at a time,” Vox explained in an April article). It’s recently been embraced by politicians, too, with Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez hosting webinars and posting infographics about mutual aid, and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser even redirecting constituent calls from a government COVID-19 hotline to a local mutual aid network.
These developments into the mainstream likely would have surprised Russian communo-anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who first coined the phrase in 1902 to describe the innate need for humans to cooperate with one another. His mutual aid, then, was not motivated primarily by emotion or prompted by disasters, but by the constant and basic need to survive.
The Black Panther Party’s famed free breakfast program distributed meals to thousands of school kids from 45 sites across the country. In the spirit of Kropotkin, it was eventually renamed a Party “survival program.” While the action itself was apolitical, it became a core organizing technique. “If people are hungry, they’re not going to be as likely to want to be politically involved,” said Annaliese Rozos, CC ’22. “Students can’t work or learn if they don’t have food.”
Emergency Food Collection (EFC), a program Rozos started in mid-March, was based on similar principles and was largely paradigmatic of city-wide mutual aid organizing. Sitting in Lerner after classes had been postponed, Rozos and Olivia Fine, CC ’21, watched students scrambling to pack and leave campus, wondering what would happen to those unable to return home. As even grocery stores shuttered, Fine told me, the pair recognized that amidst imminent apocalypse, they wanted to ensure “a cushion of certainty” around a need as basic as access to food.
Before the two realized that they would be leaving campus within the week, they had drafted a plan. Rozos recounted, “I was like, ‘Well, why don’t we just post in every Facebook group, ‘If you have extra food, bring it to whatever building we could find,’’ and you could pick up and drop off until the city got shut down.” Their friend, Morgan Margulies, CC ’22, volunteered the basement of Greenborough, the Columbia Special Interest Community housing where he lived. Though they hadn’t anticipated participation from anyone outside their immediate friend circle, the makeshift pantry was soon stocked with moving-box quantities of oatmeal, ramen, and other nonperishable goods. “There was a big flow in and out,” added Rozos, referring to both food items and students: volunteers streamed in to staff the drive, people stopped by with mini fridges.
Fine and Rozos received initial Venmo contributions, along with Fairway gift cards, to buy food to support the pantry. Soon, they posted graphics on social media asking for Venmo donations and opened an EFC email to receive requests for funds. The $2,000 they raised was entirely redistributed to students. “In a lot of ways, it was a very easy thing to do,” Fine reflected out loud toward the end of our conversation. “We were just posting, and created a space for people to drop off supplies and pick them up.”
Ultimately, though, Rozos and Fine paused EFC once the University transitioned to online classes, deferring to other student groups that they believed were better suited to address students’ off-campus needs. And though EFC had operated just like any other city mutual aid group for a week, its eventual disbanding reveals the natural challenges of campus-based mutual aid. While neighborhood mutual aid groups are intensely rooted in physical place, the campus community, now online, is more nebulous than ever. In the face of the pandemic, students have created a working model of mutual aid centered on an interpretation—and even a veneration—of their own constantly shifting community.
In many ways, Students Helping Students’ formation in July echoed that of Emergency Food Collection three months earlier. Prompted by the pandemic’s impact on students, Rebecca Galloway and Elysa Caso-McHugh, BC ’23, also convened in a Columbia space, though this one was virtual: the Barnard 2023 Facebook group.
After students began talking about renting apartments for the upcoming year, Caso-McHugh posted a reply, pointing out that those with the resources to move to New York could consider helping students facing housing or food insecurity. Galloway, in part struck by the rationality of Caso-McHugh’s suggestion, and in part recognizing that her own upper-middle class background allowed her to contribute both money and labor, recalled, “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s such a great idea. How can I help?’”
After this simple exchange—a common understanding of student necessity—SHS posted an introduction on Instagram on July 22. The request form was opened later that day, with fields for students’ Venmo usernames, UNI, and financial aid status. They asked whether students were housing secure, independent from their legal guardians, what needs the funds would meet, and when the money was needed by. No answer would disqualify students from receiving funds, though the results helped organizers determine which requesters would receive money first.
A week later, the team released its Venmo information to begin collecting donations. They chose Venmo because of students’ familiarity with the app, and because it allowed them to redistribute funds immediately and without processing fees, unlike GoFundMe.
Within the first 24 hours, though, SHS realized it would have to adapt. Zeuz Islas, a CC senior who found the organization on Instagram and simply sent a DM before becoming part of the team, laughed, detailing how quickly his expectations had been broken: “I remember being like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys, we have to create another Venmo, because we’ve already reached the cap [of $4,999].’” The group surpassed $20,000 in donations in their first week.
Summer was a process of adjustment as organizers worked to accommodate the volume of requests. The team had originally communicated with requesters by email, expressing their intention to meet students’ full demand. Galloway noted, though, that a request cap of $5,000 was implemented retroactively—“a hard decision for us to make”—to maximize the number of students receiving even partial fulfillment of their original request. The team now gives a maximum of $3,000 at once—after that, the request is moved to the bottom of the list, and any remaining need, organizers hope, will be met after funds have been disbursed to each student.
Eighty-two students requested an average of $2,015, a figure that does not account for any need greater than the $5,000 cap. “It was a lot higher than even we were anticipating,” said Islas, who participated in Columbia’s Academic Success Programs (ASP) and is part of the first-generation low-income (FGLI) community.
In conversation, SHS volunteers were more than willing to address these organizational setbacks—those who run the group were first to acknowledge its deviance from typical mutual aid models.
Sloane Clifton, BC ’22, originally planned to fill out the aid request form. “When I saw this group, I was on the verge of tears because I was really stressed out about my tuition,” she noted. After the school adjusted her financial aid, she joined the organizing team instead. Clifton emphasized that before her involvement with SHS, she didn’t have a good idea of what mutual aid was, a disclaimer she repeated throughout our conversation.
In fact, most of these students didn’t join SHS based on pre-existing understandings of mutual aid’s historical and political roots, but rather because they anticipated that their peers’ financial needs would surpass what the University would accommodate. Perhaps Peter Kropotkin’s conviction in the intrinsic nature of human solidarity and cooperation lives on in students, who feel compelled to enact mutual aid out of instinct, not compulsion.
Other volunteers joined because of previous experiences with University financial aid that left them seeking alternatives. Raisa Alam, a CC senior and low-income student who helped distribute funds over the summer, acknowledged the existing infrastructure offered to students, such as the $4,000 in living expenses issued for the first time this semester to CC and SEAS students living off-campus. She also pointed out grants like a one-time $200 allotment for winter clothing, or the Deans’ Student Assistance Fund (DSAF), which covers unanticipated emergencies for CC and SEAS students with a parent contribution of $5,000 or less. But these institutional programs are often byzantine, with eligibility requirements and multi-stage application processes required even for the chance to access funds.
Islas recounted a recent experience: his father had been in a car accident, and he wanted to apply for DSAF for a plane ticket home. A financial advisor asked if his father was in the ICU; that his father was merely in the emergency room rendered him ineligible to receive emergency aid. “They practically told me that he needed to be on his deathbed,” said Islas.
“Fine print” is how Alaina Schallwig, BC ’21, who helps SHS with campus outreach, described the institutional prerequisites to securing funds. And regardless of the accessibility and efficacy of existing financial aid resources at Columbia, they are necessarily finite. Any need outside what Columbia deems as its purview is a “gap into which people can fall,” she added.
Because SHS has stepped in to fill such gaps, or as Schallwig put it, “to be a space where if they hear no from [the University], they can come to us and hear a yes,” it currently exists more as a fundraiser than as a hub for reciprocal service. Galloway highlighted this distinction in the first minute of our conversation, before I even asked about the differences between campus mutual aid and other community care.
“Other mutual aids for college students have been criticized for being just a place where you donate,” she said, noting that donating is often seen as an individual responsibility, as compared to mutual aid, which channels a sense of communal duty into a voluntary exchange of services. “But that’s really the only capacity we’ve been able to serve in during the pandemic.”
Still, SHS has more in common with neighborhood mutual aid groups than its organizers give themselves credit for. The group, for instance, decided not to assign titles to its team of about ten active volunteers—a nonhierarchical structure is one characteristic distinguishing mutual aid networks from charities. SHS touches base on Zoom weekly, and Islas mentioned that the third such meeting was an open discussion centered around this topic. “We didn’t think there was a need to create a president or vice president only because we were getting the job done just fine before that,” he summarized.
The organization is constantly thinking about what roles it can take on in the future besides facilitating fundraising, especially in the face of stagnating donation rates. The biggest fundraising day, aside from the launch, was August 14, after Columbia announced it would not provide fall housing for all students. There was little mention in the email about institutional support for students in the wake of the decision, and soon the Venmo was inundated with donations, many accompanied by emotionally charged comments: “Fuck Barnard,” “Fuck Columbia.” Unexpectedly, then, the fund gave students a way to express their frustration in the face of a decision over which they had no control, and to channel their emotions into direct action.
But since then, contributions have slowed. Galloway has used her personal Venmo for the past six weeks because she simply hasn’t reached the weekly transfer maximum. On August 13, SHS launched a fundraising campaign on Givebutter, which resembles GoFundMe, and was chosen to be used alongside Venmo as a more sustainable platform. Over 100 Givebutter donors have since raised $9,400, less than SHS raised in its first week. Islas framed this as one limitation to fundraising: “If there’s nothing coming out from the school, or they don’t see a reason to donate, then they most likely won’t. It is very much reactionary. Like it’s very much, ‘Okay, I’ve done this, I can move on now.’”
SHS organizers, constantly reminded of the challenge of sustainability, define their longer-term project as building on the community awareness that powers their work. “Beyond the financials, they’re trying to just put up a place of understanding for low-income students,” Alam said. Fundraising is an end, but can also be a means to elevate the concerns and voices of housing- and food-insecure students while maintaining their anonymity and dignity.
Some campus mutual aid groups, like Georgetown University’s, have successfully boosted donations through class privilege bingo cards, which encourage students to repost the graphic to their Instagram stories and donate $5 for each box they check: “went to private school,” “legacy student,” “has had an unpaid internship.” The SHS organizers have been careful not to overemphasize language like “privilege” and “obligation” in order to ensure donations are not motivated primarily by shame, encouraging empathy instead. Galloway said that the group discussed releasing bingo scorecards of their own but didn’t unanimously support the tactic, with some members pointing out that it would frame a narrative about wealth and privilege at Columbia, rather than need.
“I think that one of the biggest barriers to being conscious of how much need there is at Barnard and Columbia is this idea that everyone is so privileged,” Galloway explained. “I think people just kind of assume that the school is taking care of things. Like once you get to Barnard or Columbia, things are pretty much great for everyone, and that’s not the case.”
A foundation built on awareness, its organizers hope, will ensure SHS resumes its earlier growth. Their immediate plan is to partner with other Columbia organizations, leveraging students’ strong ties to student groups to expand SHS’s reach. Some groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine, whose members have raised $600, are featured on the Givebutter campaign, so donors can opt to contribute in the name of the club. The Columbia International Relations Council and Association (CIRCA), the largest student group on campus, reached out to coordinate a partnership and is pledging to match $3,500 in donations. Working with Greek life, too, is a priority. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, you are a community member, we are community members,’” Schallwig said, as she described next steps. “‘You are philanthropic, we are also philanthropic. Let’s work together.’”
Though SHS began using Givebutter in late August, they have not been able to access and distribute the nearly $10,000 raised due to the requirement that funds be deposited to a bank account or debit card before being disbursed. The team had hoped to configure a personal bank account with multiple owners, but then backtracked, realizing the liability placed on individual students was too great. “Things can affect students’ financial aid, you know, if they own a bank account that shows you with over $100,000,” explained Galloway.
Instead, the team has finalized a fiscal sponsorship agreement, an affiliation with a nonprofit that will give SHS the streamlined donation mechanism they’ve been trying to build on their own. The Academic Mutual Aid Foundation, founded in March by graduate students and postdocs seeking a country-wide support system for students and academics, will provide SHS with a bank account and a professional accountant to manage recordkeeping and potential tax filings. In the future, any donations over $250—a “large donation”—will be tax deductible, with a 5% fee in effect. Rather than supporting the sponsor’s administrative costs, as with Givebutter’s 3% service fee, this money is placed into a general fund for students across the country with severe need, which the foundation refers to as a “socialized emergency fund.”
Over the past three months, the students involved continue to recognize the intricacies of their work and the unexpected weight that comes with being part of a community. There’s an inherent precariousness to community organizing when the community served is constantly shifting—when it’s centered around membership at an institution that isn’t contained by geographic bounds, and sometimes feels, like Galloway described, “sort of made up.”
College communities, based on association and reliant on students’ self-identification, lack the visual and physical cues that typically bring neighbors together. “If we were a defined community by space, it’s very easy to see the things that need to be addressed in that community when you’re walking down the street,” Schallwig explained.
Reflecting on her experience with EFC, Fine observed that the way student activism runs its course is entirely dependent on the students on campus—“a challenge and an opportunity,” she clarified, “in that people can really respond to the current needs, but also it can mean that it’s easy for things to fizzle out.”
And yet, while the Columbia community is so amorphous, so defined by its mutability, it is also ever-expanding. With each new year comes new potential, new resources, new skill sets—a constant, renewable desire to make a “made up” community more hospitable to all its constituents. But making people care about others’ needs—especially when they are ongoing and often invisible—is far from easy. It became less feasible to meet regularly and sustain donations once classes started again, Galloway said, since so much of the organization’s work over the summer demanded a learning process of its own. “It’s not just taking money and giving it to people. When we started, I think that’s sort of what a lot of us were thinking,” she told me. “Of course we wish things were simpler, but you know, the excitement is still there.”