The 116th Initiative hopes to prove the sustainability of campus mutual aid.
By Muni Suleiman
On June 3, a month before their one-year anniversary, the organization formerly known as Barnard Mutual Aid announced a rebrand. Now The 116th Initiative, the independent, student-led organization declared intent to help more varied dimensions of the Columbia community, stating: “This new name and vision will provide our team (and you all) with opportunities for extended engagement in practices of community care, and a larger umbrella for us to create new projects within.”
These “extended engagements” include expanding access to the mutual aid funds to all Columbia students, adding Columbia students in the organization’s teams, and potentially connecting financially disadvantaged students with discounted or free therapy services from University alumni. Relying on the engagement of the community members without institutional support, the team members’ belief in the possibility of community care on campus has carried them through this transitional period. Though hope seems bright for the organization’s efforts to expand, a question has lingered since their announcement: How does a student-organized mutual aid network sustain itself and its values while expanding its capacity?
Dean Spade, BC ’97, organizer, activist, and author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), describes mutual aid as “the radical act of caring for each other while working to change the world.” In practice, mutual aid manifests in multiple ways: contributing groceries to a community fridge, picking up prescriptions for immunocompromised neighbors, and crowdfunding for rent assistance—redistributing help, resources, and skills throughout the community. When unjust structures and institutions have failed people, it is their community that can keep them physically, emotionally, and spiritually alive. Though a longstanding practice of marginalized and radical groups, mutual aid became a significant source of solidarity and survival for communities during the early stages of the pandemic.
College students also banded together to establish mutual aid networks in response to exacerbated financial pressures of tuition, housing, and personal hygiene essentials. On Columbia’s campus, Rebecca Galloway, BC ’23 and Elysa Caso-McHugh, BC ’23, formed Students Helping Students, a group dedicated to circulating funds to undergraduates, in July 2020.
For Avalon Zborovsky-Fenster, BC ’24, founder of The 116th Initiative, the need for then-Barnard Mutual Aid came from conversations about financial scarcity she heard as Barnard’s first-year class president. However, in initial meetings with administrators about what would become Barnard Mutual Aid, the idea was not received well. “Actually, the exact words that were told to me when I was speaking to administrators was, ‘Well, why did you come to us? Why isn’t this just something you can do on your own?’ And so, of course, I took that literally.”
Barnard Mutual Aid announced itself via a series of Instagram posts published on July 4, 2021. The introductory posts outlined a determination to support community needs through a sense of “mutual support and concern.” At the time, only current or incoming Barnard students were eligible for aid.
Within 24 hours, the organization faced over $3,000 in aid requests. Within a month, they disbursed over $10,000 to the Barnard community. And on Aug. 3, they launched their first project: the Barnard Community Closet, inspired by a request for funds to procure a winter coat prior to moving to New York. After attracting the interest of non-Barnard students, Zborovsky-Fenster and the expanding team, including Mariame Sissoko, BC ’24, Menasha Thomas, BC ’24, and Kirsten Trevino, BC ’25, began to consider expanding the organization’s aims.
“Now that we sort of have this infrastructure set, we know how to do this, we know how to run it, we know how to fundraise, we know how to distribute … it seems like the right next step would be to expand this into a larger, more all-encompassing initiative,” Zborovsky-Fenster stated. “That's how we decided to pivot to 116th.”
Expanding the group’s understanding of activism and the formal bounds of mutual aid was a necessary step in expansion. Conversations addressing how the organization’s work had broadened past just financial redistribution were pivotal.
“We wanted a name that would allow us to fruitfully encompass more than just one initiative,” Zborovsky-Fenster noted. “The idea of the transition from Barnard Mutual Aid to 116th is to provide a larger avenue for how we can build community and care for one another outside of just mutual aid financially because community support looks like a lot more than just distributing funds.”
The organization also changed structurally, de-emphasizing leadership titles and forming collaborative project teams without individual leaders. Citing Spade’s work, the organizers acknowledged that mutual aid structured horizontally is mutual aid structured correctly. Sissoko, Thomas, and Trevino now communally manage communications, operations, and volunteers as administrative coordinators. “It starts with semantics, and semantics into actions, and making sure that everybody inside 116th, inside our organization, inside of our collective, has a say,” said Sissoko, formerly the community closet coordinator.
Community and collective care, of course, is how The 116th Initiative’s contributors began their involvement with mutual aid. Thomas cited the Harlem Community Fridge as one of their first introductions to mutual aid: “It wasn’t exactly, you know, monetary mutual aid but it was definitely still that same community of reciprocity that they were trying to emulate through the fridge.”
“My experience with mutual aid was first through education and learning about the Black Panther Party,” Sissoko, who grew up in Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, remembered. “Then when I was involved with Philadelphia public school activist circles for Black students, particularly in my junior and senior year, a major part of that was providing support for the community through, quite literally, mutual aid … and then it just blew up over the pandemic.”
For Zborovsky-Fenster, it’s her identity as a first-generation Jewish American that contributes to her understanding of mutual aid. “In the Jewish culture, there's this practice called tzedakah, which is essentially the practice of giving anonymous charity as much as you possibly can,” Zborovsky-Fenster elaborated. “The premise of community care … is something that I was sort of raised on, but it wasn’t until I became older that I really understood how to apply it in a more practical way.”
Zborovsky-Fenster’s research prior to founding Barnard Mutual Aid delved deep into the practices of The Black Panthers, Latino groups in L.A., and campus mutual aid networks like Georgetown Mutual Aid for guidance on the organization’s transition. This research, she emphasized, ultimately concentrated in what could make mutual aid effective and successful in the long run.
Including the perspectives of those who benefit from the organization is one way in which she hoped to do this. Transparent in acknowledging that she is first generation but not low income, Zborovsky-Fenster’s need to center the perspectives of FGLI students was Sissoko’s first experience with the organization. They advised in what FGLI students in the Barnard community needed before joining full time. “When we first opened, I was like, ‘Avalon. We need to put out a post saying, “Hey,” to FLI students, “You need to come here.” Sissoko described in their example. “FLI students like to think that they don't need help or don't accept help … even if you think you might need something, you feel like you don't.”
Fellow FGLI student Catie Knight, BC ’24, was introduced to 116th while requesting funding for her plane ticket to Columbia following the virtual year. An immunocompromised student, the beginning of the pandemic was financially strenuous as her former customer service job put her at a high risk of exposure. Direct messaging 116th’s Instagram account, she requested $200.
The organization took an early stance against policing or rejecting aid requests, in line with mutual aid values of mutual trust and respect. They do not require disclosure but ask that peers “do not attempt to utilize this fund if you truly do not need financial assistance.” But, after an experience that Zborovsky-Fenster characterized as a student “very explicitly exploiting and not being truthful” with the fund, a new system was instituted that asks for the urgency of requests to be rated on a scale of 1 to 5. Requests above $1000 for medical or housing expenses require substantiation. Zborovsky-Fenster acknowledged that asking for “proof” can create a power dynamic that undermines principles of mutuality.
Knight found that the consideration extended by then-Barnard Mutual Aid could not always be found with the college. When requesting aid from Barnard, “it was a very, very excruciating process. It took over three months to complete and I was asked to divulge certain personal information that I would have been a little bit more comfortable not sharing with strangers,” Knight intimated. “I knew that it was necessary, but, at the same time, it felt almost, I don’t want to say dehumanizing, but it definitely felt like there was a level of alienation.”
Expanding the organization was difficult, but significantly easier than if the organization had been institutionally affiliated, Sissoko said. Without administrative blindspots like a subpar understanding of the current student experience or bureaucratic rules about who can request financial assistance, the organization can better identify and address students’ actual needs. (Thomas noted that another reason behind the rebrand was to remove the organization’s common misattribution to Barnard administration.)
On the other hand, Sissoko noted the difficulty in procuring student donations in the first place. Zborovsky-Fenster described the deeper need to advertise via word-of-mouth due to their lack of University recognition, making them unable to use University listservs, attend the activities fairs, or officially book spaces as a student group. “If you’re not tied to the administration in some way, it’s very easy to lose institutional memory or organizational memory when people graduate … We don’t want this to end,” Sissoko explained.
The conversation about institutional affiliation is complicated and the organizers consider it ongoing. Student-to-student trust has been a unique part of their experience in the organization; they’ve concluded that aren’t easily willing to give that up. The concern about maintaining integrity is a serious one for an organization that sees its very existence as an institutional critique. Sissoko argued, “If Barnard was fully fulfilling the needs of its students, and Columbia at this point, there wouldn’t be the need for [independently run] mutual aid initiatives.”
Though 116th wants to stay separate, there is a specific need, Sissoko believes, for college students to direct their organizing toward campus-based mutual aid. Recounting multiple vague comments from students suggesting they “reach out into Harlem and do work there,” they expressed frustration with the sentiment of going into Harlem without a specific cause in mind. “If you want to help, go to the organizations that are already built and see how they are going to ask for your help. Don’t try to start something new or overstep our reach,” Sissoko stated.
Anxiety about 116th’s longevity is rooted in the broader difficulty of mutual aid groups (both campus- and community-based) to survive past moments of crisis. Groups formed during the pandemic are currently experiencing structural insufficiencies as they struggle to retain a consistent donor and volunteer base. In October, Duke Mutual Aid announced that the organization would be on an indefinite hiatus, citing an inability to “build [their] organizing structure past an emergency-response structure sustainably and long term.” Students Helping Students’ Givebutter campaign has not received donations in almost two years.
“The pitfall of mutual aid organizations is that they always come about in times of crisis—not always but they came about in a time of crisis for our country,” Sissoko observed. “And we’re still in that crisis, but I think people have moved on. That’s hard to sustain when people are over it.”
Burnout is another challenge mutual aid organizers must face. Promoting that people donate, organizing a system for volunteers, and constantly sorting through the growing donations was overwhelming for Sissoko as they recounted being the sole organizer of the community closet. The rebranding of 116th has included building a community closet team to reduce burnout among individuals.
“Now that we’ve had a chance to create a structure and an organization that has some sort of direction, we want it to be something that Barnard and Columbia students will always have,” Thomas stated, echoing Sissoko’s concerns on longevity. “Will it fall through the cracks when everyone graduates and no one wants to pick it back up?”
Thomas also shared concerns about the logistical difficulties of redistributing large amounts of money. The rebranding also becomes a potential avenue for the organization to become involved with community organizations, such as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, who have legal capabilities to handle large sums of money.
Other difficulties in being part of a student-run mutual aid organization arise from the peer status of participants. Though Thomas describes their roles in the organization as a means to “facilitate connections,” they also struggle to contend with the power differential developed as distributors of wealth. Zborovsky-Fenster reflected on how consuming of time, energy, and emotions the work can be while trying to develop a sense of self and meaningful relationships.
This is why, according to Zborovsky-Fenster, the multifaceted transition from Barnard Mutual Aid to The 116th Initiative has to be done with intention. Mentoring incoming board members on money management, for example, emphasizes that it is not only about a name change, but also the continuous transfer of knowledge between generations of advocates.
The transition is especially tender for Zborovsky-Fenster as she steps down from her former full-time organizing role. “I think a lot of times in organizing work there’s this emphasis to just ‘Go, go, go. Keep going. Don’t drop something even when you’re burned out, even when you’re overcommitted in other ways,’” Zborovsky-Fenster described. “‘This is your number one priority. Otherwise you’re like a bad person.’”
Zborovsky-Fenster’s hopes now are for students who have been positively impacted by the organization to join the 116th team. Knight started to contribute her own money back to 116th after resuming work and hopes to start volunteering in an effort “to try and give back to the collective that helped [her] so much when [she] first moved here.” Zborovsky-Fenster’s rationale is that students who experience financial need at Columbia would have a better perspective on the organization’s next steps. She nods while considering the future. “I feel really good about it because it’s an amazing team.”
There is added pressure to 116th, Molly Stahl, BC ’24, observed, because the same audience is consistently being asked to donate to the mutual aid fund, which can become exhaustive. Reciprocity, much like trust and respect, is an important tenet to mutual aid work. However, a prominent problem among students in need is feeling as if they cannot adequately reciprocate and contribute to their community in the same way that the organization has helped them. As a student in need herself, Stahl is “part of the community they’re serving” and obtains clothes from the community closet. At the same time, she expressed reluctance to feel like she is simply “taking”; donating to 116th when she can, she negotiates how to at once participate in and benefit from the organization.
The existence of 116th, to her, is the first step necessary in fostering a culture of community care at Columbia, something all organizers noted as presently lacking. Though she observed more unity in Barnard's community, Stahl critiqued the segmented nature of the general Columbia community as well as its focus on networking, wealth, and competition. “The first thing you need for mutual aid is community care … You really need to care about your neighbor,” she argued. “Maybe more [at] Columbia than Barnard, but a lot of people see this as ‘I’m here to get my degree and leave.’”
“Poor people did not go away on our campus. We’re still here,” Sissoko said. “One of the reasons why [the Black Panthers] were able to have successful mutual aid initiatives when it came to free breakfast was because they consistently showed up for the community.” Columbia students need to support one another with the same type of consistency.
Organizers expressed a hope that more of their fellow students would get involved, whether with the initiative or otherwise. “Giving your time is sometimes harder than giving your money. I think that’s something Columbia students just don't realize—if you can’t give your money, time is also equally as important,” Thomas emphasized. But donations are also needed to support the community of all four undergraduate colleges.
On Nov. 12, Alpha Delta Phi’s brownstone bustled with students selling their art and clothing and rugby players selling baked goods to raise additional funds for the 116th Initiative's new, expansive goal. The art fair was the first step in the organization’s plans, which include reopening the community closet followed by the fund itself, temporarily closed to aid requests as organizers build up a more robust monetary base. Despite challenges, the warm atmosphere in the fair inspired renewed energy in a bright future for the initiative and the campus community it serves.
Beyond 116th (the initiative and the gates), Zborovsky-Fenster believes that assessing one’s privilege, critically analyzing systemic issues, and being fully aware of one’s relationship to the city and its various communities is essential to changing one’s heart, not just head, for social change. “Love, in my opinion, is very profound, and love has to be at the center of anything and everything you do,” she reflects. “You can get involved in community organizing work or you cannot get involved in community organizing work. Regardless, you’re going to have to exist in the world, in society with other people.”