This story is part of “We Care Montclair,” a special celebration of groups and individuals working to help the Montclair community. See more stories in the special “We Care Montclair” section inserted into the April 29 edition of Montclair Local.
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Montclair Mutual Aid, Jonathan Marshall said, is about building relationships.
Relationships in the community. Relationships among people.
It’s not a charity, Marshall and other members of the group said this month as they reflected on the continuing role of a group that began amid the emergencies prompted by the emerging coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, and that has since built partnerships with individuals and organizations throughout Montclair. It’s not one discreet group, unidirectionally providing help to others. And it’s not looking to duplicate the work existing charities do.
Montclair Mutual Aid isn’t hierarchical — but rather a network of neighbors helping neighbors, serving one another through collection drives and events, and through always-active efforts to build connections.
As the pandemic set in and lockdowns were ordered, unemployment skyrocketed. The economy found itself on uncertain ground — and so did many people who didn’t have the luxury of working from home, or who were facing furloughs and layoffs. Access to even basic goods and services became difficult.
That made more acute and widespread the concerns many had faced long before the pandemic — and the need for help with food security assistance, employment support, physical and mental health care, rental assistance and access to essentials.
And even if life begins to return to normal soon, many needs may become newly pressing for some, as unemployment benefits, eviction moratoriums, mortgage relief and help from food stamps and meal programs run out.
“The need for mutual aid isn’t gonna go away, and our intention is to stay around and continue working on those kinds of issues,” Marshall, one of the earliest members to join the group, said.
Montclair Mutual Aid’s members see what they do as acts of solidarity. The first words on the group’s website ask visitors to share “what you or your neighborhood need, any resources you can provide, if you’d like to volunteer to help Montclair people help one another.”
“The need to help a neighbor was important to all of us,” said Aminah Toler, another of the earliest members to join. But in the first days of the pandemic, she said, so many people wanted to be of service to one another without a clear idea of how.
“We had a group of people that wanted to help, but they didn’t know who to help, where to help and where to go,” Toler said.
Early in the pandemic, delivering help to neighbors wasn’t easy. Those looking to be of service couldn’t hold large gatherings, or go door-to-door offering help.
Kate Albright, another early member as well as a freelance photographer and writer for Montclair Local, said some people in Montclair Mutual Aid tried organizing neighborhood pods — hyperlocal text message groups or phone trees where individuals would offer resources they could make available, or make requests for help they needed. Greg Pason, another member, said some people talked about putting signs up on lawns with phone numbers and offers to help — again, hoping to build hyperlocal lines of communication for assistance. Some weren’t sure if they could leave flyers in other people’s mailboxes.
They’d heard about those sorts of networks doing well on other blocks, but didn’t see the same interest. The goodwill was evident, but the organization and connections weren’t there.
“So I’m like texting my neighbor across the street saying, ‘I got a deal on masks.’ It’s like, ‘Do you want to get some masks?’ … We didn’t know what we could do,” he said.
That changed, as Montclair Mutual Aid began building more partnerships.
In May and June of last year, the group helped Montclair Moms of Color (a group created in 2019 that describes itself as “a village of moms in Montclair and the surrounding communities”) in its effort to collect personal care items and gift cards for those who needed them. Montclair Mutual Aid helped with a food drive, and together, the groups collected 15 boxes of food as well as enough money to purchase 25 ShopRite gift cards of $25 each, Baristanet reported at the time. They distributed the goods at community events.
Toler said it was one of the first projects Montclair Mutual Aid took on as a group — “and the amount of support from the community with donations to help ensure our food drive was successful was outstanding.”
The effort “has just snowballed from there,” she said.
Now, in 2021, Montclair Mutual Aid has built and continues to grow its network and a series of partnerships with other organizations. Its website includes a wealth of information on community resources — and its members spread the word about resources by distributing flyers at events and in walks through neighborhoods. There are addresses for little free food pantries stocked by residents, for anyone to take what they need and give what they can, as well as connections to providers including Toni’s Kitchen, the Human Needs Food Pantry, the grab-and-go food distribution through Mesh Cafe, the Salvation Army and several other faith and community groups helping with food security.
There’s advice and contact information for getting access to affordable housing, to mental health services, to food and gardening through Montclair Mutual Aid’s own Community Gardening Affinity Group.
Members have worked with the Newark Water Coalition to collect clean, filtered water and deliver 5-gallon jugs to Montclair residents who have reported dirty or discolored water. The initiative, using “water boxes” for collection, was first inspired by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The group is additionally working on other solutions for clean water distribution.
Montclair Mutual Aid’s own Aisle 7 Project collects and provides free menstrual supplies through events in businesses, parks and other neighborhood locations. That effort has been assisted through the Montclair Menstrual Club, made up of local high school students.
The group also hosts or is otherwise involved in drives for toiletries, books, furniture, clothing and toys. It helps with senior yard cleanups, and helps people make vaccination appointments. It participated in Earth Day week cleanups of community parks organized by the Northeast Earth Coalition.
Resources are now shared at monthly community events — four since January. At its last event, in Glenfield Park in April, Montclair Mutual Aid was able to provide 150 food boxes to attendees with the help of Toni’s Kitchen. Parents Who Rock provided music to help draw the crowd.
Having the music, Albright said, reminded visitors: These are community events. Those who might be reluctant to take handouts don’t need to be embarrassed. Goods and services are available, but “they don’t feel like they just have to come to this event to get free stuff because they really need it. … This is a place where we can chat and have fun and listen to music.”
People are often surprised to find so much is available for free — and available to anyone who needs it, Marshall said.
“That kind of thinking, I think, is new to some people, and it was really gratifying to see that — the light bulb turning on, them getting excited about being able to just take things that they want,” he said.
Montclair Mutual Aid’s Facebook group is also a hub of activity where members share information on programs from a wide variety of organizations.
“We rather try to make sure that people are aware that there are people here in town that still need help,” Toler said. “Even though we share the same zip code, everybody’s struggles are different.”
Every time Montclair Mutual Aid holds an event, she said, its numbers grow. More and more people seem eager to help their neighbors.
“So that right there helps me feel like the future will remain bright from their mutual aid,” she said.
Toler thought back to the outpouring of goodwill, of desire to help, in the early days of the pandemic, and asked, “When the pandemic is over, will we all still feel that way?”
She hopes so, and she hopes the connections Montclair Mutual Aid has fostered will be a part of that.
“It’s given us a chance to slow down, really think about things, think about our neighbors, think about how we can help,” Toler said.