A group of Princeton community members gathered for a virtual meeting in early March to discuss the predicted impact of the pandemic on their town and how they could help. They envisioned an organization based on solidarity, that would promote activism and build bridges between neighbors. Princeton Mutual Aid was born.
Princeton Mutual Aid has been connecting Princeton residents with one another to provide food deliveries, emergency cash assistance, rent and utilities advocacy, tutoring and more since mid-March. Neighbors, as the organization calls them, can request or offer help on the group’s website by completing an online form. Participants who want to help can view a central listing of unfulfilled requests they can sign up to fill.
With almost 200 members enthusiastic to help, requests are generally filled within one to three days. Often, requests are taken within a few hours of being posted, said Shuk Ying Chan, a member of the Princeton Mutual Aid logistics team and Princeton University graduate student in political science.
The principle of “solidarity, not charity” is central to the organization’s mission and is written in bold across their website’s homepage. Neighbors are invited to request exactly what and how much assistance they need. The organization does not demand evidence of hardships, trusting in community members to accurately assess their own needs, said Fatima Mughal, a member of the logistics team and teacher in Montgomery. Mughal sees this as a way to “preserve peoples’ autonomy and dignity.”
Members are encouraged to continue following up with one another every week or so after their initial interaction, with the idea of creating more permanent bonds between Princeton residents, said Marlen Ayodele, a member of the logistics team and Princeton University employee.
“We love the idea of creating a space where folks can plug into each other,” Mughal said. “We all have something that we need and we all have something to give, so we’re trying to provide opportunities for everybody to lift each other up.”
The organization also encourages members to acknowledge that being in a difficult position right now is not a sign of a personal failing, but rather of a failing system.
Princeton Mutual Aid hopes to change this failing system by building a stronger, more connected community, said Hrishi Somayaji, a member of the logistics team and Princeton graduate student in chemistry. Rather than providing a band-aid solution for the problems society yields, the organization is trying to empower the Princeton community to advocate for themselves, for example, by pressuring local landlords to lower rents in times of crisis, demanding the town build more affordable housing units and allocating more resources to emergency funds, Somayaji said.
“Part of mutual aid is recognizing that, despite our best efforts, providing individual aid will not solve some of the root problems,” Chan said. Members of Princeton Mutual Aid often also promote and participate in other forms of activism for structural change, she said.
The organization has developed partnerships with several local nonprofits. Members volunteer with the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry, Share My Meals and Unidad Latina en Acción to package and distribute food deliveries, and with the Witherspoon St. Presbyterian Church to distribute communion packets.
Princeton Mutual Aid has also supported Unidad Latina in protests to demand disaster relief for all and to demand the release of detainees from the Elizabeth Detention Center. The organization recently published a list of black-owned businesses on its website as well as a statement of solidarity against police violence.
By working with these nonprofits, Princeton Mutual Aid avoids duplicating work that is already being done, and can focus on the people who are being overlooked and still in need of support. The organization is always looking for more partners in the Princeton area, Somayaji said.
Members hope their work will have a lasting impact on the Princeton community beyond the current state of emergency.
“The whole point is not to indefinitely provide aid to those who need it,” Somayaji said. Although that is the bedrock of the organization now, the ultimate goal is for neighbors to rely on and work with one another independent of Princeton Mutual Aid and to build power from the ground up, he said.
Although Princeton may appear wealthy, there is inequity below the surface, Mughal said. Systemic racism and segregation are apparent in the town; the connections built through mutual aid are an attempt to combat these issues and create a more equitable community.
What started as a Google form and some phone calls has now become a growing organization, Mughal said, pushed forward by members all helping to build a stronger Princeton community.