With no stove, no car, no money for rent, a single...

With no stove, no car, no money for rent, a single mom found a neighborhood lifeline

Filling Our Plates: Mutual aid is getting funds to people in need in vulnerable communities like Southwest Detroit -- and reaching people shut out of the system.

Maria Estrada and her children. Credit: Gabriel Guzmán

It’s been more than two months since Maria Estrada has been able to prepare a home-cooked meal for her six children.

The stove in her two-bedroom flat in Southwest Detroit doesn’t work, so she usually relies on cold cuts or heats up frozen meals in the microwave, buying provisions at a nearby corner store. Even if the stove did work, she’d have trouble picking up groceries. Since the father of her children left her late last year, she’s been without a car.

Estrada isn’t fazed, though. That’s because she’s in good company. On a recent June afternoon, Elizabeth Valdez, herself a single mother, and her adult daughter Nyasia pay her and the kids a visit. Nyasia arrives loaded with shopping bags from Prince Valley Market, a grocery store nearby. She’s brought a large rustic loaf of bread, all the fixings for sandwiches, chips, soda, juice, fruit.

The kids, ages nine to 11 months, happily nibble on their food and head outside to ride bikes.

Visits like these are standard. Estrada and Valdez met last summer at a clothing giveaway at neighborhood church Grace in Action, and the two have stayed connected ever since. Estrada was pregnant at the time with her sixth child and struggling to make ends meet. Valdez let Estrada know that she would do what she could to help out if she needed anything.

“I’m not worried; I have faith because I know I can call (Elizabeth),” says a soft-spoken Estrada.

Since Estrada’s partner left, she had struggled to keep up with the rent. And because the pandemic forced all school-aged children to attend class virtually, she couldn’t work.

It was around the holiday season when Estrada told Valdez of her dire situation. Valdez and other organizers in the community adopted Estrada’s family for Christmas, collecting food, toys, clothing, and other home essentials and delivering them to the family’s home.

At this time, Valdez learned that Estrada has more problems than putting food on the table. If something isn’t done, Estrada wouldn’t have a home. 

Estrada, who moved to Michigan with her family from Mexico when she was four years old, is undocumented. Her legal status leaves her unable to access the emergency relief many have relied on the pandemic like stimulus checks or extended unemployment benefits.

Valdez quickly tapped into her community networks, including the Southwest Detroit Cares Mutual Aid Collective, formed by Nyasia and a handful of other Latinas last year. The group raised funds to help Estrada pay her $600 rent and utilities in May. They helped Estrada’s U.S. citizen children with federal food assistance dollars and a Bridge Card so she could stock her kitchen. If she needs a ride to the grocery store, Valdez can tap into the network to get one set up.

The effort to help Estrada land on her feet isn’t about charity — it’s one small example of a community mutual aid tradition to solve problems mother-to-mother, neighbor-to-neighbor.

Maria Estrada prepares a meal for her kids. Credit: Gabriel Guzmán

Mutual aid tradition scales up to meet pandemic needs

Mutual aid groups are roughly defined as support systems created within members of a community outside of formal governmental or philanthropic systems. They assist directly from individuals in a community to those who are most affected.

“If it were me that needed something, I’m going to tap into a mutual aid group or a person individually because I know that you don’t have to jump through so many hoops to get what you need and have to explain yourself,” said Angela Gallegos. She helped to found the SW Detroit Cares Mutual Aid Collective. “This is what we’re here for; this is what community is all about.”

According to an article published last year by the Detroit Community Wealth Fund, mutual aid has a long tradition in marginalized communities, dating back to the days when freed African Americans formed mutual aid societies to help navigate the oppressive and restrictive welfare system controlled by whites. These societies included The Free African Society, New York Society for Mutual Relief, Negro Mutual Benefit Societies of Philadelphia, among others. They were formed to address far-reaching needs, from education and job training to unionizing and political activism.

While some elements of these initial efforts remain, mutual aid has evolved to reflect the times. Social media has played an enormous role in the proliferation of mutual aid campaigns during the pandemic, with national reach for local efforts. 

Mutual aid projects large and small have launched online all over the United States to help fill in these systemic gaps. Efforts range from crowdsourcing cash or supplies for a neighbor in need to dropping off food boxes on a family’s front porch or passing out vegetables grown in people’s backyards.

For undocumented immigrants experiencing hardship during the pandemic, mutual aid efforts have been a crucial lifeline. 

An estimated 11 million undocumented people live in the United States. They are largely excluded from much of the aid, such as stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits that millions of other Americans relied on to ride out the economic fallout of the pandemic. In the weeks and months following the first stay-home orders, immigration activists have shifted their focus away from fighting for immigration reform to provide immediate aid.

In Detroit, a group of immigrant activists launched a GoFundMe campaign in March 2020 to provide undocumented families with mini-grants. The effort raised nearly $64,000, allowing the group to give $500 each to 160 families. Campaign organizers also connected with a group in Pontiac that assists families impacted by domestic violence to support another 30 families. Volunteers say the small grants served as a stop-gap for folks who might have unexpectedly lost their jobs and needed to buy groceries or pay a few bills.

Mutual aid participants generally avoid institutional funding sources in part to protect those they serve. Detroit received a $750,000 grant from the Open Society Foundations to similarly assist undocumented immigrants in the city. While organizers of the grassroots mutual aid effort could have applied for similar philanthropic funding, they say doing so could have unintended consequences. 

That’s because grantmakers often require an abundance of reporting to document how funds are used. Organizers were concerned that those applying for cash assistance would be asked to provide personal information. Many undocumented people live in fear of being exposed to immigration authorities.

“By asking for all this information, we’re sort of making it easier for people to have repercussions (against them),” said Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez, one of the organizers of the fund.

By forgoing that route, the group was free to ask minimal questions, simply find out what applicants’ needs were, address them, and build trust within the community.

A Detroit community creates grassroots infrastructure for emergency aid

The mutual aid group in Southwest was formed just days after stay-at-home orders were issued last spring when the organizers noticed the urgent need spreading throughout the community.

Southwest Detroiter Gabriela Santiago-Romero, a former policy and research director at We The People-Michigan who’s currently running for City Council in Detroit’s sixth district, was among the founders.

“There wasn’t (a lot of) infrastructure set in place, and the infrastructure that was set in place was overwhelmed with the need, and frankly, nothing was moving fast enough, as fast as people were running out of food and jobs and health,” she says. “Within a few days after seeing that, we got together and started to create our infrastructure of support within the community.”

The organizers created a Google spreadsheet that people in the community could fill out and document what they needed or offer resources if they had them to give. Within a week, a small group had formed and begun meeting via Zoom, volunteering their time and raising money. As many as 300 people filled out the form asking for help. Volunteers communicated in a WhatsApp group, which at its peak reached about 50 individuals.

Organizers quickly found that the most requested need was food. They established a makeshift headquarters out of an empty storefront that they dubbed the “SW Care Camp” on Vernor Highway and used their platform to reach out to local businesses for help. Prince Valley donated gift cards; a local produce distributor gave out fresh food.

“When people heard what we were doing, other people that have the means connected with us and we were able to create that infrastructure of support,” says Santiago-Romero.

Demand has since dissipated, but a few organizers continue to meet every other week to strategize on how to help folks who continue to reach out for assistance.

Gallegos is among those volunteers. She says that while nonprofits have been integral to assisting families in need during the pandemic, one benefit of mutual aid efforts is a personal connection with people in the community.

That network worked just as intended this spring when Valdez reached out on Estrada’s behalf; the Southwest Detroit Cares Mutual Aid Collective was able to quickly raise enough funds to keep Estrada housed and provide food boxes. (Need help? Fill out this form)

Relying on neighbors for the long haul

The mutual aid has assisted Estrada in the short term, but she still has several obstacles to overcome. She says her landlord informed her that she needs to move out in July, and she still does not have a new place lined up. 

Most of the family’s belongings are packed up in one of her bedrooms. She doesn’t have a passport or birth certificate for some of her children, making it difficult for her to apply for any assistance for her kids with U.S. citizenship. She doesn’t drive, so she can’t go shopping or take the kids to school.

Credit: Gabriel Guzmán

Estrada and Valdez talk almost daily to problem-solve together. Valdez has been working with her to reach the Mexican Consulate so she can get passports. Valdez also posts frequently on her Facebook page requesting donations for Estrada.

Recently, Estrada texted Valdez, lamenting about wanting to go back to work.

“Yesterday I was sad, I was just like, ‘I want to go to work, we need stuff, we need to pay bills and rent, that’s why I want to work,’” Estrada said.

Returning to work presents Estrada with another dilemma: childcare. But if she can start working, that will be just another challenge the two moms can figure out together.

What makes mutual aid different from charity or institutional assistance is this bond between people who’ve experienced similar hardships. Valdez, 46, recalls a long period when she was raising her kids when she didn’t drive. Sometimes the power was shut off when she couldn’t pay her utility bills. Even though that chapter of her life has ended, she says she still lives paycheck to paycheck, working a low-wage job at Family Dollar. Still, she says she considers herself privileged. If she were to lose her job, she could find another one fairly quickly. She has a car now. And she’s a U.S. citizen, all obstacles that Estrada is contending with.

The way Valdez sees it, every little privilege that she does have, she can use to help Estrada realize a better life.

“You know, it’s not always easy, but you can’t give up. She’s not here alone while she has a lot of us. A lot of us went to the same situations, and we’ll find answers,” says Valdez. “We’re a village.”

Editor’s note: This story was reported and written before June 26, 2021, when record-breaking rainfall caused widespread flooding in Detroit, including the basement of this reporter’s home. The SW Detroit Cares Mutual Aid Collective reached out to this reporter on June 27, 2021, to offer assistance in cleaning up her basement.

This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.