Groceries outside the Germantown Mutual Aid Hub

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

A diverse group of young Philadelphians in Germantown have banded together to create a special kind of grocery and general store.

Based in a warehouse just down the road from popular cafe and bookstore Uncle Bobbie’s, it’s stocked with essentials like food, diapers and toiletries. But this is not like most shops you’ll find on a big city commercial corridor.

Everything is available for free.

The Germantown Supply Hub Mutual Aid & Protest Support, developed in response to both the pandemic and the protests against racism and police violence, opened its doors about two weeks ago. The neighborhood is already digging it.

“I think it’s needed and it’s appreciated,” said nearby neighbor Leona D. who stopped in to check it out. “I think people need to take more advantage of the things that are being given, and not just walk by.”

Ashley Davis, a 29-year-old teacher-turned-artist who helped establish the hub, noted that mutual aid has a long history among oppressed groups and in Indigenous communities, even modern ones.

“Especially groups of Black queer folks, it’s always been about, ‘How are we caring for each other?’” Davis said. “How are we building homes and chosen families with one another?”

Mutual aid in African American communities dates back to the Revolutionary War. In 1780, a group of free and enslaved Black men in Rhode Island chartered the African Union Society, which kept track of births and deaths, collected resources for funeral expenses, and helped fund abolitionist causes.

Two hundred years later, it was a staple in the Black Panther Party, which in the 1960s provided a free breakfast program for neighborhood children, along with free legal aid and drug and alcohol education.

Throughout the 20th century, sociedades mutualistas have formed in Latinx communities, from the Tejanos in the American West to workers in the Domincan Republic. And some African and Caribbean cultures still use a mutual aid system based on an ancient West African practice. Called sou-sou, it encourages friends and neighbors to contribute to a pot of money that’s paid out to each participant once a fundraising goal is met.

Though the concept has been less prominent in the United States, the idea of centering a positive symbiotic relationship between community members is regaining a foothold.

West Philadelphia’s Sankofa House recently started a mutual aid community, and Food Not Bombs, which has been running similar operations for decades, is giving away groceries and produce in Malcolm X Park at 51st and Pine.

Diapers are one of the most popular items at the hub Credit: Layla A. Jones / Billy Penn

Intentional community building, not just freebies

Germantown Supply Hub is different from “buy nothing” Facebook groups because it facilitates intentional community building, said cofounder Shanel Edwards..

“It isn’t as leisurely,” Edwards said, “because we want to do this continuously. That means we need donations…we need people to give continuously.”

People seem to understand how it works. One woman who stopped by the hub on Wednesday to pick up a pack of extremely in-demand size 5 baby diapers promised to return with a donation of adult diapers the next day.

“I’m gonna drop them off probably tomorrow, when I get off at 3,” the neighbor said.

Some of the stock is coming from other like minded organizations. A volunteer food distribution group called the West Philly Bunnyhop has been a faithful donor, and the Hub is waiting to hear back from nearby Weaver’s Way Co-op, per Edwards.

In the meantime, they’re urging individuals to give what they have — especially wealthy white people, said Sulaiha Olatunji, another Hub cofounder who is herself white. Olatunji, 35, said she’s launching a “white accountability” group to encourage “other white folks to do their work on their own and educate themselves.”

Germantown Mutual Aid sets up Wednesday from 2 to 6 p.m. and Saturday starting at 10 a.m., at 5424 Lena Street. Monetary contributions are not accepted, but donations of food or goods can be dropped off or shipped to that site.

Davis set up a mock baby registry featuring a list of needed items. Other supplies organizers are looking for include:

  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Nursing supplies for moms
  • Fresh teas and herbs
  • Rice and pasta
  • Canned goods
  • Hand sanitizer and other PPE
  • Toilet paper and paper towels
  • Books
  • Epi pens
  • Brown paper bags to put items in for neighbors

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...