Volunteers with City Wide Mutual Aid at a delivery of groceries and food in Kensington in late January

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

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

Equal parts inspired and enraged by the past year, Francisville resident Anna Snyder wanted to help people in a direct way. She uses a wheelchair most of the time, and with limited mobility, it’s not easy for the 31-year-old Temple student to protest, or deliver food to people in need.

But she does have an in-unit washer dryer — which led to a moment of realization.

“I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s something I can do,’” Snyder said, recounting what flashed through her mind during her minor epiphany. “I could do laundry for people.”

She decided to invite folks to drop off loads, which she would then clean and dry for free. A few weeks ago she started a Google form to gauge interest in her North Philly neighborhood, and has already received some interest.

Combined, the global pandemic, recession and nationwide reckoning with racism have sparked an explosion of peer assistance efforts in Philadelphia.

Mutual aid gained popularity in the 1800s among newly organized U.S. workers, and was built upon by Black Americans and other marginalized communities to take care of each other in the face of oppression. Over the last 11 months, the concept has received renewed interest around the country. People have been helping each other by crowdsourcing everything from groceries to rental assistance to toiletries and medical care.

Philly organizers say it’s easier than you’d think to start your own network.

“A lot of people are always asking me, ‘How can I start mutual aid?’” said Jenna Brower, who cofounded City Wide Mutual Aid over the summer. “Just start.”

Unlike many kinds of nonprofit or charity work, mutual aid has a low barrier to entry. Organizers say it’s as simple as getting a group together, asking people what they need and securing those resources.

“Literally anyone can go to the grocery store, buy food, put it on a table in front of their house and say, ‘Here you go,’” said Katie Briggs, cofounder of West Philly Bunny Hop mutual aid project. “It doesn’t take more than that.”

Want to create your own mutual aid program? Here are some tips from Philadelphians who’ve done it in the last year.

Talk to your neighbors

“At first it was just us going around to our neighbors asking them how they’re doing and checking in with them,” said Bunny Hop’s Briggs, a freelance chef who leveraged leftover food from restaurants to start a grocery distribution network. “You don’t need some sort of skill.”

If you ask people what they need, they’ll likely tell you, agreed Bella Main, another laundry mutual aid organizer.

The 21-year-old UArts student and a few friends launched PHL Laundry Support over the summer. At first they served folks living at the encampments, and now have expanded to work with others experiencing homelessness.

“In my experience, people tell me what they want, even like down to like, what kind of cigarette,” Main said. “When people are coming at outreach or community-based work, I just really feel very passionate about it being down to the individual person and individual’s needs.”

Team up with existing community institutions

Another good way to start, from Brower of City Wide: Get connected with a neighborhood group, a church — or any community institution that already knows the neighborhood well. It’s likely they’ll have already identified specific challenges and built trust with residents.

“Send them a flier and say, ‘Can you help spread our news to the community?’” Brower said. “Things that people in the community normally turn to and trust can help you spread the word.”

Some of the city’s existing mutual aid orgs:

Get $$$ on Instagram

If you want to give out supplies, you’ll usually have to figure out a way to pay for them.

Luckily, Brower said, Philadephians seem hungry to give back. They have been since last summer. The City Wide Mutual Aid project, which has distributed $20,000 worth of supplies to residents, began with an Instagram ask for contributions for the encampments.

“In 30 minutes we met our goal,” they said. “Then we exceeded it.”

If your social media following isn’t robust, you might try politely DMing some existing mutual aid networks, or other influencers. Brower said many are willing to share your campaign to help you get some contributions.

Support your team members, too 

You can’t give back without making sure you’re taken care of.

If you’re starting out with a team, make sure you check in with your fellow volunteers regularly. Main of PHL Laundry Support recommends making some kind of agreement at the outset, setting some boundaries and self-care procedures to prevent burnout.

One example: Main has found it helpful to touch base with her volunteers via text the night before their shifts.

“It’s cheesy but learning how to take care of each other so we can take care of other people too, that’s the strongest and most fruitful lesson that I’ve learned,” she said.

Remember: You aren’t perfect

It’s rare, but the team at PHL Laundry Support has lost a few loads.

“That really sucks, to come back having to tell someone who doesn’t have other clothes that you lost their clothes,” said Main, the founder. “We found ways to reimburse them, but it’s not the same.”

Main comforts herself with the reminder that mistakes happen — and each project has its own limitations. Sometimes she’ll show up to deliver laundry, and people complain that someone who usually drops off food never showed up that day. She tries to stay in her lane.

“You have to learn how to be really good at one thing, rather than trying to kind of scatter and do a lot of different things,” Main said.

Be aware of potential legal issues

While providing any type of aid, there’s always the chance that something could go awry and you might get hit with a lawsuit.

If your group delivers food, for example, and the person receiving it gets sick, they could sue you. Same thing if a member of your group gets sick on the job. Since mutual aid groups often aren’t incorporated, they’d likely just be suing you as an individual.

It can help to incorporate your mutual aid project into something official, like an LLC, and write up a safety policy and some waivers for participants to sign. More tips are available in this plain-language report from Hofstra University (PDF).

Don’t judge recipients

Even if someone looks like they don’t need your help, don’t turn them away, organizers say.

Mutual aid is about sharing without judgment, per Briggs, of food distribution program Bunny Hop.

“We’re not judging people for if they qualify,” Briggs said. “Just tell them, ‘If you want it, take it, just pay it forward.’ You have to think about the system that way, constantly trying to support people around you.”

Just do it

You can always start small, organizers say. Next time you go grocery shopping, grab some extra food and drop it in one of Philly’s community fridges.

“It’s anonymous, 24 hours a day,” Briggs said. “It really is an anyone-can-go-do-it sort of situation.”

That’s Snyder’s mentality for the laundry-at-home idea. Since there haven’t been that many responses to the Google form, she’s considering teaming up with Main’s laundry help network to start.

“In the meantime, I’ve gotten hypoallergenic detergent and laundry sheets,” Snyder said. “I have the will to help people, so I just decided to do it.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...