A Backstory for North Durham Mutual Aid

Everyone in North Durham Mutual Aid can tell a different story about how they got involved. Some of us can trace the roots of our involvement to a discussion group on Durham history a couple years before the pandemic. In our group’s few meetings, we explored how the city’s present situation of inequalities and segregations are rooted in its history of violence with settler colonialism, slavery, white supremacy, Reconstruction and Counter-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and gentrification, but also in resistances with the long Black Freedom Movement, the struggles of Native American peoples, and labor movements. Over the years, we continued these conversations and we interweaved them with reflections on possibilities for organizing in our neighborhood and the wider city. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we started talking about possibilities of what we could do collectively to support our neighbors. 

In mid-March, after hearing about mutual aid projects springing up around the country, we connected with others through a “Durham Mutual Aid” Facebook group. Through conference calls, we shared ideas and tactics, built relationships, and coordinated resources across many Durham neighborhoods. At the same time, we connected with others in Northgate Park for organizing a neighborhood-focused mutual aid project. We made fliers for connecting with our neighbors on our immediate blocks. Through a citywide conference call, we learned about an approach called “neighborhood pods,” which involved attempting to find people who would become “block coordinators” that would gather contacts and build relationships and communication loops with their block’s residents, and coordinating across the blocks for sharing needs and distributing resources across the neighborhood. In our neighborhood, we hit some obstacles with this approach, because we were trying it amidst increased fears about the spread of the coronavirus and a norm of hyper-vigilance about social distancing, such that we felt like we could no longer safely do the door-knocking. This led us to shift to emphasizing a “no physical contact” outreach approach of posting fliers in public places, especially telephone polls, around the neighborhood, as well as digital outreach. With new relationships growing our network, we also expanded our group’s scope beyond Northgate Park to include Colonial Village, and potentially further adjacent areas, as well. 

Simultaneously with neighborhood-focused organizing, we were also communicating with other organizers around the city, with whom we collaborated on citywide working groups (e.g., food, outreach, mental health). We also found inspiration from other neighborhoods to try new approaches. One of the biggest challenges we grappled with was that we had initially connected with many people who had expressed a willingness to share resources but few who had expressed immediate needs. To tackle this challenge, in mid-April, our outreach group sought to put up fliers in more areas of the neighborhood and beyond the established boundaries of the neighborhood, particularly in areas with more working class, Black, and Latinx residents who have been practicing their own networks of mutual aid long before the pandemic. This expanded outreach resulted in us finally getting in touch with more people with more serious and immediate needs, especially for food. This motivated us in early May to coalesce our efforts around a Food Distribution Group. In the first week’s trial run of a food distribution system, we were able to connect three people who offered to donate food with three families who were in need of food. In the subsequent weeks, we expanded this process to distribute food to around 9-12 families each week. We created a fund to accept donations to help pay for the food.

We have also been involved with creating and supporting new groups with mutual aid principles. We are helping organize a Senior Solidarity Project to help provide resources to older adults who live in public housing. Most recently, we started a new group to create alternatives to policing in North Durham.