By Rosanna Sze, Chloe Huber, Priya Nair
While COVID-19 created new challenges to survivor safety, our communities have always faced day-today systemic and racial violence. There is an extensive legacy of leaning into care networks to shield from the harms of colonization and capitalism. Finding alternatives to police intervention in gender-based violence is a necessity, as marginalized survivors are often criminalized and punished themselves when criminal systems are involved. Knowing this, our communities have long turned to neighbors and friends for a safe place to stay, seeking and offering support to one another in our mother tongues so our stories are not lost in translation. Indeed, that is how API Chaya was born — immigrant community members coming together to support each other in the face of harm at home and from the state.
In the wake of the pandemic, the government has failed to provide meaningful aid or emergency relief, so the community stepped in as an essential support system. Tender moments of community care are an active form of political resistance, and is the basis of our long-standing Natural Helpers program, working to build the skills, knowledge and leadership of our community members to respond to and intervene in harm. This knowledge is baked into the organizing principles of South King County and Eastside (SKC&E) Mutual Aid, which centers the values that no one is disposable, that we have all that we need, and that everyone is valuable. We hold that systems that do not serve us must be abolished, and that we are in power with one another and not over each other.
In early-mid March 2020, when lockdown was starting, organizers at API Chaya heard from community members and volunteers in South King County and Eastside that survivors were being particularly impacted by the harsh realities of COVID. This included losing jobs, not having a place to stay, and facing supreme isolation to the point that some were contemplating getting back with their abusive ex-partners. We also heard that abusive partners were leveraging the pandemic conditions to gain more power and control over survivors’ lives and relationships. Overall, we saw a drastic increase in the amount of abuse reported in homes, as many were forced to stay quarantined with the person causing them harm.
Staying connected and feeling supported is one of the most crucial needs in preventing and intervening when harm happens. To that end, Priya N, volunteer coordinator with API Chaya, started talking with community members and natural helpers and realized that there was not a mutual aid group in South King County and Eastside. They decided to start one with the hopes of reducing isolation and building solidarity to support with meeting basic needs for survivors, sick and disabled, immune compromised, elders, undocumented, queer, trans, black, indigenous, and people of color communities. Also held central to this goal was supporting survivors in the unique and harrowing conditions created by COVID.
Each phone call to community members begins with the question, “Do you feel safe?” Community members spoke of the hardships of unemployment without assistance from the state, facing the uncertainty of not being able to cover the costs of rent, utilities and food. Others spoke to the hazard and risk assessment of running basic errands during a global pandemic with preexisting health conditions and disabilities. Many families made food assistance requests for their multigenerational households with urgent needs including diapers, infant formula, and children’s winter clothing. Along with connecting individuals and family members with volunteers who could shop for their specific grocery requests, we were able to respond to many of the other emerging needs through organizing food pantries and diaper and winter clothes drives. As we have known before and were hearing again and again, access to resources is the crux of community safety.
Over the months, more specific needs of the community began to emerge. There was an apparent need for increased language access support with many requesters speaking Spanish, Swahili, and Somali — just to name a few. Part of the process of checking in with the needs of requesters was identifying culturally specific items, such as purchasing groceries from halal stores. Additionally, we established a partnership with the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) to expand the reach of our referral and resource networks, leading to many undocumented individuals and families making requests. Pivoting to meet the cultural and language access needs of requesters meant recruiting volunteers and coordinators who spoke the languages and were from similar cultural backgrounds as the communities served, while also ensuring that our forms and outreach materials are accessible.
In particular, we emphasized intentionally bringing in and training BIPOC and survivors to lead this group. In some ways it was easy to connect with survivors who wanted to join the organizing team. Our survivors immediately saw the value in essential item deliveries not only as the delivery of urgently needed goods, but also as a safety measure. A mutual aid delivery of groceries would mean one less trip out into the neighborhood where they could be found by an abuser. Or one less call to an ex for whom would be a last resort for support. Many survivors asked to join the coordination team in their first call, and quickly became leaders and point persons for supporting other coordinators on calls. They were already skilled in supporting other survivors from a place of experience and empathy, sharing resources, recommending agencies and how to navigate them, and forming alternative safety plans that involved family and neighbors — not the police.
From the very beginning of this pandemic, survivors have been requesting emotional support calls on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. So we are building survivor support pods in South King county and Eastside to train and connect community members who can offer emotional support with survivors in their neighborhood.
Since early March 2020, our network of community care has engaged many people. Everything had begun with just a few people has grown to include:
- 55 organizers who were active at some point between March 2020 – Feb 2021, speaking 17 languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, German, Cantonese, Mandarin, Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi, Portugese, Swahili, Somali, Oromo, French, Norwegian
- 1,200 supporters offering to shop, deliver, and other forms of support to community members
- 1,000 Members of our Facebook group
- 2,800 Instagram Followers
Together we have accomplished:
- 1,600 completed deliveries, where community members delivered to 1,250 unique households
- $135,600 redistributed in the form of essential items, direct transfers for utilities, rent and medical emergencies
Of the 900 community members who shared some social positioning or identifying information with us through our form, 260 identified as a survivor of domestic violence. Meaning about one in three or four calls to discuss groceries was also a call with a survivor.