How to Respond to a Pandemic When Our Institutions Can’t

Panthea Lee
Apr 8, 2020 · 10 min read

As people everywhere grapple with the failure of public agencies to respond effectively to COVID-19, they’re taking matters into their own hands. Institutions would do well to take some pages from the organizer’s playbook.

A mural in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Photo by Tiffany Hagler-Geard

“I’d like some food, please,” says the soft voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, of course. What would you like?” I ask.

“Food.” Pause. “Any food. We eat everything,” she says. I hear a twinge of a Carribean accent.

“Yes, we’d be happy to deliver food! What do you like to eat? We want to make sure to get things you enjoy.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Rice, cans, pasta… really, any food.”

“What about some fresh vegetables?” I offer. “Or some protein — maybe some meat?”.

There’s a long pause on the line. For a minute, I thought I had lost the connection.

“Fresh vegetables?” comes the voice. “Meat? You… you can do that?” Each word is quiet, slow, cautious.

My eyes well up. “We would absolutely love to.”

10 minutes later, I had taken down Geraldine’s information (not her real name). She was 72, and lived about six blocks from me, in a public housing complex, with her husband who was recovering from a recent stroke. I explained to her that her grocery list — which we’d filled with chicken thighs, broccoli, collard greens, apples, bananas, eggs, and honeybuns, in addition to pantry staples — would be delivered the following day by a young volunteer, also a fellow neighbour.

Geraldine couldn’t believe that I wasn’t with any organization or government. Or that she wouldn’t have to pay for her groceries.

Honestly, I could hardly believe it either.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by William Newton

We Are #BedStuyStrong

I’m just one of 2,600 members of Bed-Stuy Strong, a 3.5 week old mutual aid group serving the central Brooklyn neighbourhood made famous by Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. Home to tree-lined streets, beautiful brownstones, and many locally-owned shops, Bed-Stuy residents include a mix of families that have lived here for decades and recent gentrifiers such as myself. Before COVID-19, about 1 in 4 residents lived in poverty, and about 1 in 8 were unemployed.

Since launching, Bed-Stuy Strong has bought and delivered critical groceries and household supplies to over 1,000 neighbours. We’ve sourced and made over 600 masks for healthcare workers. We’ve made more than 400 phone calls to check in with vulnerable members of our community. Almost everyone I’ve served has been eldery, immunocompromised, or fearful — and usually all three.

The group was started by concerned residents who knew that COVID-19 was hitting Bed-Stuy hard and wanted to help alleviate human suffering. Within days, volunteers (most of whom were strangers to each other) had posted flyers all over the neighbourhood to offer support, set up a Google Voice line to take incoming requests, and begun supporting our neighbours in need.

To date, we’ve raised over $40,000 for our Community Fund from nearly 800 individuals, collected through a Venmo account. We coordinate via a Slack workspace which, in addition to coordinating food deliveries, also helps neighbours connect to legal aid, rally around struggling local businesses, and feel less despondent through cooking classes and photos of each other’s pets. We process all the requests for help (over 2,000 and counting) via Zoom volunteer trainings, Google Doc scripts, Airtable case management systems, and a fleet of kindred spirits volunteering by foot, bike, and car to help our neighbours. There was never a plan, people just started jumping in to do what they can, where they can. We’re figuring it out day by day.

The Myth of Professional vs “Amateur” Changemakers

As someone who’s worked largely globally over the last 15 years, the last 15 days — with Bed-Stuy Strong, and other grassroots efforts — have been hugely instructive for me. It reminds me of the work of anthropologist David Mosse on international development practitioners. He’s observed that these “professional changemakers” are an interesting lot. Most are diligent in keeping up with the latest conceptual frameworks for How Change Happens, and have an uncanny ability to put together long strings of obscure airport codes for optimizing travel. Most are motivated by Doing The Most Good, but as our careers progress, how we do so becomes more and more abstract. And the seductiveness of Change At Scale means many increasingly disengage from their local communities.

In coordinating with “professional changemakers” in the US and beyond on responses to COVID-19 — non-profits, governments, researchers, advocacy groups, foundations, tech companies, and international agencies — I’ve found our conversations thoughtful, full of good ideas, but often inconclusive. They usually end with an agreement to follow-up the coming week, once we “get a better understanding of the situation.”

As time progresses and the pandemic continues to unfold, this has become increasingly less satisfying. I’ve felt growing anxiety, anger, and even shame — the dynamics of these emotions are so eloquently captured by Aarathi Krishnan. And I can’t help comparing my daytime experience at work to my nights-and-weekends experience with Bed-Stuy Strong. As an ethnographer with a foot in both worlds, I’ve tried to make sense of the different orientations and norms in each:

I know the two sides come from very different perspectives, and friends and colleagues in institutions want to move faster and work with new partners whose skills are needed for effective response — but there are very real constraints they face in doing so. Institutions have policies and norms in place to coordinate with other players with overlapping mandates; to ensure equity and sustainability in their responses; and to prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and outright corruption. They have to think through how to make that work and that takes more time than a neighbour-to-neighbour response. I get that.

And yet, as each day passes, I can’t help but feel that many of us professional changemakers are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What Institutions Can Learn from Communities

I’m increasingly convinced that the professionals need to learn from the “amateurs” — though, in all honesty, this crisis is revealing those distinctions as false. Some lessons we’d do well to take away:

1. Adopt a bias towards action.

As social change strategist Dave Algoso has noted, we are in the Chaos quadrant of the Cynefin framework, a framework that combines systems theory and complexity theory to articulate how we might take decisions under different circumstances. Per the framework, in times of Chaos, we need to i) act quickly to establish order; ii) sense where stability is emerging (and where it is missing) and what responses have worked; then iii) respond based on the sensing work. Doing reams of analysis to try and get to the right answer won’t help — because there is no right answer.

This is what I’ve seen with my mutual aid group. The organizers started fast and small (with flyers, phone calls), then built more infrastructure based on what was needed — including an impressive case management system that rivals some national-level social implementations I’ve seen. Now that we have an impressive community and protocols in place, we’re figuring out how to strengthen and sustain our operations.

2. Identify concrete problems in your field, and get to it.

Many of us are overwhelmed. The headlines dominate our consciousness. We’re grappling with collective grief as we try to organize and act. Most of us are not epidemiologists or economists — and even if we were, it’s an open question if expert guidance would be heeded now. And so we feel powerless: if we can’t tackle the biggest problems, then what can we do?

But COVID-19 is disrupting every aspect of society, and there is tons to do. We all have a role to play — and we must think beyond the headlines. We are professional re-imaginers, fighters, designers, and organizers and there is a lot of reimagining, fighting, designing, and organizing to do right now.

We need to take space to process and we need to act — particularly for more vulnerable populations and regions that don’t have the privilege of processing and grieving. My team has started an issues tracker to help us track challenges emerging in the wake of COVID-19 — from hate crimes to authoritarian overreach to digital surveillance — and for each conversation with partners despondent about the headlines, we remind them that our collective work is as urgent as ever. Responses will only center equity, justice, and accountability if we rally to make it so.

3. Harness civil society and “amateur” energy to respond in the present — and to reimagine the future.

Many professional changemakers are trying to work out how to do things on their own — and then going outside to ask for help. But this assumes that institutions know what the answer is, and that folks outside are simply there to help execute. This is wrong.

The volunteers in my mutual aid group alone are incredible writers, producers, civic leaders, technologists, and researchers. My WhatsApp is blowing up with self-organizing networks of well-respected, well-networked individuals (generally with backgrounds in data science, design, technology, organizing, civic innovation) looking for ways to collaborate with worthy institutional efforts. Tapping into these can be transformative for response efforts, since these networks can mobilize top-tier talent and resources — but they won’t do so unless there are clear, scalable paths for their efforts to deliver impact.

Institutions must reach out and ask for help — problem-solving together will be messy, but it will be worth it.

4. Set up infrastructure for community support.

As ethnographer and organizer Tricia Wang has noted, hyperlocal community support groups were critical for the success of China’s response to COVID-19. While Western media has focused on the country’s top-down model of slowing infections, her research found “totally invisible, yet highly sophisticated networks of localized cooperation” via emergent, hyperlocal groups that contributed to a successful recovery. (For those interested in setting up groups, she has step-by-step instructions here.)

This model needs to be replicated and scaled, and doing so is especially urgent for developing countries and other regions where public health infrastructure is poor or already strained, and/or where digital infrastructure or access is limited.

We’re talking with tech partners to determine how this can inform contributions to mitigation and response especially in low-bandwidth environments. But we need to move rapidly to share the tools, templates, resources, and lessons, because the support needed to get each other through this will be beyond the scale of what governments, non-profits, and community organizations can do.

5. Do what’s right, right now — even without a sustainability plan.

As someone who helps develop long-term strategies, this one is hard for me to say, but: we need to act now, and figure out the sustainability plan later. The world is changing dramatically day-by-day, and we don’t know what the coming months will hold. We must do what is right, and we must do it right now.

I get that many of us are trying to balance short- and long-term work, and are waiting to see how things shake out. And while I hope I’m proven wrong on this, I don’t believe there will be a point where The Thing To Do becomes clear.

With Bed-Stuy Strong, I’ve been asking neighbours if they want vegetables, fruit, and even dessert — because a hit of joy via cupcakes now feels essential, “value for money” be damned. I’ve resisted overthinking (for now) what it means for a mutual aid group with majority white volunteers to be working in a neighbourhood where 49% of residents are black, as are nearly 100% of those I’ve been able to support; there will be time to analyze this later.

We need to stop thinking ourselves into circles, remember what we’re best at, and get moving. If we meet critical needs, the sustainability will come.

It’s 👏All 👏Hands👏 On👏 Deck👏 Boundary-Breakers to the Front!

Big institutions must learn from community efforts, but they will never be as nimble and agile as neighbour-to-neighbour efforts — and that’s not what I’m suggesting. Conversely, mutual aid efforts can’t deliver the sustainability of programs and funding that institutions can — nor are they as well-equipped to implement measures to ensure efforts are as inclusive, equitable, and efficient as they could be (though we sure do try!). Neither can do what the other can do, and both play vital roles in the response ecosystem.

The question now is how they might work together to drive compassionate, urgent responses that are nimble and sustainable, creative and holistic.

It won’t be easy. Each side is skeptical of the other. I’ve heard smart, effective institutional leaders — who are understandably stressed and overwhelmed — dismiss grassroots efforts as ”amateur hour” and “techno-solutionism”. Among my activist and mutual aid circles, most seem to more or less agree with Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

I understand the skepticism. I’ve been burned too, on both sides. But we need to push through the discomfort, because no “side” can do this alone.

We must marry the radical imaginations of our poets and artists, the moral courage of our bravest activists, the innovation and generosity of my beloved Bed-Stuy Strong, and the reach and durability of our public institutions. This is the path to radical, moral, structural transformation at scale. And we won’t settle for anything less.

With gratitude to my colleagues Andrew Haupt & Kisha Bwenge for the many conversations and thinking that informed this post.


Transformative collaborations for courageous social change.

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