It is of great importance to me that I open this up by stating that I speak for myself and my experiences entirely. Any mentions of the community I belong to are through my lens and not a representation that speaks for anyone other than myself. It is also important to note that many of these thoughts come not only from me, but from those who have taught me so much over the years and over the last few weeks.  

This last month itself has felt like several years. As news of the COVID19 pandemic unfolded, I wrote a statement about where to get information and addressed the racism directed at Asians Americans. My coworkers and I moved our operations entirely virtually. We’ve continued to provide direct services enrolling community members in healthcare through phone calls and emails as we all navigate these changes together.  

As I went through each of the nine programs we’re currently funded for to decide how to adapt the deliverables to a virtual model, I wasn’t going to wait around for lengthy grant opportunities and jump through hoops, I wanted to do something immediate. I decided to volunteer my time outside of my organization assisting with a local mutual aid effort.  

For the past 12 years or so, I’ve been involved in a variety of mutual aid projects that popped up to address community needs. To me, Mutual Aid is a direct exchanging of ideas, materials, and power. For this COVID19 Mutual Aid project, a large, dedicated team of volunteers have been organizing direct aid centering the most vulnerable community members. Prioritizing those who are sick, disabled, quarantined without pay, elderly, undocumented, queer, Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color, including anyone that’s been displaced.  

As public health experts, we could predict Black and Indigenous people would experience the highest disparities during this crisis. As the county and state struggle to gather the demographic data, we are witnessing the horrors of the outbreak on the Navajo Nation, where there is a lack of running water and deeply inadequate access to healthcare. Barely a population of over 300,000 people, they have seen over a thousand who tested positive and 49 deaths due to COVID19. There are already many Mutual Aid efforts underway in various regions of Arizona, including one specifically in aid to the Navajo Nation. As Brittany Packnett Cunningham wrote in her article on the COVID19 disparities in the Black community, “We are all weathering the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.” 

I joined the efforts in the Phoenix Metro area specifically to learn more about what was happening on the ground, help curate resources, and find ways to connect people to information they need to make the best decisions for themselves. It’s not just one group that’s leading efforts. My community has a vast network of groups all stepping in. With one group, I helped create 1 minute PSAs encouraging people to stay home in several languages, featuring local community members. With another group, what began with my readings about safely consuming takeout as people sought to support local small businesses in the Asian Community, turned into this beautiful video my friend created for the Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce.  

When it comes to these efforts, they truly are from the ground up, it doesn’t matter if we’ve had the same education or read the same books about whatever ideology we believe we hold, mutual aid is about seeing a need and stepping up to help. From the amazing woman who has been leading school children in a herculean effort to sew as many masks as possible for first responders, to the notary public who went to someone’s home to sign their will, the community shows up and teaches us how to build a better, more equitable system. Mutual Aid is the future of nonprofits. Efforts led by community for community.  

The system has been failing a lot of people for a very long time. As advocates, we’ve been pointing out the fault lines of bad policies that have been cracking under the weight of this crisis. Mutual Aid is like being an ant that emerges from the fissure to seek out resources and keep the community going, despite the conditions.  

As an example, my organization has been advocating for Language Access for many years and during the COVID19 crisis, a provider reported that it took up to 10 minutes to get an interpreter on the phone line because the hospital did not have dedicated interpreters in place. Meanwhile, we’re hearing that medical interpreters are currently being underutilized.  

Let’s stop putting band aids on gashes and address root causes of problems as we heal. Let’s plant the seeds of community together. We are never going to go back to the way things were. Now that all of the health disparities are emerging at lightning speed, we cannot take the systems that have failed us all along with us into the future. We need to build systems that emerge from community need, that build mechanisms for hearing from those that are most affected and ensuring they are at the center. 

It’s a cycle: A community need emerges, we spring into action. We meet immediate needs and build a better system for the future from what our communities teach us, and most importantly, we engage them in the work. 

Help, Learn, Receive Help, Grow, Rinse, Repeat, Wash your mask and iron it. 

Love and Solidarity, 

Layal Rabat 

Layal Rabat, MA is the Programs Director at Asian Pacific Community in Action, a Phoenix-based nonprofit serving Arizona’s diverse AAPI communities. Her experience lies in traditional and digital communications and she is often seen playing a supportive role in the background, amplifying the voices of those directly affected by injustice in her community.