In March of 2020, Kelvin Taitt had just recovered from COVID-19 when he was approached by one of his close friends who wanted to start an initiative to support their community, in a time of deep crisis. Kelvin immediately embraced the idea and formed East Brooklyn Mutual Aid (EBMA), alongside two neighbors and a community advocate. For Kelvin, taking immediate action was of the utmost priority. “After recovering from COVID, I was looking for ways to support the people that lived around me: my friends, my family, my neighbors. For me, it was an immediate yes. We knew that providing food was the best way to support our neighbors. So that’s exactly what we did.”
The group emerged as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a desire to support their neighbors and community. Since those beginnings, they have successfully distributed more than one million pounds of food to over 100,000 residents, through sourcing low-cost groceries from predominantly Black distributors and farmers and delivering them directly to the doors of hungry New Yorkers.
As part of their ongoing work, they are currently raising funds to establish a multi-stakeholder Black Radish Grocery Store working with local and regional producers to promote healthier and more nutritious food options. The ultimate goal is to provide a holistic approach to address the interrelated needs of the Afro-diasporic community. EBMA is driven by a larger vision, using food and culture as the primary entry points into community health.
When they first began their work in 2020, the first step was to determine their focus, and they decided that providing food for their neighbors, particularly seniors and families with young children, was the best way to offer support. With the announcement of their grocery assistance program, Crown Heights Mutual Aid quickly reached out to EBMA, offering a list of individuals in need. Although they were still in their early stages and lacked resources, Crown Heights Mutual Aid provided financial assistance to kickstart their efforts while they began raising funds independently.
Drawing on his background in operations and logistics, Kelvin mobilized a team of volunteers and formulated a plan for grocery shopping and order fulfillment. “We hit the ground running! I organized an entire system to ensure the operation ran smoothly and efficiently,” says Kelvin. They would receive contact numbers of neighbors in need, record the requests, shop for groceries, and arrange for deliveries.
However, as the number of requests grew and the financial burden increased, Kelvin realized that purchasing retail was not sustainable for their expanding operation. They had to find a way to streamline costs and optimize their processes. Leveraging his retail operations background, Kelvin delved into inventory management, wholesale buying, and distribution to enhance their efficiency and reach larger numbers of people in need.
To accommodate their growing operation, EBMA required a warehouse or large space with refrigeration for bulk purchasing and storage. They strategically shifted to wholesale buying and created an inventory list based on the most requested items. Their website offered a self-service feature, allowing community members to select items from the inventory. With the help of dedicated volunteers, they transformed the space into a grocery store-like setup for order fulfillment.
As EBMA quickly gained recognition, other organizations took notice of their operational success and available space. One such partnership formed with Brooklyn Packers, a worker-owned, Black-led food sourcing, packing, and distribution cooperative. “They had just received a 16 week contract to provide food to nearly 1,000 households a week, so they needed additional space for packing. We let them use our space and in exchange they provided us with their excess produce and covered the warehouse’s utilities.” A few months later, Brooklyn Packers hired EBMA volunteers to help fulfill their packing needs.
This collaboration created a situation of mutual support between both organizations, which is something Kelvin says is key to EBMA’s mission. “In June of 2020, thirty of our volunteers were provided with full-time jobs that involved them serving their community. When the world around us was shutting down, we were creating jobs for our neighbors and enabling a circular economy of love and support.”
Another crucial partnership emerged with Christian Cultural Center (CCC), a large church in East New York. Kelvin and his volunteers, many of whom were CCC members, found a perfect fit and overlap with CCC’s civic-led initiatives. CCC provided pantry space, while Kelvin introduced CCC to local BIPOC farmers and supported their mission by sourcing food and organizing pantry distributions. This collaboration helped bridge the gap between urban and rural communities, supporting Black farmers and ensuring access to quality produce for East Brooklyn residents.
Despite the success of EBMA, Kelvin says this work has been accompanied by specific challenges. When he started the collective in March of 2020, they were working under the name “Ocean Hill Brownsville Mutual Aid.” In August, in the midst of internal adjustments and questions of growth and capacity, it became clear their work and impact had expanded beyond their immediate community. “Our community was larger than Ocean Hill Brownsville. The folks that needed our support extended past where we were. That’s when we made the decision, as a group, to become East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, to really encompass the community that surrounded us that needed the support we were able to provide. Listening and following the needs of the community has always been a crucial part of our work.”
Another difficulty, which has become more pressing by the day, is the decline of engagement and monetary support from the community. “The reality is, donations have dropped off nearly 75% since we first started raising funds in 2020. On top of that, I think we are one of the only mutual aid groups here in Brooklyn that is still doing regular food distributions.” Support may have dwindled, but Kelvin notes that the issue of food inequity and injustice isn’t new, nor is it unsolvable. “The folks in the communities we serve have been dealing with food insecurity and living in food deserts for generations. But we’re finally starting to see infrastructural changes at the state and federal level. At the civic level, I would love for our communities to be as united and supportive of each other as we were during those times when COVID-19 first began. I love the way we checked in our neighbors, I love the way we cared for each other, and I love how interconnected we were. I think there’s a silver lining in that, knowing that we are capable of taking care of each other.”
Kelvin says a strong sense of community focus is what initially led his group to crowdfund on ioby. “Most importantly, ioby was grounded in community. Although we didn’t initially know what it would be like to run a mutual aid group, we knew that being connected to our community was key. We wanted to be able to use a platform that represented us and our work, which is why we turned to ioby.”
ioby also serves as EBMA’s fiscal sponsor, which means they were able to start their work without the paperwork and overhaul needed to become an incorporated group. Kelvin notes the ability to jump right into their work and receive weekly disbursements from their campaign made ioby an easy choice compared to other platforms. “We were able to focus on providing food to our neighbors, without delays in payment. With ioby, there were no barriers to receiving our payment or endless amounts of paperwork to deal with. We were completely focused on the work that needed to be done in our neighborhood.”
East Brooklyn Mutual Aid has raised nearly $150,000 on their way to provide healthy food options to East Brooklyn. Read more about their current work and support their project today!
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