TUPELO • Mutual aid projects in Northeast Mississippi are rallying for communities to take care of each other’s needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tupelo Mutual Aid Project explains mutual aid simply as “people helping other people” on its website. Mutual aid helps bring together different “pods,” which are smaller community networks of friends, neighbors, family, advocates and community members.

Members share needs. These can be as simple as requesting someone pick up groceries or provide transportation, and others in the community help fill those needs as they are able.

Bailey Paul, a Students Against Social Injustice (SASI) organizer and United Campus Workers of Mississippi (UCW) union member, said the goal of developing a mutual aid network in Oxford was to help community members stand together as equals.

“We all have needs in the community. We all have things people give that we need to receive,” Paul said. “It’s important that we understand that we’re doing this for each other so we can keep building together.”

The University of Mississippi Students Against Social Injustice (SASI) started the UMiss and LOU Community Mutual Aid spreadsheet out of concern for displaced students, but has since grown to help students and community members fill needs such as childcare, food, funds and other necessities.

Mutual aid networks have been proliferating both in the US and beyond in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ashley Williams of the Tupelo Mutual Aid Project said mutual aid is sustainable, builds community and is based on individuals fulfilling each other’s needs.

“With our project, in solidarity we have community members determining where the need is in their own community, which will hopefully self-regulate and the attention will go where it’s most needed,” Williams said.

Williams and Aleigh Farris started the Tupelo Mutual Aid Project based on Oxford’s efforts. When adapting the mutual aid project to Tupelo, they wanted the group to help solve issues in the community. This includes assisting the elderly, helping people find food and prescriptions, or solving transportation needs, such as finding alternatives to Tupelo Transit during the time that service was paused.

In the face of great need, people across the economic spectrum are facing challenges alike.

“When it comes to a national crisis, our needs become very similar regardless of how similar our lifestyles are,” Farris said.

Efforts to create UMiss and LOU Community Mutual Aid began around Ole Miss’s spring break, Paul said. Organizers saw other colleges were closing and were in conversation with California organizers for ways they could be prepared. Early efforts focused on housing for students who may not be able to safely go home. Paul said they also felt university officials are “not always transparent about their decisions and what they’re going to do.” When organizers saw the university was going to close dorms, there were questions about who could stay.

SASI began planning and used a spreadsheet and Facebook page to connect those in need with assistance, including housing.

Williams had the initial inspiration for the Tupelo Mutual Aid project during the surge in panic buying due to COVID-19, and Farris used her background in small businesses and nonprofits to help organize the project. The two started a Facebook page and website with the goal of connecting community members. Farris said she “was surprised, enlightened and very honored” to see how willing the community was to come together.

“With a pandemic, the efforts were going to be organic because the needs were going to be organic. It was just going to grow and happen as it did naturally and we wanted to be able to accommodate for that without pigeonholing ourselves into one small area,” Farris said.

Farris and Williams consider themselves facilitators rather than leaders. While the Facebook group is private to respect private needs, the group’s spreadsheet of community needs is open, and anyone within the community is invited to join and share needs, including transportation, supplies, services and so on. Others are encouraged to volunteer as they are able.

Williams said most efforts have centered around sharing information rather than resources. Information sharing has included offers to teach classes, provide free therapy and tips on where to find PPE or cleaning supplies.

In the past month, the biggest issue for the UMiss and LOU community has become food for those who cannot go out and obtain food or afford it, Paul said. While there is some food aid, Paul said some groups did not qualify and remain in need. UCW, which includes part-time and full-time staff, faculty and student workers at both the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi, also has several workers who need money for rent and necessities.

To meet needs, SASI combined efforts with UCW and the UM Food Bank to address food security. UCW also began a Solidarity Fund committee to help raise and distribute funds to workers. The fund provides $200 to workers in need.

Paul said the fund is not means-based and was created to address limitations with other aid efforts.

“This pandemic is showing the flaws in our systems. A lot of students who may not have criticized the university before are now seeing the ways they aren’t as transparent as they claim to be and there are issues,” Paul said.

The group provides a place where students and community members can help fill the gap in needs right now while also building a community that can make the university more accountable in the future. The mutual aid group is allowing SASI and UCW to build connections where they can organize greater numbers of people, Paul said.

Paul said they see the need extending as students wait to see if universities will continue distance learning next semester. They anticipate childcare being a need as summer programs cancel and anticipate needs for medicine and bed space for others. As of May 15, UCW raised $26,000 and completed 122 grants, with 10 more in the process of being completed. Grants have been distributed to undergraduate and graduate student workers, hourly staff, and workers contracted through Aramark or Sodexo at both the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi, Paul said.

Paul hopes to see similar mutual aid efforts repeated elsewhere.

“I would love to see mutual aid going on all over the country or the world, but I do think Mississippi, there is a great need here for communities working together and providing things that our institutions are not providing to us,” Paul said.More information about the Tupelo Mutual Aid Project can be found on Facebook by searching for the Tupelo Mutual Aid Project, visiting the mutual aid’s website at https://sites.google.com/view/tupelo-mutual-aid-project/home or emailing tupelomutualaid@gmail.com.

The UMiss and LOU Community Mutual Aid group can be found on Facebook. SASI can be found on Facebook at Students Against Social Injustices, Instagram at @sasilikesassy and Twitter at @USASI121. Information about UCW, including ways to apply for or donate to the Campus Worker Solidarity Fund to support campus workers is available at https://ucwms.org, on Twitter at @CampusWorkersMS or Facebook at Mississippi United Campus Workers.

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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