Pandemic Responses and Mutual Aid Are Building Climate Resilience and Justice

Pandemic Responses and Mutual Aid Are Building Climate Resilience and Justice: Learning from Community Responses in the Boston Area

By Penn Loh and Neenah Estrella-Luna

The following piece is part of Progressive City’s Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.

Photo credits (left to right): Gabriela Cartagena, Dan Jackson, Said el Mennaouy

In early 2020, GreenRoots, an environmental justice group in Chelsea, Massachusetts, was organizing residents to challenge a proposed electrical substation that would add yet another threat among the multiple environmental hazards already in this predominantly working-class Latinx community. Two days before the pandemic shutdown in Massachusetts, GreenRoots convened a call of about 15 stakeholders to begin coordinating an emergency response amongst community, nonprofit, and governmental partners. That call, the first of 65 consecutive daily calls, created the Chelsea Pandemic Response Team, which grew to 75 people in 10 working groups and included city staff, state elected officials, and leadership of the two major health clinics. These early actions helped Chelsea transform from one of the communities hardest hit by COVID-19 to a model for pandemic response, achieving some of the highest rates of vaccination amongst working class immigrant communities in the country.

This community-led response is an example of social resilience in action. Though GreenRoots was not a service agency, they catalyzed city-wide action because they understood that structural racism and other systems of oppression would leave their community disproportionately impacted. They drew on their deep relationships and collaborations to quickly respond to and connect those in need to resources.

This resilience can be activated in many types of crises, including climate. Community-based organizations (CBOs) like GreenRoots show that building independent community power and strengthening social and civic infrastructure are the most effective ways to protect the most vulnerable in the age of climate (and other) disasters – and transform the systems producing these injustices.

Across the Boston area, resident-led CBOs immediately pivoted in the pandemic to meet urgent needs of their communities. Groups that had not previously done mass distribution of aid, such as La Colaborativa, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and VietAID turned their buildings into food pantries, serving thousands of families each week. Mutual Aid Eastie delivered 5,000 meals a week at the height of the shutdown. The Black Economic Justice Institute distributed $20,000 in gift cards and laundry cards. New relief funds were created, including the Mass UndocuFund, channeling more than $1.5 million to 3,400 undocumented workers and their families, and the Mass Redistribution Fund, raising almost $1 million for 27 grassroots relief efforts across the state. CBOs provided hands-on multi-lingual support to assist residents and businesses to access government aid.

The trust and deep relationships that these groups have within their communities also helped residents access COVID testing and overcome vaccine misinformation and skepticism. The Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition brought out 1,200 people to the first weekend of mass COVID testing in Roxbury. In Chelsea, La Colaborativa and GreenRoots mobilized health ambassadors to do door-to-door and on-street outreach.

These responses stretched these organizations beyond their regular capacities. They took on these challenges because they are rooted in an ethic of care for and solidarity with their communities. In addition to meeting physical needs, they conducted wellness calls and visits, letting people know their mental and emotional wellbeing was cared about. These responses were saving lives and showing how institutions and resources might be shifted to address systemic inequities.

Progressive planners can learn much from community COVID responses to prepare for future climate (and other) disasters. Fundamentally, resilience should be reframed from a social justice perspective. Climate resilience approaches that focus on capacity to “bounce back” from a shock are rightly critiqued for fixating on physical infrastructure and ignoring existing inequities. Marginalized communities are not interested in returning to normal; they want to build back better and transform the systems that produce vulnerabilities and injustice in the first place. Resilience should be understood as primarily a social capacity of people to respond collectively with care and equity. This is exactly what grassroots CBOs have been building in “normal” times to address persistent intersectional inequities.

The pandemic has spurred the innovation of new social infrastructure. Mutual aid efforts sprouted in many places, driven by an ethic of solidarity, not charity. Mutual Aid Eastie rejected a culture of “service-ism” and brought their neighbors into a WhatsApp group where they could access what they need (such as food or housing) and also offer what they have. Neighborhood stewards of the community’s Little Free Pantry alert each other through WhatsApp about what is available and when it is running low. Neighbors also use the chat to share information about resources and events knowing that it is moderated to ensure reliability and safety. According to one neighborhood leader, “we had to redefine it as reciprocity and being in relationship with each other. … folks say I don’t have anything to give, yet our people were saying I made tamales and can sell or give it.”

New organizing models were created that integrate services. New England United for Justice (NEU4J) developed a “wellness-to-organizing” approach where they reach people first through services and then use those opportunities to engage them in campaigns for change. For a NEU4J leader “it’s not just about getting the service. If they sign up for rental assistance, they hear about housing justice. If filing for unemployment, they hear about worker’s rights and the struggles. This is a vehicle to continue our organizing.”

Grassroots CBOs became more widely recognized and valued during the pandemic as critical bridges to vulnerable communities. Government, larger service providers, and funders came to CBOs to channel aid to those most in need, even if they had been in conflicts before. A consortium of nine CBOs used resources from the City of Boston Resiliency Fund to assemble wellness kits for families with COVID-positive members. Instead of buying commercially available masks, they sourced 2500 masks from a new sewing cooperative in East Boston, leveraging public resources to build the local solidarity economy.

An overarching lesson is that strengthening our capacities to care for one another is the foundation of resilience. This social resilience is also a form of community power necessary to transform the systems that create vulnerabilities in the first place. As one Boston leader put it, “groups who are doing democratic organizing or building community leadership … are, in essence, building capacity for people to survive climate change.”

Planners in government, funders, and service agencies should partner with and invest in grassroots CBOs as a major resilience strategy. They should continue to build the relationships and trust that were advanced during the pandemic. They should provide longer-term core funding to support CBO infrastructure and sustainability. Community organizing should be seen as a primary strategy for improving services and building overall community resiliency.

Most crucially, planners should listen to and follow the lead of communities most impacted. Grassroots CBOs do not want to be heroes in the next crisis, and they are not a substitute for public programs and resources. They are building resilience that is people-focused, intersectional, institutional, and rooted in anti-racist/ anti-oppressive ideology and practice. This is what we need to “bounce forward” towards more just and sustainable communities.

Penn Loh is Senior Lecturer and Director of Community Practice in Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. He has extensive experience working in a community-based environmental justice group and partners with various base building organizations in the Solidarity Economy Initiative, Right to the City Alliance, and Center for Economic Democracy.

Neenah Estrella-Luna is a researcher, educator, advocate, and consultant focusing on issues related to social justice, social relations, and democratic governance. She has co-led a variety of community based and participatory action research studies as well as traditional research addressing questions related to social resilience, environmental justice, community development, education, and public safety among other topics.

This article draws on the authors’ 2021 report “Opportunities to Invest in Community Resilience for COVID and Climate” (sponsored by the Barr Foundation).