The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through Berkeley, causing people to lose jobs, family members, and become significantly more isolated. These issues are only exacerbated in lower income areas, and many have scrambled to stay afloat.
Nonetheless, some good has emerged as people fight to help their communities. One of these instances is the South Berkeley Mutual Aid Project (SBMAP), a group dedicated to connecting South Berkeley residents through mutual aid.
“What we’re trying to do is to broaden and strengthen the network that we already have of people helping people in South Berkeley. It’s really simple as that,” said Isa Ansari, one of the facilitative volunteers of SBMAP. When a resident needs help, they simply reach out to SBMAP through phone or email, and their request is then put into a weekly newsletter sent out to the 145 people involved in the organization, or they are directly referred to a volunteer.
SBMAP has already assisted many South Berkeley residents by supplying volunteers to run errands, help clean, or provide emotional support. They have also done more random acts of service, like buying a mattress, helping to file taxes, and paying for an Uber. The requests for aid are sometimes temporary, but many in South Berkeley have been paired with volunteer “buddies’’ who help them consistently.
When wildfires left Berkeley covered in smoke this fall, SBMAP helped organize a salve-making workshop to make soothing salve for the homeless population. Additionally, they work with other Berkeley organizations including the Berkeley Food Network, Friends of Adeline, and Consider the Homeless.
SBMAP was founded by longtime Berkeley activist Margy Wilkinson, who was inspired by Friends of Adeline, another organization based in South Berkeley that focuses on a wide variety of issues, from stopping police power and gentrification to basic support for community members. When the shelter in place order took effect in March, Wilkinson saw the needs of the South Berkeley community, and created SBMAP.
Wilkinson died unexpectedly in June of 2020, and it was left to the other SBMAP volunteers to pick up the pieces. Occidental College student Ariella Brodie-Weisberg was simply given an email list, and later became one of the main organizers of the group along with Ansari.
“It was as nitty gritty, grassroots as it gets,” said Brodie-Weisberg. “Everything died with her, all of the information. … Not only was [Margy] a person, but she was also the hub of so much going on.”
SBMAP is very emphatic that they’re not a charity, but instead hope that everyone who participates is benefitted in some way. “You’re not required to contribute any money, or anything at all to receive aid,” explained Ansari. “Ultimately, our goal would be to create a network that’s reciprocal, so that you don’t just have a group of volunteers and a group of people receiving aid.”
Volunteer Abbey Cliffe explained that SBMAP has helped her, as a volunteer who doesn’t receive services provided. Cliffe leads SBMAP’s social media presence, and works with Ansari and Brodie-Weisberg to strategize. She also volunteers in a more general way, bringing food and running errands.
“While I don’t receive practical or financial support from the organization … I am definitely nourished by the organizing and nourished by the conversations,” Cliffe said. “In that way, I feel like I am receiving some kind of positive experience.”
Brodie-Weisberg said that working with SBMAP has changed their life for the better as well. “I have this 85 year old woman that I visit every week, and we talk,” they said. “She’s one of my favorite people. The pandemic has been brutal, and so I think that these kinds of social connections — these unexpected joys — have been really, really, really important for people.”
The organization has many heartwarming stories of community members helping each other out, and it continues to inspire Berkeley residents to make positive change. For South Berkeley activist Maria Law, SBMAP has provided one of her main sources of human contact throughout the shelter in place order. Law agreed to be interviewed under a different last name, as her refugee status made it risky to use her real name.
Law reached out to SBMAP asking for someone who could visit her regularly and help her out with random projects, and they referred her to another Berkeley resident and volunteer named Jeremy White. White now meets with Law weekly, and has helped bring her groceries, register to vote, and provided her with company during this isolating time.
“A lot of us are experiencing loneliness and disconnection from our communities,” Law said, “I feel like somebody cares. … It takes away a layer of stress.”
For White, volunteering has been a way for him to know he is doing his part for the community. “I found it very inspiring that people were really setting up a way to help their neighbors, and create their own structures to do so,” he said.
In terms of the actual funding for the organization, Brodie-Weisberg described the struggles of financing SBMAP. “We’re usually running on a budget of about $100, which is rough,” they admitted. It is largely funded by donations from a few South Berkeley residents, as well as, occasionally out of the pockets of volunteers — including Brodie-Weisberg.
However, they are currently working to change that. Brodie-Weisberg explained that because SBMAP is a community endeavor, they want it to have sustainable funding from the community, likely using social media.
The volunteers are very deliberate in respecting the existing community. “Something that’s really important to SBMAP is recognizing and remembering the history of South Berkeley,” said Cliffe. “Most often we talk about gentrification and a variety of different housing policies grounded in structural racism. … We look to keep that in mind and have that history guide the work that we do, so that we hold ourselves accountable to not perpetuating existing harm.”
When it comes to what SBMAP will look like in the future, specifically after the pandemic, Cliffe said the organization will continue to reflect what community members need. “The needs that we’re responding to existed before the pandemic happened, and the pandemic, in many ways, exacerbated and made those needs more clear and different,” Cliffe said.
“Mutual Aid is everywhere. We just don’t necessarily identify it as such, or see it as such. … It feels really familiar in a beautiful light,” added Brodie-Weisberg. SBMAP is looking for more young Berkeleyans and South Berkeleyans to find roles in their organization. Those interested in volunteering and those in South Berkeley that need support can find more information on their Instagram (@southberkeleymap), by calling them at (510) 646-1282, or emailing them at [email protected].
“In looking to work with more young people, even if this is their first organizing experience, there is no kind of organizing experience necessary. We’re really looking to create ways of collaborating — regardless of how much mutual aid or organizing experience people have — so that this feels like an accessible thing,” explained Cliffe.
Update: This article was changed to correct errors.