How Disabled Activists Are Fighting Isolation, Collectively

In the Bay Area, mutual aid projects are helping build community in a time of social distancing.

Brooke Anderson April 1, 2020

Photo: Yomi Wrong, who is participating in the Disability Justice Culture Club’s mutual aid network, sits outside her East Oakland home as Katie Loncke (back right) cleans Wrong’s cat’s litter box. (Brooke Anderson)

OAK­LAND, Calif. — I already dis­in­fect­ed the door han­dle, so come on in!” Yomi Wrong says. A ram­bunc­tious pup­py eager­ly eyes us through the gate. Shiloh can’t wait to see you.”

As a health­care com­pli­ance man­ag­er, Wrong is used to being out in the world — from going into her office to tak­ing the dog for long strolls around Lake Chabot. All that changed when she began shel­ter­ing in place to low­er her chances of con­tract­ing COVID-19.

I’ve lost so much human con­nec­tion,’’ Wrong says. My sis­ter lives in Alame­da, but I haven’t seen her in over a month because she is immuno­com­pro­mised. The two of you are the peo­ple I most con­sis­tent­ly see.”

My friend Katie Lon­cke and I have been stop­ping by Wrong’s home every oth­er day for the past three weeks as vol­un­teers for a mutu­al aid project launched by the Dis­abil­i­ty Jus­tice Cul­ture Club (DJCC), a col­lec­tive of five dis­abled and neu­ro­di­ver­gent queer peo­ple of col­or in Oak­land. Mutu­al aid projects like these aim to bring peo­ple togeth­er to help meet each other’s basic sur­vival needs.

Many of us don’t have sup­port from our fam­i­lies — espe­cial­ly the queer elders who don’t have kids or [who] live by them­selves,” says Jay Salazar, a DJCC mem­ber and a mutu­al aid net­work archi­tect. They car­ry so much knowl­edge and vision. Know­ing these peo­ple are some of the most at risk push­es us to do this work.”

As coro­n­avirus cas­es in the Bay Area increased in mid-March, DJCC began pair­ing peo­ple who were at high­er risk, dis­abled or elder­ly with allies who could pro­vide mutu­al aid dur­ing a shel­ter-in-place order. Accord­ing to its sign-up form, DJCC pri­or­i­tizes [Black, Indige­nous and peo­ple of col­or] who need to lim­it expo­sure to oth­ers because of health concerns.”

Mem­bers also made and dis­trib­uted 100 anti-coro­n­avirus kits to unhoused neigh­bors liv­ing in tent encamp­ments. The kits includ­ed sur­gi­cal masks, gloves, home­made scent-free hand san­i­tiz­er, and a vit­a­min mix.

Lon­cke and I con­nect­ed through the net­work with Wrong, who wel­comed the extra sup­port after buy­ing her first house, going through a dif­fi­cult breakup and recov­er­ing from an ill­ness. Between the two of us, we run Wrong’s dog Shiloh, scoop dog poop, emp­ty her cat’s lit­ter box, go with Wrong to get gro­ceries, and do oth­er tasks while main­tain­ing six feet of dis­tance and fol­low­ing oth­er safe­ty protocols.

This is about more than just help­ing to take out the trash, how­ev­er. The three of us are — as DJCC puts it — fight­ing iso­la­tion, collectively.”

Our mutu­al aid is also a form of col­lec­tive rebal­anc­ing, because we are pri­or­i­tiz­ing peo­ple that the gov­ern­ment deems dis­pos­able,” Lon­cke says. Offi­cials are already talk­ing about rationing care and with­hold­ing life-sav­ing med­ical treat­ment from patients deemed high-risk of fatal­i­ty. To us, this log­ic is flawed and deeply mis­guid­ed. We choose to live in a way that tru­ly val­ues everyone.”

This isn’t DJCC’s first time mobi­liz­ing mutu­al aid prac­ti­cal­ly overnight. In fall 2019, California’s largest util­i­ty, Pacif­ic Gas & Elec­tric (PG&E), imple­ment­ed rolling black­outs, leav­ing mil­lions with­out pow­er in a wide­ly crit­i­cized move aimed at pre­vent­ing wild­fires. Fear­ing that many in their com­mu­ni­ty would be unable to pow­er ven­ti­la­tors, recharge wheel­chairs, or refrig­er­ate insulin, DJCC pooled funds to buy gen­er­a­tors and found accom­mo­da­tions out­side the black­out zones for peo­ple who need­ed pow­er. Sim­i­lar­ly, when the Bay was blan­ket­ed in tox­ic wild­fire smoke in fall 2018 and 2019, DJCC made do-it-your­self air fil­ters, dis­trib­uted masks and sealed up homes.

We talk about the foun­da­tion­al prin­ci­ples behind dis­abil­i­ty jus­tice and what it means to be in com­mu­ni­ty and inter­de­pen­dent, we talk about it, we orga­nize around it,” Wrong says. But with the PG&E shut­down and now this glob­al pan­dem­ic, I’m see­ing it in action to ensure our com­mu­ni­ty sur­vives.” Dis­abil­i­ty jus­tice prin­ci­ples, such as those artic­u­lat­ed by the per­for­mance project Sins Invalid, include leav­ing no mind/​body behind, cen­ter­ing the lead­er­ship of the most impact­ed, and com­mit­ting to inter­sec­tion­al, cross-move­ment organizing.

The prac­tice isn’t always easy, how­ev­er. Salazar notes that many dis­abled peo­ple have not only had to stop work­ing, iso­late our­selves, and wor­ry about our fam­i­lies, but also wor­ry about where to get our next meal. The phys­i­cal and men­tal toll that takes on us is real. We shouldn’t have to do the work [of help­ing meet people’s basic needs] that elect­ed offi­cials — who, unlike us, are still get­ting paid every sin­gle day — should be doing.”

Still, many activists say that in a sys­tem not set up to meet everyone’s needs, help from elect­ed offi­cials won’t come fast enough or reach those who need it most. Instead, com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try are self-orga­niz­ing. These bot­tom-up, hyper­local sol­i­dar­i­ty net­works often reveal the system’s fail­ure to pro­tect peo­ple, teach neigh­bor­hoods to self-orga­nize, and per­ma­nent­ly reshape social relationships.

It’s an ele­gant way of sup­port­ing peo­ple — organ­ic, grass­roots, authen­tic, not rigid. It allows each per­son to show up as they are and con­tribute what they can and not be ashamed, on the need side or the giv­ing side,” Wrong says. It’s a beau­ti­ful spir­i­tu­al exchange between people.”

Brooke Ander­son is an Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia-based orga­niz­er and pho­to­jour­nal­ist. She has spent 20 years build­ing move­ments for social, eco­nom­ic, racial and eco­log­i­cal jus­tice. She is a proud union mem­ber of the Pacif­ic Media Work­ers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.
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