Open Collective
Open Collective
We need a new space!
Published on February 27, 2023 by Red Hook Mutual Aid

The following is a version of a letter written to our friends at Pioneer Works on 23 February 2023. It serves as a project update at this point, please read : )

As most of you are aware, Red Hook Mutual Aid mobilized in mid-January to provide a community space to deliver mutual aid to the asylum seekers who were to be housed at a new HERCC Center in Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. This would potentially add 1000 new members of our network, which at that point consisted of 113 households (community members who had used our phone line for support since we started taking calls in April 2020); 114 volunteers (active and non-active); and an abundance of community-based partners like Pioneer Works.

My name is Louise, and I am one of the founders of Red Hook Mutual Aid in 2020, but I have lived in Red Hook since 2004. From my perspective, the crisis of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 really activated Red Hook at large and coincided with the activation of several key nonprofits doing work that often has overlap with mutual aid: almost all of Red Hook Initiative’s organizing around NYCHA residents; the Community Justice Center’s Peacemaking Program; Good Shepherd’s food distribution and youth programming in the Miccio Center, and Pioneer Works’s community lunch program. In fact, all of the nonprofits in Red Hook working with youth - Falconworks Theater Company (now defunct but worth noting, RHMA's first nonprofit ally and supporter), Red Hook Art Project, Hook Arts Media, Cora Dance, as well as Mechanical Bike Garden’s cooperative structure (they also need a new home, by the way:)

All this amazing work, taking place in Red Hook, overlaps with mutual aid. The only distinction is that nonprofit programming is driven by boards, donors, grants, mission statements, etc, and these structures may sometimes inadvertently create barriers to aid. An important principle of mutual aid is to promptly redistribute resources and capital to those who need it and eliminate barriers to resources and aid. So while we value nonprofits’ work, collaborate with them, route people to them on a daily basis, Red Hook Mutual Aid is distinct. We are nimble; we are not beholden to anything except the need we see in our community, which is why we’re in the hot seat: one of the urgent needs we are seeing right now is aid to asylum seekers, and we are facing huge growing pains as we expand as quickly as possible to meet this need.

We created our Asylum Seekers project on January 20th, and since then 131 new volunteers have joined our network and $5,225.14 has been donated specifically for this project. Expansion this rapid is rough, especially for me personally. I ran a community network that prior to this looked a lot like a friendly nonprofit/charity that never needed much formal infrastructure or broadly shared responsibility for the minimal infrastructure there was, but now I’ve been hustling for five straight weeks.

Here’s what I’ve learned: it was a misnomer to use “mutual aid” in our name those first three years. We never had a lot of resources and capital to redistribute, the people power was
never concentrated in a way that we could accomplish much, and these two issues created plenty of barriers to aid. We had a limit of $300 emergency cash per household per year. This is not mutual aid; we saw through calls to the phone line and household visits through our Buddy System that the need was so pronounced that even $3,000 per month would not meet it in some cases. We did the best we could, we built important relationships. Now we want to do more.

NYCHA residents have always been our focus. We created a phone line to route callers to aid, and once a household called us, they became part of our network. Of the 113 households who are active in our network, 99 of these households are NYCHA residents and 47 are elderly. And now we have shifted on a dime to include a population that is totally new to us: asylum seekers. Prior to five weeks ago, Red Hook Mutual Aid had 17 volunteers speaking some Spanish; 69 more have joined us since then and 20 of them have established communication systems, moderating small WhatsApp groups with asylees, sharing resources (we have Russian moderators, too; VSL, Turkish, and Wolof still needed). We have 13 volunteers dedicated to weekly ESL programming.

So while we’re not sure exactly how these new members of our community connect to your mission, we want to start brainstorming those connections. Perhaps there’s something in philosophy as a nonprofit that could include them? The compas housed at Brooklyn Cruise Terminal are in need of ESL classes, particularly on weeknights since many are not in Red Hook during the weekdays, when the majority of our classes are being offered. Do you have space where these classes can take place? Could these classes be taught by NYCHA residents receiving solidarity pay out of our collective? Can we continue to brainstorm together?

Another idea:
To our knowledge, the HERCC will be in be in the terminal until it is displaced by the cruise ships, and the compas are displaced for the fourth time, not including their native country; remember, we are talking about asylum seekers who will attempt to establish a well-founded fear for their lives in their native country, thus granting the refugee status.  Most began in a tent city on Randall’s Island, were moved to the Watson Hotel in the fall, are in Red Hook through April, and then we anticipate they may be moved out to Floyd Bennett field, further marginalized, farther from organized mutual aid groups, taken from the public eye.

What would it mean for them to be supported by visible and venerable Red Hook institutions during their time in Red Hook? And while they’re there, exploring how their own lived experiences and funds of knowledge align with Red Hook’s strengths and needs? I have no doubt there’s overlap. This is a talented and unique group of men. Many are makers, fabricators - could they be involved in the artmaking taking place next door to their shelter at Pioneer Works in some way, again, funded by solidarity payments out of our collective? Again, can we continue to brainstorm together?

The biggest ask:
We were fortunate enough to secure a short-term space at 147 Pioneer St. We inadvertently began with a charity framework that created barriers to aid: limited hours due to a lack of volunteers, limited capacity due to volunteers’ own comfort levels with a group seen as separate from us - we even had a free-store 5-item limit due to distrust of the “other.” That ended as we joined forces with mutual aid collectives to run the space, and ultimately, we accomplished amazing things, but the space is no longer ours as of today [Feb. 23, 2023]. We need a new space where we can continue to build community moving forward, through May for the compass, and in perpetuity for Red Hook at large.

If Red Hook Mutual Aid can harness the energy that’s overtaken us, this is what will allow us to have a bigger impact in our community and continue to desegregate through our Buddy System; this is what will raise that emergency cash limit to something that’s actually helpful to households. Look at Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, who has distributed over half a million dollars - RHMA wants that for our households, for our community. What would it mean if Red Hook leaders increased our visibility and helped us address our lack of a community space? We’re not saying it has to be you, reading this right now (though that would be great), but what if you helped us? Could we continue to brainstorm possibilities together?

In a very untraditional model, Red Hook Mutual Aid has partnered with nonprofits for three years now. Now we’re asking them to partner with and support us. We’re throwing all the needs out there because they are numerous. And we’re asking broadly because Red Hook organizations care. You’ve shown that you care about individuals and households in our network, and you’re creative - you like brainstorming new ways to approach problems. Brainstorm with us.

We desperately want to support Red Hook Mutual Aid and all the individuals who are Red Hook Mutual Aid: households, volunteers, compas, even community partners (we’ve supported you all through outreach in our weekly newsletter since May 2020). Support us now. We included so many people because we want to make this a large conversation, a dialogue, to open up access to decision-making around what mutual aid looks like in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Please let us know if you will collaborate with us, and thank you if you made it this far.

Louise, RHMA

Linden Elstran

Posted on February 28, 2023

Dear Louise Bauso and RHMA,

This "progress report" is wholly disingenuous.

You are crediting RHMA with funds and supporters that came directly from the "Clean Socks For Refugees" pop-up fundraiser of Feb 3-11. Those supporters are not RHMA supporters. Those monies were not meant for the general Asylum Seekers fund. They routed through RHMA at your request, but should not be credited to your efforts.

I, together with work colleagues, ran the "Clean Socks For Refugees" campaign, as a stand-alone project to meet a stated need. 

Before we began, I reached out to you, Louise, via text, to ask if clean socks were needed by the refugees at RHC. You wrote they were. In our text conversation, you offered the RMHA Asylum seekers Open Collective link as a route for donations. Per your request, we used this link for our fundraising.

Louise, you and I have multiple texts from late Jan to Feb 8 that clearly state our project aims: what money we've raised: your congratulations: and your instructions on reimbursement through Open Collective.

On Thurs Feb 2, there was less than $200 in the Asylum Seekers project. I donated $250 to start the giving. We began our fundraising Friday Feb 3. By Friday Feb 10, there were $5600 dollars in the Asylum Seekers fund. Most of this money was donated by "guests" so it is unclear if it came directly from our campaign or from elsewhere. But "Clean Socks For Refugees" campaign seems to have had a significant impact on RHMA's fundraising. 

The funds we raised are fully commingled with the RHMA Asylum Seekers fund. This was the only place we raised money. 

In our phone call of Feb 10, you, Louise, asked me to tell our supporters that the monies would be diverted from our project and be used instead at the discretion of RHMA. I characterized this as a bait and switch and refused.  What then followed was a bizarre and distracting exchange in which you offered to pay for socks with your credit card; then to Zelle me 3k; then to zelle me $1500–none of these happened.

Our program went ahead as scheduled. On Friday Feb 10, we spent $3600 for socks and underwear. Saturday the 11th, we had a volunteer group of 15 pack 480 bags of 2 socks/ 1 skivvies each. We distributed over 250 packets that afternoon just outside the cruise ship terminal and left the rest, labeled, at the RHMA free store. That ended our small program. 

RHMA, reportedly at the advice of Open Collective, declined to reimburse any portion of the cost of the socks/underwear. 

On Feb 13, I received a remarkably patronizing email from the newly formed RHMA ethics committee. The committee had some late-invented rules and naming conventions with which to justify their taking of our resources. Allegedly, Open Collective helped draft this email. Despite the ex-post-facto justifications, this is a defrauding of everyone who donated directly to the Clean Socks campaign. 

To distance ourselves from your malfeasance and insulate our supporters, I chose to self-fund our project. Louise, you then sent me $500 before heading out on vacation. I've been refunded the $250 I donated to RHMA through Open Collective. The remainder is out of my pocket. (While this puts me ahead on my annual giving, I still believe buying clean socks for strangers is a good use of money and have not sought to recoup my costs.)

RHMA has made no positive effort to untangle these finances or rectify any misunderstandings. Rather, you continue to claim them as a result of your efforts.

On Feb 19 we asked Open Collective to reach out to everyone who donated while our campaign was running, Feb 3-11, letting them know their money will be refunded on X date, unless they opt in specifically to the RHMA Asylum seekers fund.

Neither you, nor RHMA, nor Open Collective have responded to this request.

In our brief experience, you, Louise, RHMA, and Open Collective have been semi-transparent and fully committed to self-dealing. 

This is not quite the revolution we are looking for and we must, sadly, decline any continued partnership.

With My Sincere Regrets,
Linden Elstran