NWA Mutual Aid: Fighting Coronavirus with Hillbilly Hospitality

The crisp sound of a new email alert rings, but Luke Gould doesn’t stop typing. He’s become used to the top right corner of his computer screen piling up with notifications every few minutes, and he’s learned to stay focused on the task at hand before addressing the new ones. After he finishes typing his Facebook post, Luke opens his most recent email to review a Google Form submission. Tabbing over to a spreadsheet, he scrolls through 100+ rows of volunteers’ information and availability until he finds someone with whom to match the new service request. Luke contacts both parties, coordinating the volunteer’s grocery delivery to the home of an elderly couple in Springdale. He checks Facebooks again and then moves on to the next email. 

Luke is the admin of a Facebook group called “Y’ALLIDARITY! NWA Mutual Aid,” which he created on March 13, 2020 when the Coronavirus inevitably reached Arkansas. Because older adults and immunocompromised individuals are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, the global pandemic has led to a surge in grassroots community outreach to protect those at risk.

Y’ALLIDARITY! NWA Mutual Aid is an all-volunteer group that is facilitating community engagement in the Northwest corner of the state “through organizing collaborative efforts, connecting folks to existing local resources, and providing a space for the community to connect and exchange support.” The group started when Luke saw several of his Facebook friends posting on their own timelines to encourage anyone in need to direct message them.

“So,” Luke Gould says, “I decided to throw all of these people into a group together and get them talking. I added a little description like, ‘Add people as you see fit. Bye!’ and when I came back two hours later, there were 1,000 people in the group.”

In less than a week, over 3,500 members joined the group. Each day, the group is populated by hundreds of new members, new posts, and new success stories.

A few minutes before 8 a.m. on March 31, Luke, his wife, and a few other volunteers pull into the LifeSource International parking lot in Fayetteville. It’s 39 degrees and drizzling, but everyone seems excited to be there. An 18-wheeler awaits their arrival, stuffed with 40 palettes, roughly 40,000 lbs., of donated dog food from Simmons Foods.

As the rain subsides, eight different NWA organizations trickle in to pick up dog food — 7hills Homeless Center, Compassion Center NWA, A Cup of Love Ministry, and Paws & Claws Pet Shelter, just to name a few. Michelle Miesse, Luke’s wife, told me that several people in the Facebook group had mentioned needing dog food. It was an item that, like many others, is necessary (if you have a pet), but isn’t your first thought of items to stock up on.

Luke was surprised by how quickly the Facebook page took off, citing that he’s “not a well-connected person in this community.” Invisible threads might be the strongest ties, but Luke thinks this operation has benefited from his independence.

“I think that not being formally affiliated with anybody has allowed me a unique opportunity to pull different organizations into the same space and facilitate conversation,” Luke says. “We’re allowing the community to reach out to each other and kind of experiment with what it would look like if we lived in a world in which communities care for ourselves.”

Luke had always planned to create a NWA Mutual Aid group after finishing his Master’s program, but when the Coronavirus pandemic reached Arkansas, he knew the community needed this resource now. With permission, he lifted forms and regulations from the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Response out of Seattle, which is part of a Mutual Aid Network that many large cities are a part of. Photo courtesy of the NWA Mutual Aid Facebook page.

The Facebook page houses two main forms that individuals can use to get involved. One is a service request form for those needing help from a neighbor, and the other is a volunteer form for those willing to provide that help.

Luke isn’t the first one to call on the mutual aid model during a time of crisis. The Mutual Aid Disaster Relief effort and Facebook page formed after Hurricane Katrina, and the decentralized network has been responding to and engaging with communal relief following disasters since.

“It’s a movement toward a more solidarity framework instead of a charity framework,” Leah Ayer from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief says, “the difference being supporting communities so they can take care of themselves in disasters as opposed to waiting for the people with all the resources to come and save them.”

Leah says over 150 new mutual aid groups have formed since the Coronavirus outbreak. The huge blossoming of localized efforts is giving people the opportunity to lean on their neighbors and community for aid during the global pandemic.

“Living through a crisis comes with a certain level of anxiety that we have to mitigate in order to get through,” Luke says. “The space that we’re trying to curate is one where people feel like they’re not alone. They have a place to reach out and communicate with others. They have a place to ask questions. They have a place to try to feel useful.”

Leah says that teaching the model of mutual aid during disasters is effective because depending on our neighbors is very much a part of our natural response to crises. She mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell about the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.

Luke knew that Ozarkan Hillbillies would respond to this disaster by taking care of each other, giving him the opportunity to build a Northwest Arkansas paradise amidst Coronavirus hell right now.

The NWA Mutual Aid forms clarify that the group does not provide direct financial or material support, but rather matches the request for support with someone who has volunteered to provide that type of assistance. Spanish translations are included for many of the page’s resources. Screenshot taken from the group’s service request form.

Georgia Lance, an early member of the Facebook group, has been a frontline activist since the ’60s in Washington, DC. She returned to her home state of Arkansas in the ’70s, when she moved to the Ozark mountains and became a “back-to-the-land hippie.”

Now 74, Georgia is housebound, as her asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make her a high-risk person.

“I’m one of those people who used to go to rallies and demonstrations and help lead them,” Georgia says. “I can’t do that sort of thing anymore — I’m just not able to physically. I do what I can from the comfort of my home, and I know other people in my age group to do the same thing.”

Though she’s not able to be out in the community volunteering, Georgia has used the Facebook group to find ways she can make a difference without putting herself at risk. She donated food and a few extra bucks to the group’s early food pantry project, and she’s provided moral support to members of the group via frequent comments of encouragement.

“I’m very appreciative of the young folks who started this group,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of money — I live on Social Security — but I do my $20 donations when I can, and I give them a lot of verbal and emotional support, telling them they’re doing a good job. They need to hear that. They need to hear that what they’re doing is important.”

Screenshots of a few of Georgia Lance’s Facebook comments encouraging volunteers in the NWA Mutual Aid group. She has been inspired by everyone who has come out of the woodworks to help their neighbors, but she says she’s not surprised. “I’m so impressed with Fayetteville,” she says. “But I’ve always felt that way about Fayetteville. It’s a special place.”

Georgia, a self-identified Democratic Socialist, says the work the NWA Mutual Aid group is doing is necessary in order to fill in the holes of our country’s safety net.

“We can’t sit around and wait for our government to take care of us, because guess what? Our government isn’t going to take care of us,” she said with a laugh. “If no one has noticed that by now, maybe they will. We have to take care of each other. There are millions of people slipping through the cracks.”

The Facebook group is not expressly political, but Luke says it’s impossible to talk about concepts like mutual aid and solidarity without drawing from the historical roots of those movements within leftist philosophical traditions. And though Luke’s personal ideological perspective is one that aligns with this socialistic philosophy, he says that his Northwest Arkansas upbringing built the foundation for his passion of community care.

Because hill country communities are fairly isolated, there is a rich tradition of community care in places like the Ozark Mountains. Insular mountain communities are known for being fairly distrustful of outsiders, but once you’re in — you’re in.

“My desire to get involved in this way comes from a place of ‘Hillbilly Hospitality’ — if you’re my neighbor, we’re going to look out for each other,” Luke says. “We might fight like cats and dogs whenever we don’t have a common threat that we’re facing, but when it’s time to step up, hill folks step up. Rednecks step up.”

The seed that Luke operates from is a memory of experiencing this community care first hand as a young child. Growing up with relatively low socioeconomic status, Luke says the community came together to provide shelter, food, clothes, and protection for his family.

“So, my goal was to draw from both of those traditions,” Luke says. “The academic, philosophical, theoretical background that I have through the studies that I’ve done, and also this felt and lived experience of being an Ozarkan Hillbilly.”

Regardless of political affiliation, Hillbilly Hospitality seems to be something that everyone wants in on. Hundreds of folks signed up as NWA Mutual Aid volunteers to be part of the solution.

Social distancing, however, means less opportunity for boots-on-the-ground volunteering, so Luke’s contact at the Center for Collaborative Care has been keeping him up to date on ways to use his volunteers. When the organization coordinated a dog food drive, they reached out to Luke to see if he and a few others could oversee the effort.

This is the second dog food drive that NWA Mutual Aid has been a part of. During the last drive, thousands of pounds of dog food was loaded and delivered by volunteers. This time they’ve gotten smart: all of the organizations have been coordinated to pick up their own donations besides St. James Baptist Church, where Luke will deliver two palettes later that day.

“This is exactly the type of thing we want to help facilitate,” Luke says. “There are a lot of people who want to help but don’t know what opportunities are available. That’s where we come in.”

Luke and his wife Michelle winding down at the second dog food drive on March 31, 2020. Michelle, who is working from home right now, has been helping luck administer the Facebook page and its projects. Photo by Emily Franks.

As Coronavirus tightened its grip on Northwest Arkansas, the page soon became more than pairing volunteers with service requests. NWA Mutual Aid’s page quickly became a dumping ground for community members to post updates, questions, resources, etc. Some remembered to use service request and volunteer forms, but many posted their needs and requests directly on the page itself. And though Luke welcomed the engagement, it became hard for him to manage such a high level of activity.

When Laura Phillips reached out to Luke to see how she could help, he took her up on the offer to join the group as an admin. Laura, a co-founder of For Fayetteville, has a strong background in boots-on-the-ground community organization. She has been doing mostly LGBTQIA organized activism for the past decade on both a state and national level, but her health issues over the past few years have led to most of her recent activism coming from home.

Laura has rheumatoid arthritis and finished chemotherapy for breast cancer in February, so she’s extremely immunocompromised.

“Normally I’d be out there doing my thing, but with an autoimmune disease and with as bad as my arthritis has gotten, I’ve taken a backseat to a lot of things,” Laura says. “I’m really limited. I can’t go out and help volunteer. So, joining the group as an admin gave me a way that I can use my skills kind of in the background and still help further those missions we have.”

Laura has been an admin of other Facebook pages, so she has experience in using social media as a platform for outreach activism. She says she wanted to lend her skills to helping Luke oversee the Facebook group because what she’s learned about social media activism over the past decade isn’t something that you can learn in a classroom — it takes years of experience to get the hang of.

“As I told him,” Laura says,”there’s no one way to organize or advocate, but there’s a thousand ways not to. Not all best practices work for every situation, but the mistakes that you learn along the way are pretty universal. It’s a weird skillset that I have that I was really, really glad I could share.”

Laura says that the first week of helping run the volunteer machine was like a full-time job. Adding more admins and moderators has helped even the load a little bit, but “it’s a lot of work with as big of a page as it is and the time-sensitive shifts in topics that come up,” she says.

One way that Laura has helped organize the page’s resources and conversations is by starting threads that are dedicated to specific topics every couple of days. The topics range from food aid to unemployment to local businesses to homeschooling resources, but one of the most successful has been the mask thread.

When the CDC recommended cloth masks for everyone, Laura started a thread about masks that accumulated over 200 comments. This gave the group’s many mask makers, mask needers, and mask information-havers a point of contact where they could engage and converse.

“People were volunteering fabric, thread, elastic, sewing machines, etc., and people who needed masks could request them directly from the makers,” Laura says. “So, it really became this communal effort to try to get masks into the right hands of people who really needed them.”

This post about masks is one of the many examples of topic threads that Laura has helped create for the Facebook page. “Instead of just posting on your social media page, we have fostered a place where the community can come together to help each other answer questions and take some of the confusion away about a specific topic,” Laura says. Screenshot courtesy of Laura Bell Phillips’ post in the NWA Mutual Aid Facebook page.

Armed with extra fabric and elastic hair ties, Amanda Condy had been making masks for family, friends, and people on the Facebook page. Hand stitching each mask was taking her 45 minutes to an hour, and she knew with a sewing machine each mask would only take a few minutes.

When Laura created the mask thread, Amanda was one of the first to jump in.

“I can sew and have supplies, does anyone have a machine I can borrow?” she asked in the comments. “I’ve been sewing by hand so far but I can knock out a hundred masks easy with a machine.”

Amanda Condy is using bandanas to make filtered mask covers that adhere to the recommendations of local hospitals and medical centers. “Some clinics had their own specifications about patterns and materials, but they seemed to all agree on pleats and cotton and elastic, so that’s where I started,” Amanda says. Photo courtesy of Amanda Condy.

Within a few hours, a local woman had lent her 12-year-old daughter’s Hello Kitty machine to Amanda, a complete stranger, without asking for any kind of identification.

“Hand stitching masks was slow because I was in a wreck and I have some bulging disks and some nerve issues, so I don’t have good feeling in my fingers anymore,” Amanda says. “Being able to use the machine made a world of difference.”

Amanda has been resourceful in her mask materials. She borrowed a Hello Kitty sewing machine from a local woman’s daughter, and she’s using extra bandanas and hair ties that she had at home to make the masks. “I couldn’t find elastic, so I found hair ties that were sealed at the ends,” Amanda says. “So, I just started busting open as many hair ties as I could find and stitching those on there.” Photo courtesy of Amanda Condy.

Amanda is a poster child for the type of community engagement that the Facebook group was created to facilitate. As willing as she was to help, she wouldn’t have been able to do so to the extent that she has without receiving help in the form of a loaned sewing machine.

“It gives me goosebumps to think that total strangers can come together with what they already have on hand, create something bigger than the sum of the parts, and help people in desperate need at a time like this without having to give up much of anything at all,” Amanda says.

Luke says that the mutual aid model relies on interdependence, and that’s exactly what’s happening on the Facebook page.

“We’re really trying to use this as an opportunity to teach people what mutual aid means,” Luke says. “Mutual aid is that everybody has something to offer and that everybody has something that they need. Maybe the best way to look out for ourselves is to look out for our neighbors. Maybe the best way to care for ourselves is to care for our neighbors.”

Brandy Weaver, another leader in the Facebook mask exchange, is experimenting with ways to make her cotton masks more sanitary for poultry workers. An older, housebound member of the group baked cookies for food pantry volunteers. A member of the group with medical experience dropped off a new blood-pressure monitor for a member with stage III cancer whose monitor stopped working. Local Facebook groups for Hispanic members of the community pull posts and resources off of NWA Mutual Aid’s Facebook page, translate them in Spanish, and share them with their audience. Some members have formed a small group from the page that works on directly fighting evictions during the pandemic.

Many think that the effects of experiencing this type of community care will outlast the virus.

“When we realize that we can be dependent on our community, there’s a flourishing of people helping each other. It’s a really natural and beautiful thing that we do,” Leah says. “While there’s a lot of grief in disasters, there’s also an element of celebration and community and people coming back together in this really fulfilling way.”

Luke believes that in an ideal world, people will be encouraged by this experience. In an ideal world, smaller neighborhood groups will form and the NWA Mutual Aid group will function as a central hub for them, connecting people with their local resources. In an ideal world, things will get done through cooperative care, collaboration, and collectivization.

While it has taken much from many, Coronavirus has given Luke an opportunity to create — even if just for a while — his ideal world.

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