Gradiva Couzin ’91 Joins Mutual Aid Network

The community-based, peer-to-peer group is helping those in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

In her pre-pandemic life, Gradiva Couzin ’91 volunteered with her local CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and was an avid advocate for community-based responses to earthquakes and other emergencies.

Then COVID-19 struck.

Couzin herself was fortunate: her job as a partner in a small consulting agency was secure, and her family—a husband and two teenagers—was safe at home. But the pandemic quickly exposed a deep well of need in her community. So when a friend in the disaster prep community joined in forming the Berkeley Mutual Aid network in mid-March, Couzin signed on.

Through the COVID crisis, Berkeley Mutual Aid has been matching higher-risk people with volunteer “buddies” for ongoing support rather than one-time services.

“Our vision is that nobody should have to get through this COVID crisis alone,” Couzin explains. “Volunteers in our group are currently helping about 400 households with services, including weekly grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, providing social contact by phone, and helping to navigate other resources to meet their basic needs. Many of the people we support are low-income seniors.”

The numbers are telling. With some 600 active volunteers, the network has, as of late June, completed at least 2,500 errands or shopping trips, directed more than $2,500 in donations of food and essentials to Meals on Wheels, connected some 50 residents with critical resources (free food , unemployment, mental health support, and eviction prevention), and distributed 400 fabric masks to community members. Early in the crisis, network volunteers collected several carloads of PPE donations for healthcare workers in local hospitals and, during the protests in support of racial justice, delivered carloads of donated water and other supplies to protesters.

Although the network was founded in response to a specific, extraordinary crisis, organizers are exploring ways to continue beyond the pandemic. “This project has opened my eyes in so many ways,” Couzin says. “I’ve become much more personally in touch with the struggles people are experiencing—due to COVID and also before COVID—and with the careless reinforcement of inequality in our society.”

Mutual Aid isn’t just about running errands, she explains. “We discovered early on that while some people were looking for simple grocery runs, many have much more complicated needs and situations, ranging from loneliness to food insecurity and financial stress to housing, disability, and  mental health challenges. At its core, this project is really about building a pathway through which people can safely act on their deep and powerful desire to connect with each other in a non-transactional way.”

Like the many similar groups that have emerged worldwide in response to COVID-19, Berkeley Mutual Aid is organized around the principle of solidarity, not charity. “We all protect each other, and we all need each other,” Couzin explains. “We are all interconnected, nobody is safe unless we are all safe, and COVID has made our interdependence even more clear.”