COVID-19 and its effects on the community are not going away just because it’s now 2021. Neither, according to their creators, are the myriad mutual aid groups that have sprung up in the last year to offset the fallout resulting from the virus and bolster communities whose struggles predate it.
Meeting an immediate need: Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid
Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid is a Facebook group backed by a network of locals. It was started in March of 2020 by Meg Simons and now has more than 5,000 members.
Elected officials like Reno City Council member Devon Reese have joined the group and other city council members have donated money and bus passes to it.
Simons started the group on March 16, 2020 when it became clear that the pandemic was going to disrupt many people’s lives. She brought her boyfriend Darren Archambault on to help as the group quickly ballooned to more than 2,000 people. She said she was running herself ragged and brought on another three people from the community to help manage it. Now, the five of them have become close friends.
“As the pandemic has continued, the group itself has grown,” Simons said. “We’ve seen stuff as small as people bringing each other food boxes to [things like] ‘Hey, I’ve seen toilet paper at Wal-Mart’ to someone posting that they needed help with their elderly mother-in-law’s home, that there’s a pipe broken outside.”
Someone offered his time and expertise to fix the broken pipe, Simons said, adding that things like this are common in the group. Another person in the group replaced the brake pads on a member’s car free of charge.
“These are people who cannot afford to just get the work done,” Simons said, adding that this is why the group has a rule that goods and services must be offered for free.
There’s no getting around the fact that everyone—mutual aid groups included—have had to navigate operating in the midst of political upheaval and social unrest. However, for Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid, Simons said, this hasn’t been a large problem.
“I tend to shut down political discussion. Rule number one for in our group—in all caps—is literally, ‘NO POLITICS’—and the reason being is because … as I wrote in the rules, I don’t care what your politics are if you just need a roll of TP,” Simons said. “We can talk politics later. But, in the group, it’s not about the political; it’s about the human need.
“Of course, the personal is political, and the political is personal. Sure, it is. But criticism of Steve Sisolak or criticism of Donald Trump is not going to get someone a bag of groceries,” she added.
Simons said she doesn’t think the group will go away when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and thinks need among its community will grow when eviction moratoriums expire.
“Mutual aid doesn’t end with the pandemic,” she said. “There could be people who are in need of a bag of groceries after a job loss—or a referral for housing because the landlord has just decided to sell the house they’ve been renting for years.”
She said plans are being made for where the group will head in the future.
Addressing a longstanding need: Reno Black Wall Street
Reno Black Wall Street also deals with the immediate needs of community members; it’s something Donald Griffin, who works as a Reno Ambassador helping out the city’s unsheltered population, is experienced in. Reno Black Wall Street has done backpack drives for children and regularly distributes basics like food and clothing to unsheltered people.
Reno Black Wall Street was also started in 2020 and Griffin and the group’s co-founder, RoMar Tolliver, are also keenly aware of how fractious politics and the murders of Black people have impacted people’s interactions in 2020. They say it has given them purpose.
“We’re at a pivotal time in society, and just being a voice for the voiceless is just more empowering,” Tolliver said. “I understand there’s a lot of positions in which people have just got to do what they’ve got to do to pay the bills and whatnot—but there’s some issues that need to be addressed outside of struggling to pay the bills. And we’re trying to address that.”
Reno Black Wall Street also has a specific goal going forward—to advance the wellbeing of the Truckee Meadows’ Black community.
“It feels more like a divine calling, like an initiative needs to be taken—a positive initiative, not an initiative in which it’s destructive to property, community and sacrificing lives,” Tolliver said. “It’s more an initiative to channel that into something positive, something constructive, something that we can build on and something that can last.”
Tolliver and Griffin are planning several events for Black Wall Street in the coming months. On Jan. 17, they’re hosting a tour of Indigenous American art at the Nevada Museum of Art in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. In the spring, they’re hoping to put on a “Black Royalty” fashion show.
“We’re going to put that together, something we can see and we’ve designed and we can feel as a people—Black people—and resonate and come together and project something we want our children to see,” Griffin said of the fashion show.
Like other groups, Black Wall Street plans have been waylaid to some degree by the pandemic. Griffin and Tolliver still have plans to create youth book clubs using the library of books they’ve been building in their Wells Avenue office. There are also plans for a computer lab. And they’re proud of the work they have been able to accomplish amid the pandemic.
“The outreach that we have made with the kids—during the backpack drive, the school supplies drive—has been welcomed with open arms,” Tolliver said. “We went through more materials than we thought we would. Yeah, we see that even the kids need some sort of creative outlet.
“Even the kids—they’re cooped up and bouncing off the walls, and then they’re dealing with the stress of their parents. So, it’s just like a tenfold of negative energies to balance and deal with. So, the little effort that we do make to try to deal with donating the toys, the backpacks, the school supplies, hopefully it alleviates a little bit of the stress and tension going on in the households with distance learning and all of that,” he added.
Like Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid, there are plans being made for the future of Black Wall Street when the pandemic is finally a thing of the past.
Carrying forward within the community
There’s really no way of knowing what future needs might be filled through Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid, but Simons is sure these things will become apparent as time goes on.
She and the other administrators of Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid are looking for ways to grow the group and are considering the possibility of turning it into a 501(c)3 nonprofit. They’re also working on new projects for it and considering the types of information the group might be able to share once art and music and recreation become feasible again—things like community events. For now, though, immediate needs remain the most pressing.
“I’m not going to lie and say that we’re the solution,” Simons said. “I mean, we’re just kind of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound; I know that … but if we can help somebody eat today, that’s great. … I’m not naïve. I know that people are falling through the cracks every single day. I’m just glad that our group can catch some of them. But, I mean, we’ve grown from zero to 5,000 in less than a year.”
Reno Black Wall Street has also grown consistently over the year, fueled in part by partnerships and collaboration with groups like Project 150, the Eddy House, the Holland Project and KWNK.
A key to the future of Reno Black Wall Street might also lie in obtaining grant funding that would allow Griffin to dedicate himself full-time to the group’s causes.
“I’m looking into doing more outreach. Romar keeps putting that bug into my ear of bringing the value back,” Griffin said. “I believe that we’re losing the battle right now with our kids. And I don’t think there’s enough Black role models that are out there doing that. I believe that once they see what Black Wall Street is really about, they should come and help us do what they’re doing. As far as Black leaders, I haven’t seen too many, as many as I would like to see step up, but the ones that have stepped up are enough to do what we’re doing now.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.