Volunteer Spotlight: When Tech Is the Last Piece of the Puzzle

An interview with Open Twin Cities about the Brigade’s efforts to support mutual aid in their community

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing unemployment crisis hit the US, Americans have been paying far more attention to mutual aid efforts across the country. But mutual aid has been around for about as long as human culture has existed. Definitions of the term can vary, but generally speaking, a system of mutual aid is one in which members of a community take on the responsibility of caring for one another rather than leaving their neighbors to fend for themselves.

The Code for America Brigade Network has been showing up in mutual aid efforts in many ways throughout the years, but perhaps none so directly as Open Twin Cities in Minneapolis–St. Paul with their Twin Cities Mutual Aid Project. Rather than starting with a Brigade-originated idea to create an online map for mutual aid efforts in the community, this project evolved organically to meet the needs that emerged in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd.

In their project values, they state: “We believe in mutual aid, and approach our work as a form of reciprocal care. What this means, simply put, is that we reject capitalist notions of charity and instead see our project as one that fosters community resilience. Our work supports networks of freely given assistance and shared resources in order to make us all stronger and safer.”

We chatted with technical contributors Jake Dalton and Esther Kearney to hear about the origins of the project, how it’s differed from other civic hacking experiences, and how to get involved.

What’s your background, and how did you first get involved with the Brigade Network?

Esther: I have been working in tech education for most of the past decade, and I also work as a freelance mobile application developer and React Native developer. I wasn’t involved with the Brigade Network until the inception of the Twin Cities Mutual Aid Project (TCMAP)! Jake, my trusty life co-pilot, introduced me to the Brigade Network.

Jake: I got connected to the Brigade Network at the Code Across America Hackathon in 2013 around the time our local Brigade, Open Twin Cities, formed. In many ways this event connected me to the tech scene in the Twin Cities, where I later moved and started a career in software. I was fairly involved in the civic hacking scene for those first five years in the city but my involvement waned until Esther pulled me back in.

One Sunday, Esther and I went and volunteered at one of the aid sites. We helped sort distributions until the city-wide curfew took effect. This was during the protests following George Floyd’s murder, where the loss of grocery stores had made the already existing resource crisis in the cities more apparent. We were discussing the challenge of directing donations from one site to another, and getting both the people who are delivering donations and the people who need them to the right aid sites. On our way home she said, “It really feels like some kind of map would be helpful here,” and then she hopped online and within hours connected us with a group of volunteers. We joined them that night and had a working map by the next morning.

Did you have much/any experience with mutual aid before the pandemic arrived in the US?

Esther: I wish I could say I was more involved. What I can say is that I yearned to be involved more deeply in community work, but did not know where to apply myself! In my work as an educator I connect with students, most of whom are low-income adult learners attempting to break into the tech world. I have always found this work to be meaningful and genuinely helpful, but this is my first experience feeling like I’m really connected to the larger network of mutual aid. In fact, I’m not sure I completely understood what mutual aid was before this.


How has this project differed from your previous civic hacking experiences?

Jake: This was probably my third or fourth attempt at a big civic hacking project, and it was fairly different from my other experiences. Previous projects often started with heady eagerness at hackathons, but those projects often fizzled out as the energy of the hackathon evaporated.

This project, however, started without the technology. We came completely in service to something that was already working and infused with life. Looking back, I think that the “late” formation of the tech arm was what made it effective and sustainable. Rather than being the place to start a project, our local Brigade was a network we were able to activate and mobilize when our city really needed it. I used to think that all those hackathons were for building civic products, but in hindsight what we were really building was a civic hacking network.

What’s been the biggest challenge working on this project? What’s been the most rewarding about it?

Esther: The biggest challenge is that there is so much to do, but only so much time in a day! Teaching can feel like this, too—you feel invested in the work, and it is hard to put it down when you need to do things like sleep and eat and take care of your family. The reward is that this work also feels like so much more than work. It feels like a deeper connection than I’ve ever had to the city I grew up in, and to the people who are invested in that city and who are working to truly support each other.

It feels like on a personal level I’ve found a way to break the cycle of individualism that keeps us isolated from the larger communities we live in, and civically disengaged. It is so easy to feel like you can’t make an impact on big issues facing your city, but this experience taught me how wrong that was. I’m extremely grateful to have come into this and that my seemingly random assortment of skills have been useful, and I want others to understand how good it feels to have a direct impact on causes that matter to you! Wherever we live or whatever we care about, connecting with other people who are doing volunteer work can transition us from that sense of helplessness and frustration, to a more active role of building community and contributing meaningfully.

How has the racial justice movement in Minnesota impacted this project?

Jake: The Twin Cities Mutual Aid Project exists as a direct result of the uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd. During the protests, key infrastructure like grocery stores and pharmacies were damaged, and there was an outpouring of community donation, as well as a sudden highlighting of the longstanding need that existed in the city. We created the aid map so that those seeking donations, or offering donations, had a clear sense of what was offered or needed, and where to go.

Esther: Mutual aid in the Twin Cities and elsewhere has existed long before our collective sought to highlight this work. Mutual aid was already being practiced by BIPOC people in the Twin Cities, and TCMAP formed with the goal of supporting these existing networks. We live in a wealthy nation capable of supplying literally every citizen with their basic survival needs… and yet it doesn’t. The Twin Cities is one of the most economically unequal places in the country when comparing resources of white versus BIPOC communities. Even before the pandemic, people needed much more than what the system provided. TCMAP’s role is to listen and to amplify those who do the work where government institutions fail, and where economic injustice prevails.

What else is Open Twin Cities working on right now?

Esther: Open Twin Cities volunteers are involved in a range of additional projects and efforts:

  • Renters’ resources: Exploring ways to ‘liberate the data’ about Twin Cities rental properties from the confines of clunky government websites. The goal is to make this data available to renters’ advocacy groups to support their outreach and alleviate the manual effort previously required to compile this data.
  • Policing data analysis: Working with open datasets on police militarization, police use of force, and police incident statistics. We are currently conducting exploratory analysis to understand local trends and deepen our understanding of policing equity issues in our local communities.
  • POSTME.mn: Working with a consortium of local privacy advocacy groups to support the passage of local ordinances to promote community control over police surveillance.

How could people around the country get involved in an effort like this, or collaborate with TCMAP?

Jake: All of our code is open source and we are happy to communicate with other cities who want to collaborate on a similar effort! Find us on Github, where you can fork our map code and/or ask us questions. We believe that this type of mutual aid support should exist everywhere. We have a volunteer effort that is about 70 members strong and it is a significant amount of daily upkeep, but it might be possible to run a leaner version of what we have and still greatly improve coordination between mutual aid sites in your city or town.

If you are interested in specifically volunteering on our project and helping out the Twin Cities mutual aid community, we would love to have you! Access our volunteer form at tcmap.org/volunteer, or just hop in on Github. We will be doing a work day to transition our back-end and upgrade our code on August 29th; you can find us on the Open Twin Cities slack channel in #tc-aid-general, or just go directly to our GitHub. TCMAP also plans to be involved in our local Code Switch Hackathon on September 12th, in conjunction with this year’s National Day of Civic Hacking.

To get involved with other COVID-19 response projects in our Network, register to join us for National Day of Civic Hacking

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