Ariadna Phillips

Critical Voices: Ariadna Phillips

In March 2020, New York City found itself caught off guard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of its most vulnerable citizens left without information about how to obtain resources when forced to shelter in place. Out of this crisis, South Bronx Mutual Aid was founded by Ariadna Phillips to provide food and other supplies to those in need in her neighborhood through community fridges and food drop-offs. The organization's work quickly expanded beyond the Bronx throughout the city as it connected with other mutual aid groups during the pandemic, trading resources and information to help prop up each other's generous endeavors at a time when the municipal government and 311 could not keep up with the demand for aid.

Phillips explains that, despite being established in 2020, South Bronx Mutual Aid is largely a formalization of the work she and her peers have been doing in their community for many years. Unlike a traditional charity or nonprofit, in which resources typically flow in one direction downward, the work of a mutual aid organization relies on community support. "We are neighbors helping neighbors," says Phillips. "Our motto, which is true of many mutual aids, is that we take care of us. For the most part, we're abolitionists. We believe in resolving as best we can people's needs at the community level in all the ways that we can." For some, the desire to help others comes from understanding the perils of insecurity all too well, as when Phillips describes moments in her own life where having community support on which to lean was a relief, like when she lost her home due to a hurricane or after sustaining a spinal injury. "We can all have moments of need ourselves and take care of each other in those regards," she says. "We are the same people that benefit from the work that we do."

The borders of South Bronx Mutual Aid have grown even further since its inception, as the breadth of their work has expanded to meet the community's needs. While continuing to offer everyday services like providing information about food, housing, legal rights, labor rights, and immigration rights, the group has also shown up in places like the 2021 Hunts Point Produce Market strike, where they held the picket line overnight for the striking workforce, and now works nationally as they offer aid for the 130,000-plus asylum seekers who have arrived in New York City since last spring. Not only has Phillips been on the ground assisting these migrants in her hometown, but her personal cellphone number has also been distributed as far away as detention centers in Texas and Latin America as families find themselves desperate for help with anything from medical attention to reunification.

Often the work of South Bronx Mutual Aid means that it isn't well-liked in political circles. "We are spicy. We speak the truth about power and about systems that don't work, about systems that are broken, and about pathways that are not just. That is not easy, and that comes with a cost," says Phillips. "But we are being brutally honest about what has caused systemic failures and what needs to be done differently in the community to address those issues and those causes. Plenty of politicians are not fans of what we say and how we say it. But we keep doing it. We keep showing up."

Phillips admits the work can be exhausting—as a single mother and a full-time teacher, she says there have been many days since South Bronx Mutual Aid's inception when she hasn't had a lot of time to sleep, with her phone ringing through the night. (To ease the workload, her team recently launched AyudaNYC, a bilingual website and app that offers quick information about where to find shelter, clothing, or medical access.) But for Phillips, this is a lifestyle she has known since she was eleven. As a young environmentalist, she first organized a campaign in her school district to rectify the distribution channels of water-saving showerheads and aerators. When asked where she sees the future of South Bronx Mutual Aid, the answer comes full circle. "I hope the future looks like my young neighbors and like my students. I've seen a lot of my kids grow up and go to college, have careers, and have families, so what do I want to see? That's what I want to see," she says. "The future of mutual aid is the faces of my neighbors, especially my youngest neighbors. My students, their families, and generations of people that all care about their neighborhood."

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Hair by Helene Marie. Makeup by Laramie at Day One Studio. Photographer's assistant: Benjamin Oliver.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.