There is no typical week for South Brooklyn Mutual Aid (SBKMA) founder Whitney Hu, but every week is chock full. Amid coordinating projects as diverse as a free toy store and a house cleaners’ collective, Hu spends several days preparing for SBKMA’s weekend food distribution. On a normal Saturday, volunteers deliver as many as 800 boxes of groceries to households throughout Sunset Park, Borough Park, and Bay Ridge. When the group receives donations, from pineapples to baby cribs, it’s usually Hu who picks them up.
To make things easier, Hu is hoping the group can soon buy a cargo van. Hu said that the upcoming purchase helped put things in perspective.
“I can’t be fundraising for a cargo van and my campaign at the same time,” Hu said.
Hu told Bklyner she is ending her run for City Council District 38.
“Conserving my energy in this moment to focus on doing good work elsewhere felt more pressing,” said Hu, adding with a laugh that she’s “leaving behind the logo and my face everywhere for another day.”
Hu, 29, announced her campaign in March but suspended it almost immediately. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city, Hu opted instead to help build up SBKMA, a network of volunteers now 900-strong that helps meet neighbors’ immediate needs and, Hu said, builds community power.
“It’s a space for us to start talking about collective care and accountability to each other in a way that a lot of volunteers haven’t really heard before,” Hu said. As she told Bklyner last month, she sees mutual aid as a space for political education, focused less on electoral politics and more on examining power structures.
Still, Hu saw the potential to effect change as an elected official. She relaunched her campaign in July. At the time, she said, she imagined that by September the needs in her community would not be so urgent and she would be able to focus on the race full time.
“We were sort of expecting that when school started things would look different. That different city agencies would have stepped up to the plate, that food needs would look different, that a second stimulus would have come,” Hu said, “and to be honest we should have probably not been that optimistic.”
Hu said it now seems likely that SBKMA will still be delivering food next summer, or at least until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available. With that ongoing need, Hu said running a campaign was not her top priority.
“I had to ask myself, is this where my energy is best spent in the next eight months?” Hu said.
Hu is a longtime immigration justice and anti-gentrification activist, and she centered her campaign around those issues. Although it was her first time running for office, she is not exactly a political outsider. She has organized for campaigns since she was 15, and between 2017 and 2018 she served as communications director for NYC Council Member Brad Lander.
Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz first met Hu organizing together against ICE raids in the community. Ruiz is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge and an advocate for undocumented Brooklynites. He wants to see more politicians who remain close to the communities that elected them.
“Political power has this edge that can cut you off from reality,” Ruiz said.
Having worked closely with Hu — he was unloading a food delivery she’d arranged while he spoke to Bklyner by phone — he is confident she would be that kind of politician. So when he learned she’d be dropping out of the race, he was disappointed.
“But at the same time, I understand the move,” he said, “and hopefully she’ll be running for something else later on.”
Hu said she would consider another run in the future, but for now, she’s all in on mutual aid. Despite the stress and grueling schedule, Hu said, doing the work has grounded her, “and I think kept me sane during some of the hardest points of the quarantine.”
Hu is proud of what SBKMA has accomplished. At this point, she estimates the group has sourced and delivered over 25,000 grocery boxes. For undocumented residents, ineligible for state and federal assistance, Hu said mutual aid has been one of the only sources of support.
Tiffiney Davis runs an arts non-profit in Red Hook, but since the pandemic, she has also distributed PPE, food, and diapers to community members in need. Hu helped Davis gather water and recently assisted with a Thanksgiving event.
“We have a lot of families who are immigrants who do not have access to resources that some may have,” said Davis. “Who are the people willing to go out there to support them? The individuals who are organizers and have been on the ground.”
Davis called Hu’s decision to focus on mutual aid “wise” and said she’ll be able to keep making a great impact that way. But Davis also said that as a woman of color and someone who “always wants women to feel like they can conquer the world,” she wondered about the challenges Hu had faced as a candidate.
Hu acknowledged it had been hard: “All the rumors are true about being a candidate. It’s a lot.” She said it was especially difficult to save up enough money to run and to balance the campaign with her job.
“I don’t know if we currently have a system that sets up young people, that sets up women of color, that sets up people of color, that sets up people who are impacted to run, because of all the resources it really takes to run,” Hu said.
Artist and fellow South Brooklyn organizer Amy Khoshbin called Hu “someone who provides space for others to flourish,” and said, “she’ll continue to do important work that will change society and culture no matter where she puts her attention.”
For now, that’s mutual aid. Hu noted that mutual aid groups, including SBKMA, often appear in response to crises, but she hopes to create lasting change in how community members care for each other. She also wants to see elected officials remain accountable to those communities.
“I do still believe that electoral politics is an incredibly powerful tool,” Hu said. She declined to endorse a candidate in the race to represent District 38 but said she’s “looking for candidates who can make space and build a diverse coalition.”
In the meantime, she’ll be taking calls, picking up supplies, and, yes, fundraising for that cargo van.
“I’m excited to continue to show people what it means to just really organize from the heart and organize with your full body and spirit in it,” Hu said, “and I’m excited to bring that back to mutual aid.”