Organizers for Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), a community network created during the COVID-19 pandemic to help locals in need, utilized the creativity of the Princeton community during their storytelling fundraising event “Giving and Taking.”
Over 100 Princeton community members and students attended the event on Tuesday over Zoom. The panel, moderated by Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence Deborah Amos, featured a diverse array of seven speakers who shared stories about immigration and community and raised over $3500 from about 100 individual donors in the process.
Since its founding in March, PMA has provided community members with emergency cash assistance, food deliveries, rent assistance, tutoring, translation services, and help applying for government emergency relief. The proceeds from the storytelling event will go directly to utilities, food, and medicine for community members in Princeton.
“This is one of those moments when the community and the University come together,” Amos said at the meeting’s outset.
“The concept of mutual aid is that people know what they need,” said Jim Christy, a local playwright and PMA member who organized the event. “This is about building a closer community within Princeton.”
PMA was created by local residents and students in late March of this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It began with a dozen people delivering food and medical supplies and has grown to an organization, with over 300 members serving the entire Princeton community.
Yan Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at the University, is also an organizer for PMA.
“We’ve redistributed over $60,000 and connected many more with resources and goods,” Wang said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
Wang said that in mid-summer, as government relief funds were drying up, PMA leadership started thinking about how it could address a “huge structural issue” in the community — housing insecurity.
“We were trying to brainstorm ways to come up with rent support for people when Jim called up with this idea of a talent show,” said Wang.
Christy said he originally wanted the show to have a variety of performances, but eventually decided to focus on storytelling as a theme.
“Stories are a way to bring people together — anybody can have a story and tell a story,” he said.
The difficulty, however, was finding the right people to tell the stories. The selection process required months of planning and weeks of sending email requests to guest speakers.
“We got a wall of nos for three weeks and then three people said yes all at once,” said Christy. “It’s all a bit rag-tag, but we’re so thrilled with the people that we got.”
Amos, for one, expressed appreciation for the event.
“It’s hard to figure out what to do, you know, for the people in this town that are having a bad time,” she said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “I think it’s pretty cool that we have all come together to do this.”
The guest speakers shared a variety of personal stories that spoke to the night’s theme: giving and taking.
Associate Professor of Classics Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 read from his essay “Documentary Anxieties,” which recounted the troubles he experienced getting the right visas and paperwork to be in school, as well as his feelings of “displacement and dislocation” after arriving in the United Kingdom for his graduate studies.
Princeton councilwoman Leticia Fraga shared her story of coming to the United States as a child from her birthplace of Mexicali, Mexico, less than a mile away from the U.S. border .
“I want to write down this story for us and my children and their children to know where it all started, how we got here,” she said.
Aasif Mandvi, a Daily Show correspondent and writer, read a personal story from his book “No Land’s Man” of how his father came to the United States and fell in love with “ridiculously large brunches.”
Joe Richman, a former Ferris Professor of Journalism and founder of Radio Diaries, recounted his coverage of the New York sanitation police’s bust-up of newspaper robbers in the 1990s.
Aleksandar Hemon, a MacArthur and Guggenheim award-winning author, shared a personal story about how his short trip to the United States became permanent when it coincided with the siege of Sarajevo.
Priya Vulchi ’22 and Harvard sophomore Winona Guo, co-founders of the non-profit CHOOSE, spoke about their gap year traveling to all 50 states and writing “Tell Me Who You Are,” a book on racial literacy, and how their friendship grew through this experience.
Labyrinth Books owner Dorothea von Moltke reflected on how Guo and Vulchi’s story fit into PMA’s goals.
“[These stories] connect personal intimate stories and the structures that create conditions for the lived struggles,” she said. “That duality is pretty special in the work of Princeton Mutual Aid.”
Christy and Wang hope to follow this vision in their work for PMA, even after the pandemic.
“At the center of our organization is long term sustainability,” Wang explained. “Even though it was kind of catalyzed by the COVID pandemic from the beginning, we've always thought about how we will continue to reach people even after the pandemic.”