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Student-created Facebook group Duke Mutual Aid provides resources to Duke community

Days after Duke canceled in-person classes and restricted access to campus, students have come together to help each other navigate lives altered by the coronavirus.

Students formed the Duke Mutual Aid Facebook group, which aims to provide help in the form of food, housing and transportation for members of the Duke community affected by the University’s decision to close campus. Students have also created a Google Drive folder with a frequently asked questions document, a form for offering assistance, a form for receiving assistance and other resources through Mutual Aid.

“The group’s main objective is to use the creativity of the Duke community, the resourcefulness of the Duke community and have a sort of grassroots, Duke-student-oriented way to help other students on this campus,” said junior Jamal Burns, an administrator on the Mutual Aid page. 

Students, alumni and other community members can fill out Mutual Aid’s Google form to offer assistance if they are able to provide it to students who face “financial difficulties, food insecurity, housing loss” and other challenges after the shift to online classes and the closing of Duke’s campus. Students who wish to request aid can see responses on a spreadsheet and reach out to those who complete the form.

The form notes that it is “not part of the official response” of the University and that Duke is responding to questions at the email address keeplearning@duke.edu.

Burns and several other students started working on the FAQ document, which is separate from the Mutual Aid page, immediately after Duke suspended in-person classes March 10 and urged students who had traveled for spring break not to return to campus. The 12-page document includes information on financial aid, housing, food, academics and other subjects. 

“Immediately, a lot of students started to ask me a ton of questions,” Burns said, which he said was because of his role as co-president of Duke LIFE (Low-Income, First-Generation Engagement). “Me and these other groups of individuals… had to think quickly on our feet and make a document by reaching out to administrators and getting answers to these questions that we didn’t even know the answers to ourselves.”

The students created the document so that people wouldn’t “left in the dark,” he said, which involved “decoding the ambiguity of some of the emails that we were sent.”

First-year Lily Levin, also a columnist for The Chronicle, created the Duke Mutual Aid Facebook group Friday morning, though she noted that it was originally another student’s idea. A similar page for students at the University of Chicago, UChicago Mutual Aid, served as a model.

“I think Duke is trying to respond to what it needs to do to keep [the] University safe, and in that sense isn’t really doing as much for the community in terms of housing requests, food, transportation. I think it’s more of a second priority,” she said. “So for us, it’s making that our first priority.”

The group grew out of a group of students who were already in touch because of a shared interest in issues like fossil fuel divestment and Palantir’s presence at Duke, said senior Gino Nuzzolillo, an administrator on the page. Nuzzolillo, also a columnist for The Chronicle, criticized Duke’s response to the coronavirus situation, including the way Duke further restricted access to campus after previously telling students they could return to get their belongings. Students have to help each other, he said.

“I think at the end of the day, the only people that we can really rely on are each other,” Nuzzolillo said. “And we need to be able to help each other out through a really stressful and scary situation, and that’s the role that the Duke Mutual Aid group fills.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that Duke further restricted access to campus because it was worried about thousands of people coming to campus for a “reverse move-in.” He added that it would defeat the purpose of what the administration is trying to do, which is limiting the opportunity for exposure on campus. 

“There's an army of people who are working on the plans to make sure that students can get what they need to do their work and to return home or go to some other location,” he said.

Nuzzolillo joined several other Mutual Aid admins and scores of other students in signing a letter to the University that made a number of demands related to the situation.

Sophomore Emma Cairns, who received approval from Duke to continue living in the Duke Smart Home, started the group’s food-collection effort after a friend who was leaving campus texted her and offered to give her some extra food. She realized that many students were probably going to leave behind food when she left, so she decided she would collect extra food to give to the Community Pantry or the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

Cairns posted on Instagram, Twitter and her personal Facebook, but the messages started “pouring in” after she posted to the Mutual Aid page, she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

“I’ve had about, I think, 50 people give me food,” she said Saturday. “I’ve only been able to collect about 20 people’s worth so far. My friends who have cars have been angels, helping me get things from West and East over here.”

Cairns has now taken donations of cereal, ramen, pasta, rice, beans, drinks and more. She plans to start distributing it once she has finished collecting donations.

The group also aims to provide housing for students who don’t have a place to stay. 

Duke is allowing some students to stay on campus for health or safety reasons, but some international students whose requests to stay were denied told The Chronicle they were looking for housing off campus because they didn’t want to risk traveling home. One of the students said he was looking at Mutual Aid as an option.

The group’s mission has already expanded beyond the core areas of food, housing and transportation. Students set up a Venmo account, @dukeaid, to facilitate direct cash donations. Others have taken to the Facebook group to share information like guidance for students on financial aid and companies offering free internet and flights, a Durham-focused relief fund. 

“Things are changing all the time, and as students’ needs change I think the group will also change,” Nuzzolillo said. 

Beyond the Facebook page, other current and former students are stepping up. Duke Student Government President Liv McKinney, a senior, wrote in a message to The Chronicle that DSG was working with administration to help students. Former Duke basketball star Zion Williamson pledged to pay the salaries of all employees at Smoothie King Center, the New Orleans Pelicans’ arena, for 30 days, which Cairns said was inspiring to students who wanted to help each other. 

Burns said the Mutual Aid group is mostly focused on “material” support right now, but he hopes it can become a place for students to socialize and stay connected while they’re apart. 

For him, the group has already fostered a sense of “solidarity” and “connectedness” for students. He pointed out that the group was growing rapidly: By Friday evening it had 600 members, and by Saturday afternoon more than 800 had joined.

“I've seen amazing social media from students,” said Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost/vice president for student affairs. “You know, certainly sarcastic and processing and all the other things. But I've also seen this overwhelming, sort of, let's pitch in and do this right and be together and think about it.”

Nuzzolillo echoed the sentiment. 

“As hokey or as kitschy as it sounds, we are all in this together, and the more that we can help each other the better that we can do,” he said. 

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