Grocery Runs, Donations, and Memes: Inside the Rise of Neighborhood Slack Groups During the Lockdown

From New York to Columbus, Ohio, Slack groups are organizing to help neighbors in need

Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Hadass Wade was on her way home from her job as a bartender in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Bed-Stuy earlier this month when she stopped by a liquor store to stock up on provisions.

Everything was happening “really quickly,” she says. She and her co-workers were trying to come to terms with the rapid outbreak of coronavirus cases in New York City and self-quarantine orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They weren’t sure whether or not the restaurant where they worked would have to shut down, leaving them unemployed.

At the store, she saw a sign that caught her eye. It was a flyer for a new group on the messaging app Slack called Bed-Stuy Strong, created in order to help residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood organize responses to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. With over 150,000 residents, 46% of whom are Black, the neighborhood is larger than some small suburbs and has twice the poverty rate of the rest of New York City. She snapped a photo to share with her co-workers, most of whom live in Bed-Stuy.

The group also features niche channels like #succulents, #cooking, and #livestream-events.

“When I saw that there was a neighborhood Slack group that was specifically organizing to give information, resources, and support to the neighborhood, I thought it was really amazing,” she says. “And it was something that I for sure wanted to be a part of, to help out in whatever way that I could. In times like these, I think it does help to look beyond yourself and make those community ties and strengthen those community ties.”

Bed-Stuy Strong was launched in early March by Sarah Thankam Mathews, a local resident and fiction writer, to help her neighbors connect with each other amid the outbreak. Residents post requests for groceries or monetary donations, questions about what stores and restaurants are still open, and, of course, pictures of their cute pets and delicious snacks. The group also features niche channels like #succulents, #cooking, and #livestream-events.

Bed-Stuy Strong is one of several Slack teams created throughout the U.S. to organize mutual aid responses to the virus and shelter-in-place orders. Similar Slack teams have sprouted up elsewhere in New York City (Chelsea and the Upper West Side in Manhattan and Crown Heights, Fort Greene, and Greenpoint in Brooklyn), the suburbs of Philadelphia, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio.

In just over two weeks, Bed-Stuy Strong has grown to nearly 2,100 members.

In just over two weeks, Bed-Stuy Strong has grown to nearly 2,100 members. Most of the people who’ve joined the group seem to be offering help rather than asking for it. But those in need are also invited to either post the request for relief to Slack, send an email to the group, or call a Google Voice number and leave a message. Alyssa Dizon, an admin of the Slack group, says most of the requests come through that Google Voice number and that most of them are for deliveries of groceries and other supplies.

Requests are then vetted by intake volunteers, who find out more details if needed, and then pass it on to delivery volunteers, who fulfill the request. If the request for relief requires a purchase, volunteers spend their own money and then get reimbursed by Bed-Stuy Strong from a donation-based community fund.

A sign advertising the Bed-Stuy Strong Slack team posted on Rick’s Liquor Corporation in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Hadass Wade

The group Can’t Stop Columbus was created by small-business owners and residents in the Ohio city of 890,000 residents, the 14th largest city in the country. The group now has nearly 800 members, which serves a similar purpose to Bed-Stuy Strong. Can’t Stop Columbus has also become an idea incubator for how to respond to the various challenges posed by the outbreak. The group has #guild channels for people to meet and brainstorm with others in their professions and #prjct channels for responding to specific needs like getting more personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers or supporting expected surges at hospitals.

Vincenzo Landino, a Columbus resident and owner of a video marketing company based in the city, says he joined the Slack team to figure out how to help local restaurants survive the crisis. He was watching Ohio Gov. Mark DeWine give an order to shut down restaurants when he was spurred to action.

“I worked in the restaurant industry for a while when I was younger, and I have a lot of family that has restaurants,” he says, “so I thought, you know what? It would be really cool to do something.”

So he created the website Support Columbus Eats, which hosts details of all of the restaurants in Columbus that are still open, and tweeted about it. Someone saw his tweet and connected him with Can’t Stop Columbus, which launched the same day. He became one of the group’s first members. Since then, he’s become a key organizer on the Slack team, creating channels for people to introduce themselves and linking recently laid-off people with new job opportunities.

“It helps you see that, at the end, when this all over, at some point, we’ll be better off for it.”

Landino says that seeing people come together on the Slack team has given him “a little bit of hope.” Especially individuals who are personally in need, working to organize relief efforts on top of their 9-to-5 jobs, or are setting their jobs aside altogether.

“It helps you see that, at the end, when this all over, at some point, we’ll be better off for it,” he says. “And hopefully we can make enough impact on families and businesses along the way to keep them afloat as well.”

Onboarding new users to Slack, a platform typically used for workplace communication, isn’t always easy.

Landino says that for tech workers and developers who are familiar with Slack, there’s “almost no barrier to entry” for joining Can’t Stop Columbus. But others have never used the app before. “We’ve tried to make it as simple as possible for them. So they’re not seeing as much on the front end when they join, and as they get more engaged, they can find more channels to [join].”

The Bed-Stuy Strong group recently held a Slack tutorial for people new to the app. Dizon, one of the group’s administrators, wrote welcome tutorials for how to use some of the channels. “There’s definitely, like, an upscaling component,” she says.

She and other group admins have been doing Slack etiquette training in real time, teaching people what a pinned post is and how to comment in threads. “There’s definitely a curve, and I think it’s something we’re hypercognizant of,” she says. “Most of our volunteers are not tech-savvy people, so we’re just trying to be thoughtful about that.”

Despite some of the technical challenges, these groups seem to be bringing communities closer together — for some more so than before the coronavirus outbreak started.

“So at this time, finding this group, that was a really big thing,” says Wade. “Living in a large city like New York, you do feel isolated a lot of the time. And this is one of those times that — despite the fact that [there’s] not a lot of physical proximity to these people — the caring, the initiative, the desire to help people is connecting us all.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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