Mutual Aid Tool Key in Protecting Those Willing to Help

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It often starts with a willingness to help.

As community members come together to help one another out in times of need through a mutual aid group, an idea can grow beyond its original vision of lending a quick helping hand.

That’s where students in Professor Ray Brescia’s The Law of Social Entrepreneurship and Exempt Organizations and computer science students led by University at Albany Professors Christopher Velez and Dr. Norman Gervais come in.

They’ve developed an online tool to help mutual aid societies—groups that form to address needs like delivering meals to people, providing transportation, medication deliveries, and more. The pandemic quickly elevated the need for this type of help.

“It’s community members being willing to help if they are able to. It’s more reciprocal than charity, it’s more equitable,” said Amanda Hunter ’21.

As groups form, help out, and word gets out, many begin to need legal protections and decide to incorporate. But there are many different ways a group could incorporate, should they choose to do, and each approach comes with complex requirements.  And many mutual aid groups choose not to incorporate, which comes with some legal risks.

The students created the website, mutalaidny.org,  as an easy-to-use place for groups to get their questions answered and provide additional resources regardless of the type of legal form they ultimately decide to pursue.

“The website goes through the process of why a group might want to incorporate and ways to let people know what that means and what the process will be,” Hunter said. “I really learned how much people rely on mutual aid societies and groups like it. It would be a shame if people wanted to help but felt like they might get into trouble.”

In addition to providing digestible information to the community, the experience helped Albany Law students gain transferrable skills.

“I have always been interested in the nonprofit area, but I have become more interested in corporations and the incorporating process and the laws behind them. I would like to do something that related to that, even if it’s small businesses or nonprofits,” Hunter said. This project reaffirmed what I really want to do and it also narrowed down exactly which area I’d like to work in.”

“It shows the process from start to finish, it’s very hands-on and made me have a full understanding of what incorporation is and means,” Hunter said. “Professor Brescia also really cares about each student’s ideas and he helped us every step along the way. He showed us that they really can make an impact.”