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Invisible Hands: Mutual Aid in a Pandemic

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Invisible Hands: Mutual Aid in a Pandemic

10 Blocks podcast November 18, 2020
Covid-19
The Social Order

Simone Policano, cofounder of Invisible Hands, joins Brian Anderson to discuss how the nonprofit organizes volunteers to deliver groceries to the elderly and disabled during the pandemic, its experience working with government agencies and food pantries, and the personal stories of some of the people it has helped.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is a special guest, Simone Policano. Simone is one of the co-founders of an organization called Invisible Hands. They're a nonprofit volunteer group that's been delivering groceries and other essential items to the elderly, the disabled and vulnerable population since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring.

They've been profiled in a number of local and national news outlets, and they were recently selected for one of the Manhattan Institute's annual Civil Society Awards, a $25,000 prize given to them and four other organizations, which you've heard us talk about on this show before.

As America is enduring a second wave of the virus, we thought that this would be a good time to get the perspective of someone who's been helping organize relief efforts in our area, the type we've been seeing taking place across the country. Simone, thanks very much for joining us.

Simone Policano: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to talk to you guys.

Brian Anderson: Why don't you, for starters, tell us how you got involved with this enterprise? And you've got two co-founders, is that it?

Simone Policano: Yes. Well, first of all, I'm very flattered to hear you call it an enterprise. I think unlike most non-profit organizations, Invisible Hands started entirely by accident, which is, I think not how it normally goes, but the way it all started was I'm a native New Yorker, born and raised, been here for 26 years and I was walking home, this was March, God, I want to say 12 or something.

New York was starting to feel a little scary, we weren't in like full lockdown mode yet. And I was walking home from the subway and I passed my local supermarket, and I remember seeing a lot of elderly folks going in and out. And I just viscerally, like that felt wrong. It felt like it wasn't safe for them. I remember thinking, "God, I wish I could just offer to go in for them and have them tell me what they want. And I can describe it for them so they can stay outside or even better yet stay home."

And I had this thought and then I got home and I posted on Facebook and I just asked my friends, does anybody know of a way that a young, healthy able-bodied person could volunteer to deliver groceries to people who are more at risk to COVID? And I was thinking specifically the elderly and the immunocompromised.

I got a bunch of responses from my friends and my colleagues are saying, I don't know of something like this, I don't know of an organization like this, but I would love to help if you find something. So I just started collecting names of people who might be interested and started Googling. And I didn't really see anything like this.

And a friend of mine, Liam, he's one of my good friends, younger brothers. I've known him for a long time. Liam Elkind, who went on to be one of my my co-founders with me. He called me and he had seen my Facebook status and he said, "I love this idea. What are you thinking?" And we just put our heads together and we said, what if we made something? What if we figured out how to be this vehicle for folks?

So we made a website, invisiblehandsdeliver.com. It's now .org because it's been a crazy ride, but we put up a website and like two days later we got our first delivery request and then pretty quickly after the site was launched, we started getting some online traction, and we were contacted by a girl named Kelly [Tee 00:00:03:43], who joined us as a third co-founder sort of right at the gate and helped us expand it.

And we started getting delivery requests from around the city and we were excited that we were going to build this kind of small community effort. And then I think it was like a Sunday night or something, went to bed and were going to regroup in the morning, and we woke up to missed calls from Good Morning America, CNN, and PR. Like we had sort of been found as can happen with the internet.

And the thing with the internet is once you've been found, you can't be unfound. So it very quickly became clear that this was going to have to operate on a level that was way past what we had expected, but it was so exciting. We were so grateful for all of the amazing support. And that's when it really kind of blew up and in that first wave, we amassed over 10,000 volunteers and that was people in New York, that was people around the country, around the world. We had people helping remotely from all over and just people who loved the idea, and I think we're really looking for a way to help.

I think that we provided an opportunity for people who are feeling incredibly helpless. We got all this amazing support, and we got like pro bono legal counsel and all this stuff started happening really quickly, and it just took on a life of its own from there.

Brian Anderson: That's fantastic. So you serve the New York area, New York City, but are you helping people outside of the city?

Simone Policano: Yeah. So right now we serve New York and that's in all five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester, also New Jersey and Philadelphia. And we are about to expand to Hartford, Connecticut and Atlanta, Georgia as well. So we're getting some new chapters at the time.

Brian Anderson: Wow. That's amazing. And so what's the scale of it? How many people are you helping say on a given day?

Simone Policano: It's been really interesting to track like as COVID has fluctuated, our work has also fluctuated. In the initial, like crazy sprint of the first few weeks when everyone was terrified, we had like hundreds and hundreds of requests a day and then it calmed down for a little bit because what we really were responding to so much wasn't COVID, as it was how overrun delivery systems were because of the time that we first started, you couldn't get like a FreshDirect or an Instacart delivery for like two to three weeks. It was impossible for people to get food.

So we were providing a service that the current existing systems were very kind of taxed and overrun. Those systems started to develop their own... As the world started to adapt to COVID and it became clear this wasn't going to be like a two week long quarantine type thing, I think every sector of the world had to adapt to COVID, and grocery stores started doing their own delivery options.

There was a crazy like three week period when 311, New York City's helpline was referring people to us who called. And they were like, "Hi, I need food." And they were they referring people to us, and we're a bunch of kids who had put together a website because we just like created infrastructure, I think before a lot of people did. But then a lot of people created their own infrastructure. So our crazy, crazy numbers started to go down, but we've sort of been adapting. We've changed what we've been doing to adapt as COVID is changing.

As the people who you're running the millage like neighborhood person requesting groceries as those numbers started to go down. What we realized was that the long-term impacts of COVID that were going to last far beyond the disease itself was the insane socioeconomic tragedies that COVID has caused, and the food insecurity crisis in New York and the poverty crisis in New York, and in Jersey and in Philly, and these cities that we were helping in was made so much worse by COVID.

So we started partnering with food pantries, and food banks, and mutual aid organizations to help use our volunteer base to bring food to people who can't afford their own groceries, because no matter how available a grocery delivery service is, if you can't afford your own groceries, you'll never be able to use FreshDirect.

So we started shifting our model to looking towards people, to the food insecure community. And then recently leading up to this presidential election when there started to be concerns about was the USPS going to be incredibly overrun in our New York and New Jersey chapters. We started offering absentee ballot delivery services, so we would have people who completed their absentee ballots. We would have our volunteers pick up their absentee ballots and deliver them to early voting places or ballot boxes.

So it's like this moving target of trying to figure out we have these volunteers who are like excited and engaged, and want to help. And how can we adapt as COVID adapts to figure out where the greatest need goes. So it's changed over these past nine, 10 months since we started.

Brian Anderson: Sure. You mentioned Instacart, how does the service that you're providing differentiate itself just in terms of day-to-day operation from something like Instacart? Or is the model kind of similar?

Simone Policano: I think it's definitely more grassroots than that. There's no corporate headquarters for Invisible Hands where we were running out of initially like for people's living rooms. I think the key component that is different is that it's a much more personal and emotional, like emotionally connected experience. I think the biggest thing that COVID has shown us is like, this is a virus that really has caused people to isolate physically, mentally, emotionally, all of it from each other. And we really wanted to fight back against that. So it's a much more personalized experience. First of all, like they're all volunteers, right? So nobody's being paid to do the deliveries.

But the way it works is you request a delivery either on our website or also, and this is a key way that it's different. We have a call center. So for people who are not sort of technologically savvy and we serve a lot of elderly folks, so that' a lot of people, they can call the call center and always like speak to a real life person, which some of these apps, the delivery apps, you can't really do that.

Put in a delivery request through our website or through the call center, and then we match you up with a volunteer in your neighborhood who then reaches out to you directly, and so you form that one-on-one connection with your volunteer. And all of our deliveries are contactless. So it's like, leave it at the door, WE don't come into your apartment obviously to be COVID safe. But we've had so many amazing stories of people who have been doing deliveries for the same elderly couple in their neighborhood since March or something like that, and they'll sit outside the door and have a conversation through the window or on the other side of the door. There's a social emotional element of it that I think just by the nature of the way, something FreshDirect, Instacart or whatever works, it's just a different model.

Brian Anderson: Sure. Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned the New York City 311 line, have you had much interaction with city or state agencies in doing this philanthropic work?

Simone Policano: Somewhat. Especially when we started doing our absentee ballot initiative we had a lot of council people reaching out, telling their constituents about our services, and we've done a lot of partnerships with like I said, these food banks and food pantries and stuff, but also just different organizations to do days of service for Kohler, the company, and they did their day of service with us. So they got a bunch of their employees to do a bunch of food pantry deliveries for us.

And we've worked with the city mostly through in spreading the word. And I think, you have to remember that in the very beginning, everybody was so scared and confused and unsure of what this was going to look like. So I think the mayor's office and the governor's office had other things to do. They needed to come up with their own infrastructure for how the city was going to take care of itself and how they were going to take care of their constituents. So we were definitely on people's radars, but I think the biggest thing we would hear, we'd get phone calls from people putting in orders or on the website, they would indicate that they heard... It was so crazy.

Bernie Sanders included us in his mailing list of resources for folks, and we were tweeted by Biden and Ivanka Trump. I think that we were such a positive story in a time that was so bleak that it really did get a lot of traction, and that's how we saw the numbers that we saw, which are so amazing. But everyone was very encouraging. I think that anytime we would talk to anybody from the city or anything, it was like, you guys are doing an amazing work. You guys have a system that really works. A, how can we help you? Can we pass people along to you?

Brian Anderson: That's terrific. How did the name Invisible Hands come about?

Simone Policano: This is one of those weird things that you don't realize how big a decision something is until you cut to nine months later and you're running a nonprofit with the name. Literally in the middle of the night, Liam and I were texting making plans for making the website and how this whole thing was going to work. And I don't know where it came from. I think I was in the shower or something, and I just thought, I was like, "Oh my God, what if we call it Invisible Hands?" Because the whole idea is that it's this sort of hidden, unseen on, untouched like contactless helpers providing the service. And it felt catchy. And in a positive way, I texted it to him and he was like, I love that. I guess that's what we're going to be called. And here we are.

Brian Anderson: Now you and your founders, you've been at it going on nine months now, I guess, April, anyway. I imagine you've met some people who've really needed your help, and I'm sure you must have at least a few stories about people who are very appreciative of what you've been doing. I wonder if there's any you might be willing to share with our listeners?

Simone Policano: Yeah, absolutely. I can give you two quick ones. So one was just from the earlier days. Back when our call center was directing to my personal cell phone and I was the one who was answering the phones. And I talked to a woman who called and I was putting in her order and she lived on the upper West side where I grew up. She lived three blocks from where I had been born and raised.

And I took her order requests when we're talking about her grandkids and whatever, and I was about to hang up and she said, "You know, I just want to let you know that today is my 94th birthday." And this was you early April. She said it was my 94th birthday, and I've been so scared and I've been so unsure of how I was going to get food and I can't go outside and blah blah, and this comfort and this feeling of safety and security and that there's somebody looking out for me, and the fact that you guys are all doing this just out of the goodness of your heart, this is the best birthday present that anybody ever could have given me.

She started crying and I started crying and it was this whole thing. And then we got our volunteer who we matched with her to include like a rose and like a little cookie or something for her birthday and with her order. And I think it's just little things like that where it feels so dark and so bleak, but just to know that there is somebody there I think was incredibly comforting and we get as much out of it as they do, because I got to hear about this woman's experience.

She was 94, she lived three blocks from me, but I would never have met her otherwise, and our paths would never have crossed. And that was a really important one. And the other one, and this one's a bit sad, but I think it's really also kind of beautiful. There was an older man who had been using our service for months, and he had the same young volunteers, a 16 year old named Hunter who would do deliveries with his parents.

And Hunter had been delivering to him every week, the friendliest, sweetest guy, and he ended up getting sick. And in his last few weeks that he was receiving deliveries, he and Hunter would talk on either side of the door. They would just sit and have these kinds of chats where it was this young 16 year old kid and this older... Who I think was high 90s guy just talking about his life and growing up in his childhood. And he ended up passing away and we received this amazing email from his daughter who said that in his final days, he talked about how getting to know this young teenager in the same city that he lived in, who he would never have met otherwise, and just getting to experience that kind of friendship, even though they'd never met was one of the most beautiful pieces of that chapter of his life.

I reread that all the time and cry because it's such a little thing that moment of connection with someone, but it's such a coveted thing right now when it's something that is so... especially for people who aren't leaving their homes and don't feel safe, and feel really scared to feel like there's a person who is connected to you and checks in on you every week and brings you food. The fact that we were able to facilitate that for one person let alone the thousands and thousands of deliveries we've done, it's really amazing.

Brian Anderson: Well, it's very true that one of the benefits of philanthropic work is often not just the people who are being served, but also to those who are involved in the philanthropy, the volunteers. Your stories certainly underscore that. Thanks very much, Simone. Don't forget to check out Invisible Hands. You can visit their website, invisiblehandsdeliver.org. And we've been talking with Simone Policano, one of the co-founders of the organization.

You can find out more about their work and other organizations recognized at our 2020 Civil Society Awards by visiting civilsocietyawards.com. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CitJournal_MI. As always, if you've liked what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Thanks for listening, and thanks Simone very much for joining us and good luck with your work going forward.

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Photo: Onfokus/iStock

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