The latest student-run local mutual aid effort, Polar Bear Mutual Aid (PBMA), is embarking on its second semester of fundraising and redistributing resources. Unaffiliated with the College, PBMA seeks to meet student and community needs through an anonymous application process.
PBMA, which advertises primarily through social media, is the latest effort in a series of attempts to create a lasting mutual aid network within the College community. In spring 2020, a mutual aid fund sponsored by the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) and intended to provide support for students experiencing Covid-19 related financial hardships was discontinued after the College officials notified leaders that the fund violated student organization guidelines. Another mutual aid effort, Polar Bear Community Action (PBCA), was formed in spring 2021 to provide support to students returning to campus.
The latest effort is no longer Covid-19 specific, but rather seeks to meet an array of different funding needs and support staff as well as students. PBMA hosted a kickoff party in May, but student leaders have been thinking about mutual aid efforts for much longer.
“Polar Bear Mutual Aid has sort of been in the works—we’ve been talking about it pretty consistently,” Keaghan Duffy ’23, who has been involved with forming PBMA since last spring, said. “We’ve kind of just been trying to figure out how to make an enduring mutual aid structure on campus, period, because we understand that the Covid-19 pandemic is not the first nor the last crisis that we’re going to experience as a campus and as a community.”
PBMA has a horizontal, non-hierarchical structure which includes working groups for finance, application review and social media. Community members can submit requests and donate funds on PBMA’s website. The finance group—the only individuals to see applicants’ names—anonymizes requests and then sends them to the application team. The team then reviews the circumstances of the request and reports back to the finance group to distribute funds. Since May, PBMA has received and granted over 20 requests for funds.
The most common requests include support for travel and health expenses, especially healthcare costs not covered by the College insurance. While the central operation is distributing funds, PBMA also connects applicants with other resources and community members that may be able to help.
“Sometimes people request funds for a flight back to college and as a mutual aid program, it’s not just us distributing but also just connecting people to other resources,” said Sam Cooper ’24. “So we first connect them to Flight 300, which ensures that they get money basically to cover flights back to college over the summer. And then we reach back out to those people, and if they haven’t been covered, then we disburse funds to them.”
PBMA also encourages applicants to first apply for supplemental emergency funding from the College, but Duffy emphasized that this funding does not cover all community needs.
“I was fortunate that the first time I had to request emergency funding from Bowdoin was to cover a new contact prescription, and they gave me funds for that,” Duffy said. “But it says right on their website that if you’ve requested aid before, that that can determine whether or not you’re given aid again. So, depending on the number of emergent situations that a person finds themselves in, the emergency and supplemental funding is really not covering everyone’s needs.”
Cooper also emphasized the insufficiency of the College’s model and thus the necessity for student-run mutual aid.
“It feels like Polar Bear Mutual Aid is picking up all the pieces that Bowdoin just kind of leaves behind,” Cooper said. “People are not supported in the way that Bowdoin purports to support every member of our community.”
PBMA has an official goal of regularly raising and redistributing $10,000 a semester, but the first priority remains simply meeting needs as they come up. Ahmad Abdulwadood ’24 also emphasized the value of creating an existing structure that can stay in place for years to come.
“I think the hope is to involve as many people as possible in our organization,” Abdulwadood said. “We make decisions democratically, and it isn’t really structured around individuals. By doing that, the hope is that unlike some other mutual aid programs, when we’re all graduated, it will still be here.”