'Micro Grants' Are Keeping Virginians Afloat While Waiting For Unemployment

The state of Virginia has been delaying tens of thousands of unemployment claims for months on end. Activists are taking matters into their own hands.
Mutual aid volunteers sit on chairs inside a warehouse in Richmond, Virginia con
Photo: Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond

Last month, Virginians who have gone months without receiving unemployment relief filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). According to a legal press release, the VEC is failing to respond to unemployed applicants for months at a time, leaving thousands of people unable to pay rent or feed their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks after the lawsuit was filed, a District Court Judge ordered the VEC to resolve over 92,000 unprocessed claims by Labor Day as part of a settlement.  


Meanwhile, the government's foot-dragging has driven activists to take matters into their own hands. One Richmond-based grassroots organization called Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond (MAD RVA), has created a “micro grant” system that is providing assistance while people wait for their claims to be resolved.

Through a  grassroots fundraising drive that exceeded their expectations, the group was able to distribute over 1,000 $125 grants in 2020, for a total of $153,000. This year, they’ve given away $38,600 through $200 mini-grants to nearly 200 people and allocated $8,000 to help bail 40 people out of jail. 

“We've gotten a lot of emails and texts back from people being really grateful and expressing that the grant has helped with a rent payment or with some groceries,” Tamanna Sohal, one of four members who formed the micro-grants program, told Motherboard. In return, some people have offered their own services, such as hair braiding.

Plastic and wooden shelves are stacked with canned foods, water, and other supplies, inside a warehouse with a high-ceiling low-hanging pipes

A warehouse in Richmond, VA stocked with food and supplies. Photo by MAD RVA

Virginia currently ranks worst in the nation for processing unemployment claims, and the VEC has had its budget slashed by 40 percent since 2011. The number of unhoused people rose by more than 50 percent in Richmond last year, as people across the state struggled to make end's meet amidst the pandemic.  


Plaintiff Lenita Gibson became homeless for about four months after VEC cut off her benefits. “I have no income now, other than food stamps,” Gibson said in a press statement. “I have a roof over my head again, for now, only through temporary assistance from rent relief programs. The financial loss has been tremendous, and emotionally you are just a wreck. It’s been horrible. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be treated like this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

While many have expressed disbelief over the state’s unwillingness and inability to provide adequate aid, MAD RVA foresaw a struggle ahead. In March 2020, several members started a group chat to prepare a community response plan for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sohal, who hadn’t previously been involved in many formal mutual aid efforts, got involved after a friend added her to the chat. “It was just people talking about how COVID is going to affect us locally,” said Sohal. “What sorts of resources we could see running out really easily. And then, at the same time, what are the resources that already exist in surplus for some people that really need to be redistributed?” 

MAD RVA also runs a supply drive with free food, hygiene items and other vital goods. They started a call line for requests, and have been delivering about $5,000 worth of goods directly to family’s homes every week since mid-March. 


After outgrowing their storage space within local cafes, the organization rented an enormous warehouse space, built a walk-in fridge, and started a farm to sustain the supply drive.They distribute free AC units and host community free stores—a bit like a garage sale, but one where everything is free.

“We’ve got everything you could possibly want,” collective member Jake told filmmaker Kyra Kilfeather in a documentary profiling MAD RVA’s work. “Toilet paper, cans, we have plenty of pasta...but in two or three days these shelves will be empty again.” 

Several other community grant programs have surfaced in the sea of pandemic-inspired mutual aid groups. The Chicago Black Drag Council started raising $100 grants for BIPOC trans and gender non-conforming drag performers in Nov. 2020. Black Lives Matter Canada has raised $431,500 for thousands of $200 community microgrants for Black individuals. And the Jefferson County Anti-Racist Fund in Washington has been redistributing wealth from people who benefit from white privilege to BIPOC communities since Feb. 2019.    


To request a grant from MAD RVA, an individual only needs to provide their name, address, and demographic information in a short, online form or call the MAD RVA hotline. Funds are distributed within 2 to 4 weeks. The process contrasts with the complexity of Virginia's unemployment system; like with many public assistance programs, claimants describe the process of filing for unemployment as convoluted, and say that it's difficult to reach a real human on the phone

Mutual aid groups reject these sorts of dehumanizing, bureaucratic organizational structures in favor of collective care. 

“Mutual aid is the way we support each other and focus on interdependence in our communities,” MAD RVA writes in its rapid response toolkit, “recognizing the failures of state apparatuses and the inevitable need for us to co-create a more just world.” Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin popularized the concept of mutual aid in the early 1900s through his seminal research in evolutionary biology, which emphasized cooperation as essential for many species’ survival.  

“It doesn't have to be a formalized organization. You don't need a business license or a 501(c)(3) status or anything,” Sohal told Motherboard. “It is just a group of people coming together, seeing what people need, and what people have access to and how you can strategize to make those connections.” Mutual aid advocates place this work in contrast to the  non-profit model of charity, which has been critiqued as siphoning energy from grassroots movements and funnelling it into top-down organizations that do not build community power.  

But despite their best efforts, MAD RVA is still a relatively small organization, and isn’t able to provide support to everyone who needs it. “Instead of trying to meet everyone’s needs,” said Sohal, “we think it’s a more sustainable and realistic strategy to get as many people on board with mutual aid, so that we can all support each other.”