Commentary

What I Learned About Mutual Aid When My Friends Were Killed

Erika Righter and Alicia Cardenas at Sol Tribe for Dia de los Muertos.
Erika Righter and Alicia Cardenas at Sol Tribe for Dia de los Muertos. Erika Righter
On December 28, 2021, I drove to Hope Tank just as I had seven days a week for the past ten years, knowing that this would be the hardest day ever in my shop, as well as one of the most difficult and important days of my life.

Everything from this day forward would become the after times.

The night before, one of my closest friends, my shop neighbor and business bestie, Alicia Cardenas, and four other people had been killed in a violent, targeted attack. As reports came in with vague details about victims, friends and allies who had become family in our little world were checking in. When I got no response to my text asking Alicia if she was all right, a part of me knew; she'd always responded quickly, and I'd be one of the first people she'd call if there was a problem. And then it was confirmed that both she and Alyssa Gunn Maldonado had been shot and killed at Sol Tribe, Alicia's tattoo shop at 56 Broadway, and that Alyssa’s husband, Jimmy, had been hurt badly, but had survived. I was grateful to have a few hours to process before the public and the press descended.

I pulled into my spot in the alley and looked, as I always had, to see if her car was there. I took a deep breath and went inside Hope Tank. I was alone and it was silent, and that would be the last time it would be quiet around me for a very long time. I peeked my head out the front door and looked past Barry’s bar, the only thing that separated our shops, and saw that people had started to bring flowers and notes and candles to build an altar outside of Sol Tribe, and that reporters were set up with cameras. For days after that, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to walk past the threshold of the front of my shop. You could feel death and despair hanging in the air.

Small-business culture is very different from corporate culture, and we have these incredible relationships with our neighbors, many of whom become dear friends over the years. So when this happened, everyone knew they could come to Hope Tank to connect. Within hours, it became clear that my job was to take care of the Sol Tribe staff exactly as Alicia would have done for my staff if I had been killed. A lot of people called us the Moms on the Block, but she was everybody's mom. She had been holding it down there for twelve years, but she’d been a shop owner for 25, and she'd taught me a whole lot over the years. She’d know that these people had experienced a horrific trauma and suddenly had no income, that their lives would be in total chaos. Whether they had been in the shop at the time or not, this was a family, and everyone would be impacted. I told my staff that we would be closed for a few days, and Hope Tank became "mission control" for what would be the most painful and beautiful coordination of mutual aid I’d ever seen.

A trusted friend of Alicia’s put up a GoFundMe to support her co-parent and her child, one went up for Alyssa and Jimmy, and one for the Sol Tribe staff. Knowing that it takes time before GoFundMe money is distributed and that people needed help immediately, I decided that a simple way to achieve this goal was to ask the community to donate gift cards. I knew that several of the staff were vegan, so I told people to buy tons of gift cards to our little local vegan grocery store, Nooch, and other restaurants that served vegan food. I knew folks needed groceries, gas and more to function, so we started getting VISA gift cards that would give them the autonomy to do whatever it was that they needed to do in order to cope. For those who couldn’t drop off cards, I offered the Hope Tank Venmo and then used the money to buy more gift cards. That also meant I could pay people who had helped with things like ceremonies, cover hotels for people who had traveled from far away. Whatever was needed.
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Gift cards and donations for the staff, the children and survivors of the shooting last December.
ERika Righter
Art of Alicia done by Aloria Weaver became the most iconic image of this moment, and she produced hundreds of prints; we became the distribution center and were able to get a small grant to reimburse her for some of the thousands of dollars she spent to produce them. As fundraisers were put together, we were the place to drop off the donations. Gifts and notes for the families were collected, as well as food and flowers for the staff who would sneak in through the alley to avoid the crowds.

Healers, dancers, friends, family — everyone knew to come to us. I had a literal love army around me. People made sure I ate, that I drank water, that I had a physical barrier between the front door of the shop and the public. We put up posters and photos on our windows so that people could write notes to and about our friends; they kept candles going to create a space to reflect, as the giant altar in front of Sol Tribe was very overwhelming.
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Messages to Alyssa, Alicia and others impacted, on the Hope Tank windows.
Erika Righter
Those days were an absolute blur. I had experienced the loss of my brother and my father, but nothing could have prepared me for something like this: being forced into the spotlight, having our safety continue to be a worry while my young kids had to process that someone they cared for had been killed and their friend’s mom was gone. Alicia was being talked about on the news by people who didn't know her, while people who did were in need and not getting help quickly enough.

When I was a social worker, there was nothing more important to me than supporting my clients with what they identified as their needs, and I knew that honoring their path to healing was not always going to align with what our social service systems allowed. As someone who built a business that lives at the intersection of community work and commerce, I continue to push back against the well-worn paths that most of us take within those systems.

One of the things I learned from going through this experience was how critical it is for folks to acknowledge the culture and the community that are directly impacted while they are “helping” them. In this case, two Indigenous women were killed and it was critical to acknowledge that they were each connected to many different communities, including the arts community, the danzante family, the tattooing world, healers, Indigenous family, yoga instructors, home-schoolers.

Then there are their chosen families, the people who most of us actually spend our days and nights with, the people we surround ourselves with, who know us in all kinds of ways because we often speak about ourselves more freely with those folks — for Sol Tribe, that includes people in the trans, LGBTQ, small business, employee, performer and parent community. We needed funds to host healing events that were led by Indigenous people close to the victims; child care was needed, as well as hotels, food and transportation. Without acknowledging those layers, the culture and community that must be respected, we cannot truly “help” a group impacted by a tragedy. When we make the effort to hit pause and assess, we need to go to the folks directly impacted and consult with those who have been through similar tragedies, so that we can better serve the real, immediate needs.

From the moment we got word about the tragedy at Club Q, our little community of advocates who'd learned such a tough lesson less than a year ago sprang into action. These shootings had happened to a queer community; when people are fundraising on their behalf without having members of that community leading the effort, they dishonor the community they are hoping to serve. If you don’t realize that all of the people who work at a place that is attacked are victims, whether or not they were there at the time, and suddenly face a cascade of challenges, then you are doing harm. The way we help is just as important as that we help. Gatekeeping, bureaucracy, ego and competition have no place in rapid-response mutual aid.

One of the organizations that positioned itself as experts and fundraised both in our tragedy and the Club Q shooting is the Colorado Healing Fund. Organizations like this are a pass-through; they fundraise, take money (in this case, 10 percent) and designate an organization to distribute the funds. The Healing Fund has only one employee, an executive director who, according to LinkedIn (there is no information on staff qualifications on the Healing Fund website), does not appear to have experience in trauma response, social work or relevant training. CHF has chosen to designate an organization for the fund disbursement that requires victims to work with law enforcement, to fill out forms that are shown to be traumatizing — including sharing the shooter’s name and their relationship to the shooter. The Healing Fund has very rigid guidelines for who qualifies as a victim, how they can apply for help, and what can be funded. They have demonstrated a great lack of cultural competency in both tragedies, and people from the Boulder tragedy have already rung the alarm on how CHF handled their victims.

As you can imagine, for people in crisis — especially those who come from marginalized identities — this process could be enough to make them say forget it, and often they do. How much better if these funders who are collecting on behalf of victims first determined who the victims trust, and had them help navigate the process.

Almost a year after the Sol Tribe tragedy, we have been told there is no more funding available for victims, and no reporting on how funds were distributed,

We need to hold these organizations accountable. I am interested in seeing ways that we can address the immediate needs of folks and allow them to tell us what they need, rather than have people assume what they need. No two tragedies are alike; the people closest to the victims are the ones who should determine their needs, and the funders should respond accordingly, rather than the other way around. That would create a real mutual aid approach to getting needs met.
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Hundreds gathered to fundraise and mourn Club Q at Town Hall Collaborative.
Erika Righter
After the Club Q shooting, we started getting reports directly from victims that funds were not being distributed, and so we went into mutual aid mode. We again started gathering gift cards and worked with a trusted group, Bread and Roses, whose two leaders are in the LGBTQ community and connected to Club Q. They put together a community event that was both fundraiser and healing space for community. In just a week, over $30,000 was raised and distributed for immediate needs like plane tickets, chiropractors, rent, groceries, new cell phones to replace those locked in the crime scene, and more. We heard that many parents, now out of work, needed support for their kids with Christmas coming. So we are currently collecting funds for twelve kids of the victims, which we will use to shop for gifts at local small businesses, to continue to amplify that impact.

When we identify the needs, we can often crowdsource solutions right from the community, which is truly a beautiful and empowering thing. We need people to put pressure on these large organizations and funders to adapt and change. If they are positioning themselves as the trusted experts, they must do better. Those funds they disperse dry up quickly, they all go away, and many of us are just at the beginning of our healing journey, which requires a lot more support.

Who is left after the news crews are gone? The community that was there all along. We are still here for each other, and not a day goes by that we are not checking in on each other. Alicia was very dedicated to mutual aid, to justice work, to decolonizing, to collaboration and truth-telling. I miss my friend every single day, and I work to honor the gifts that she gave us, and to fight for those who are on the front lines of community.
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The founders of Bread and Roses picking up donations and gift cards for Club Q victims at Hope Tank.
Erika Righter
I hope that sharing my experience will help some folks reassess their role in mutual aid efforts and realize that they have much more power than they think.

Ways you can help:

Contact Bread and Roses, a social justice legal center.
For gift cards for victims and kids whose parents were impacted, go to hopetank.org
Donate at the official Club Q GoFundMe for staff and performers.
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