By Emma Castleberry
Shelly Tygielski wears many hats: mindfulness teacher, producer, philanthropist, author, community organizer, wife and mother among them. “The unifying thread is putting more love and kindness into the world,” says Shelly. “That’s the litmus test. If it doesn’t do that, then I don’t say yes to it.”
Shelly now lives with her husband in Asheville, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began, she was living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the night of March 14, 2020, Shelly created two simple online forms: one titled “Get Help” and one titled “Give Help.”
Within less than a day, she had hundreds of requests on both forms. This was the beginning of the mutual aid movement Pandemic of Love (POL), which has grown into a global movement with more than 4,000 volunteers, more than 4.5 million people connected for support and more than $100 million in direct transactions since its inception. “What POL has done is that it’s given people a sense of empowerment and the ability to not feel completely hopeless,” Shelly says.
Suzi Israel manages the Asheville chapter of POL. She first met Shelly when she started volunteering for the movement at the beginning of the pandemic. “Shelly has helped me to truly see that everyone has something to offer to help someone, even when they do not believe in themselves,” says Suzi. “The entire organization is run by a group of dedicated volunteers. We are conduits of change and we help build communities of care.”
Shelly has written two books: Sit Down To Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World, and How We Ended Racism: Realizing a New Possibility in One Generation, co-authored by Justin Michael Williams. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Miami and a Master’s Degree from Columbia University, and she is currently pursuing a doctorate in Philanthropic Leadership at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Her dissertation is focused on mutual aid and the decolonization of philanthropy. “I’m looking at whether it makes sense for us to appeal to the US government and to Congress to modernize the nonprofit laws and IRS code to allow for the formalization of mutual aid organizations in this country,” she says. “Right now, mutual aid organizations such as Pandemic of Love don’t get any tax credits as an organization. The system that we have from a federal perspective is archaic. It doesn’t meet the needs of or speak to all of the types of philanthropy that are happening in this country today.”
The direct, peer-to-peer method of giving facilitated by mutual aid organizations like POL is antithetical to the existing nonprofit complex, which Shelly says “was made initially to reward wealthy white men and their families and to preserve their wealth.”
Shelly is quick to clarify that this is not a dismissal of nonprofits as a whole, because many are doing crucial work and endeavoring to be more transparent.
The core premise of the decolonization of philanthropy is that people should reap the same benefits for offering direct help to their neighbors as they do when using nonprofit channels. “If your neighbor needs help with rent or groceries or whatever, you’re not getting a tax write-off because you didn’t channel it through a non-profit organization,” she says. “So, in a way, we’re penalizing people.”
Shelly’s ultimate goal, with her books, her community leadership, her dissertation and her daily life, is to empower people to take whatever step they can towards goodness. “I like to lean on this beautiful proverb that has become a mantra for me,” she says.
“‘We should each tend to the area of the garden that we can reach.’ We are so busy looking at other people’s gardens or the forest as a whole and we don’t focus on the one thing we can do. I’m going to make my garden the best it can be.”