In the face of a global pandemic, retreat is a natural response. Not for Shelly Tygielski – a meditation teacher and community organizer – and Busy Philipps – an accomplished actor and activist for a range of causes. Both are rare examples of how embracing fear and using your platform can lead to big-scale, meaningful change. Pandemic of Love has raised over $21 million in just 12 weeks. It even led to a casual Sunday evening conversation with former Vice President, Joe Biden.
We chatted about the innate human urge to give, how to build a grassroots movement, and why mutual aid communities can be the simplest of human connection in a world of increased isolation.
Brendan Doherty: Welcome to Icons of Impact. I’m really excited today to have two extraordinary people who are teaming up. One is Shelly Tygielski, the founder of Pandemic of Love; she’s also a renowned meditation teacher. And we have Busy Philipps, an extraordinary actor and activist, who has helped Shelly amplify her incredible work. Shelly, I’d love to start with you: we are obviously in the midst of a pandemic, and you took that moment to step back and ask what you could do in response. Tell me about Pandemic of Love?
Shelly Tygielski: Sure! Pandemic of Love is the culmination of my life as a meditator for the last 20 years. It’s always been a personal practice, and for the last four years, I’ve been a full-time meditation teacher after leaving the corporate world. I wanted to figure out a way to not be afraid of what was coming, to choose love over fear. When we’re afraid we’re in fight or flight mode, but we have the ability to create a new default mode of empathy and action instead. That’s the seed behind Pandemic of Love.
Doherty: So what’s the model for Pandemic of Love?
Tygielski: It’s a mutual aid community, which is not something that I invented. It’s been around a very long time. Our grandparents, your parents, my parents, everybody used to use the phrase back in the day when people used to live in a community together… when they knew their neighbors. People would know what was happening, but since the Industrial Revolution and the Technological Revolution, we’ve lost that human connection. So, the theory behind this mutual aid community was people are in fear, they’re losing jobs, they need to stock up on supplies. But most people don’t even have enough money to make ends meet at the end of the week, so how do we expect them to now shelter successfully at home? The mutual aid community was designed in a simple way: there are two forms – one where people can “get help” and have their needs met for groceries, utility bills, gas, and other needs. And a “give help” for people who could be donors or patrons, those who have privilege and are able to fulfill those needs. Now we have over 600 volunteers who spend their time just making matches. That’s it, we’re matchmakers, money never touches our organization.
Doherty: Give us a quick stat – to date, how much money raised and what’s the average amount?
Tygielski: So to date, we are almost at 130,000 matches. Which means, at least 260,000 people have made a human connection. The average transaction is $145. And we’re over $21 million in transactions. We have micro-communities around the globe, everywhere from Australia, to the UK to Iceland, plus in the Caribbean, Latin America, and all across the US. This is a grassroots movement, it really is neighbor helping neighbor.
Doherty: Busy, you must come across so many folks who want you to amplify their cause or get behind it. How did you hear about this, and what drew you in? What resonated personally for you?
Busy Philipps: A friend of mine, Ashley Margolis, posted about what Shelly was starting to do on her own Instagram. And I’m always looking for ways to help… I’ve been involved in many charity organizations and seek different ways to help communities in need, especially those in my backyard. I know that people can get fatigued and feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the need. And there are different kinds of donors. You have to figure out different ways to reach people and have it make sense to them. A one-to-one connection was something that made so much sense, and I just knew that people really respond to that. For instance, at another amazing organization, Baby2Baby, we started posting Amazon wish lists instead of asking people for monetary donations. There was something that people loved about just like, “Oh yeah, I’ll buy this cute thing, since it’s already on my Instagram.” So that was what drew me to Shelly. I just wanted to put it out there, repost it. There are all kinds of people that follow me, from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, so I just put – “if you can help, maybe this is a thing you want to do; and if you need help, maybe this is the thing you want to do too.” It’s been incredible how people have really responded to it.
Doherty: Shelly, what did you experience after Busy got involved?
Tygielski: A surge of people coming to the site. I reached out to her on her Instagram and said, “thank you, you have no idea what this has meant.” We can match so many more people now, there’s always three people in need for every one person who donates. Every time somebody like Busy amplifies the message, it goes down to two- to- one for a short while, and we’re able to do more.
Philipps: I was thinking about this earlier today, we are currently in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, and I’m trying to help engage a lot of my followers who are a majority white women — I know that because I get the analytics from Instagram. I’m trying to figure out ways to have them be involved and donate if they’re able. One really valuable thing that I’ve done for years, and advocated for other people who are in a position of comfort to do too, is to think about an amount of money where you wouldn’t blink an eye – to send your kids camp, or to buy yourself a new outfit to go to an event, nice things you’re able to do for yourself or your family — and match that with a comparable charitable donation.
Doherty: That also helps folks personalize it. The elegance of Pandemic of Love is that it’s stripped away of all of the fluff, and is really just about how you can connect someone in need with someone who has means in that moment; because that role could be reversed. Speaking as someone who has participated, I was paired with a young mother in North Georgia and after I supported her, we shared a bit. It felt very real suddenly, like I had a little micro-window into someone’s life.
Tygielski: Yes, that really is the most important part of it, honestly. It’s disruptive. In the business world, we always talk about how companies like Uber are disruptive. This movement is a disruption because it’s like, “Wait a minute, I don’t need this overhead and the staff to get this person help. And I know exactly where my gift is going.”
Doherty: What does this look like post-COVID-19? Is it one of those things that pops up to fit the need and then disappears? Does the model of an exclusively volunteer based organization work longer term given that it can be harder to maintain and relies on generosity of spirit?
Tygielski: Well, being a meditation teacher I live in the present. But I’m thinking about how the concept of mutual aid can be sustainable long after the pandemic is over. After this is all over, something new will emerge. So what does the new order look like? My “BHAG,” my “big, hairy, audacious, goal” is that I’d love to see the institutionalization of mutual aid. Why shouldn’t every municipality have a mutual aid community that’s formalized in some way?
Then there’s equity. People always have the need to give. It creates that connection constantly. We’re pivoting — like with the Navajo tribe. We’re in Minnesota. We’re in Atlanta. We’ve doubled our efforts. We’ve gotten more donors last weekend and we are allowing people in those cities to select whether or not they want to assist with specifically things like bail money or legal aid.
Doherty: Busy, with a platform of your size, often there is increased scrutiny. I had a good conversation with Jameela Jamil about this and about call out culture and cancel culture. I know even myself, especially in this moment, as a white person wanting to speak out and be even more active as an anti-racist … I’m still mindful of not wanting to get it wrong.
Philipps: You can’t get it wrong if you’re standing up for a thing that is right. It won’t be wrong. Sure, we can always do better, we can always learn better words to use, and we can always own our own ignorance and say, “I’m learning, I’m trying, I will do better.” But the baseline for me, especially if we’re shifting and talking about Black Lives Matter is simply: do you think that racism is okay? If the answer is no, then you think Black Lives Matter. In terms of showing up and using my platform to help the people who follow me use their ears on all kinds of social justice issues, it’s the same thing… there can be a fatigue, you can feel overwhelmed, you can be like “I don’t want to see that.” Well, you know, neither do my friends who live with this daily as their reality due to their skin tone. So I owe it to them to be uncomfortable and upset and own my own place in it and do what I can do in the ways I can do it. I can’t go to protests that are three blocks away right now because of COVID and because I have two small kids. But I do know I can donate, sign petitions, make phone calls.
Doherty: I also think, given that you have a mostly white female online audience base, that your standing up on these issues and speaking publicly to your audience is bringing new folks in — converting them, making the case accessible and relatable. And eventually, where I came down, is that any ridiculous fear I have of saying it wrong is nothing compared to the fear of being black in America today. So I’m 100% with you.
Philipps: I’m curious and excited to see where Shelly takes Pandemic of Love. I think that she’s right, we’re at a real turning point in our society. Where we go from here is truly up to every single one of us, and it involves both participation and a willingness to be open, to listen, and to know when to take a step back. I would say that the overarching thing — and I know Shelley agrees with me — is that people really do want to help. They do. Most people want to help, they just either feel overwhelmed or they don’t know where to start or they’re worried they’re going to make a mistake or they’re afraid of something. So, being able to strip it all away and just say like, “Shelly, this is Busy. You guys can help each other out”… that’s an incredibly powerful way to move forward.
Doherty: Thank you both, really appreciate you taking the time. Let’s give Pandemic of Love some lift!