Profiles in Leadership: Lily Levin, SOL ’20

By Thalia Halloran

This post is part of a series called Profiles in Leadership, chronicling the extraordinary endeavors of Hart students during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

SOL student Lily Levin

Lily Levin (SOL ’20, Trinity ’23) leapt to action the minute the COVID-19 crisis affected Duke. When Levin, a first-year, heard that Duke was closing down campus and switching to online learning, her first thought was for all the people these decisions would displace. From international students dependent on Duke for housing in the United States to workers reliant on Duke for their income, many people from “all walks of the Duke community space” were left confused by the sudden shutdown, with no immediate guidelines on how to proceed.

Levin and a group of other students created Duke Mutual Aid, a student-run collective fund drawing inspiration from similar efforts at the University of Chicago and Swarthmore College. Mutual aid, according to Levin, is “meant to be collective care and solidarity with each other,” where members of a community share their resources in a multidirectional support network, rather than a one-time, one-way charitable donation.

“We made a spreadsheet with anyone who could offer housing or other resources, then decided to make a Facebook group,” Levin said.

Soon, the group had amassed hundred of members, with students, parents, and alumni all signing up to donate or receive aid. After seeing a rising demand for a financial donation system, Levin set up a Venmo account where donations could be tracked and dispensed. The spreadsheets where donors and recipients signed up were transparent and visible to the public for accountability, although donor and recipient names were represented by initials to preserve their privacy.

For 36 hours, this Venmo account ran smoothly—until Duke Mutual Aid ran up against Venmo’s weekly transaction limit of $3,000. Soon, the group moved donations to PayPal, where they have received over $22,000 to date and have helped over 200 people. Since Duke created the Student Assistance Fund where students can request institutional funds for emergency relief, all of Duke Mutual Aid’s resources are now aiding workers. Levin and her fellow students at Duke Mutual Aid have been working with the Duke Law clinics to discuss creating a nonprofit business bank account for better accountability and to keep the Mutual Aid fund running even beyond the scope of the pandemic.

Leadership and service are nothing new to Levin, who has been involved in volunteering and activism since before her tenure at Duke began. She has been involved with Planned Parenthood and the Durham Poor People’s Campaign before and during her time at Duke, and as a student is involved with Define American, the Sunrise Movement, and Me Too Monologues. Still, despite her busy schedule she urges others not to overwhelm themselves in these trying times.

“It’s easy to compare our productivity with someone else, and it’s a breeding ground for comparisons and not being great,” she said. “The only thing we have to do during this pandemic is just survive it. Be gentle on yourself.”