The ethos of optiMize, the U-M student-led organization that gives students the support they need to design and execute projects that will positively impact the world, is simple. “optiMize is about looking out into the world and our communities and identifying places where change needs to happen,” says LSA alum and optiMize director and co-founder Jeff Sorensen (A.B. '12). “Instead of just saying that someone needs to do something, we ask ourselves why not me and start taking action.”
When COVID-19 began to alter every aspect of campus life, Sorensen and the optiMize team saw an opportunity to adapt some of their current programs and use the organizing skills they’ve developed to support Washtenaw County and communities across the world.
optiMize started with mobilizing its internal organizing capacity, and encouraged the part-time student staff who run its programs to use their typical work hours towards mutual aid or community work related to COVID-19 response. They could join local community organizing efforts, make food deliveries for vulnerable populations, or volunteer with a local agency like United Way of Washtenaw County.
But the optiMize team felt that simply adapting their programs wasn’t enough for such a massive crisis. That’s why they decided to launch the $25,000 Community Aid Projects Fund. This new fund allows students at U-M, Eastern Michigan University, and Washtenaw Community College to apply for as much as $5,000 to support a student-led, mutual aid or community-based project to respond to the pandemic. optiMize’s typical funding cycle is five months, but they activated this one in only a couple of weeks.
“We’ve never mobilized a fund spontaneously in response to an event before,” says Sorensen. “We had resources set aside for student-led projects that were allocated for next year, but we figured that now’s the time to use them.”
Like the societal changes surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, the Community Aid Projects Fund is evolving quickly too. “We’re going to try to move the money in a week or two,” says Sorensen. “We want to get it out to people as fast as possible.”
Though the crisis around COVID-19 is unprecedented, Sorensen says responding to it with this kind of community engagement is exactly what optiMize has been training for. “If we’re supposed to be asking ourselves why not me and taking action to make the world most just and sustainable, now is exactly a moment to do that,” he says. “We’re just trying to do our part to contribute to the culture of self-direction and mutual aid that we think is necessary not only during a crisis, but all the time.”