What is Mutual Aid, Why it’s Important and How to Get Involved

Ethical Unicorn, 2 June, 2021.

Feeling helpless and frustrated about injustice? Want to push back against corrupt systems in society? Want to create a better future based on community care and local support?

Then I’ve got just the thing for you.

I think many of us would agree that, when the dominant systems of oppression in the world seem insurmountable, taking action is the best way to both feel better and to tangibly help others. And I think mutual aid is the best way to do that. Let me tell you about the movement, its origins and how you can get involved to actively build a better world.

What is mutual aid

Mutual aid is solidarity-based support where communities unite against a common struggle. They take on the responsibility of caring for each other, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. Aid is offered in a spirit of solidarity and reciprocity, with a larger aim towards liberation and progress for all.

Community bail fundsbystander intervention, and Cop-watch are more recent examples where the strategies for mutual aid are intertwined with public education about the underlying systems of oppression that create the need for community response.

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Mutual aid isn’t the same as charity, which usually features a hierarchical structure, one-way relationships between charity givers and recipients, and requirements that need to be met in order to receive help. In a mutual aid model there are no conditions on who receives help and everyone is seen as equal, with people working cooperatively to meet the needs of all within a community. In essence, charity responds to the effects of inequality, while mutual aid seeks to both meet materials need and address root causes.

Mutual aid firmly believes that everyone has something to contribute, though these resources may differ, and everyone has something they need, creating symbiotic relationships. It’s volunteer-run, decentralised, organised without top-down authority, transparent, and driven by the needs articulated by community members.

Mutual aid can look like volunteer coalitions doing work such as food distribution or financial aid. While many of these networks have existed for a long time (for example the houses of Ballroom culture or, more recently, projects such as For the Gworls and The Okra Project who support the Black trans community), particularly in underserved communities, there has been a huge rise in mutual aid efforts due to the pandemic, for example grocery deliveries for those shielding and self-isolating.

Regardless of forms or locations where we may find it, mutual aid always resists the dominant culture by emphasising community, equality and liberation over individual, capitalist structures.

Mutual aid is for when wealth is concentrated in one layer of society, when the health-care system is flawed, and when people can work full-time but still be unable to pull their families out of poverty. In other words, mutual aid is timely—and timeless.

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The key phrase to remember when it comes to mutual aid is solidarity, not charity.

The history of mutual aid

Mutual aid used to be a term that was mainly used by anarchists and scholars. It’s attributed to Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin, who used the term in his 1902 writing Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. He created the theory after witnessing animals uniting against common struggle rather than competing with each other. Where Charles Darwin talked about survival of the fittest, Kropotkin argued that survival is based on solidarity. His writing offered examples from ecosystems and human social life, writing:

Practicing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence

These ideas shaped activism among both anarchists and communities that have been abandoned or marginalised by the state. In America in the 19th and 20th centuries, “fraternal societies” were run by poor and working-class people. They provided access to health care, paid leave and life insurance to workers in nearly every city, providing more aid than any other institution at the time, private or public. This led to a rise in other groups adopting the model, including women’s only health centres in the 1930s, all-Black mutual aid organisations (New Orleans had approximately 135 of these societies, 40 of which were exclusively for Black women), mutual aid networks among Hispanic miners in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona by 1913, and organisations for Cuban and Spanish cigar workers in Florida in 1905.

The LGBTQ+ and disabled communities have also organised mutual aid for generations, for example when Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries opened a shelter for homeless trans youth in New York. One of the most famous examples is also the Black Panther Party’s multiple mutual aid efforts, including their breakfast program which provided 20,000 meals a week to Black children in nineteen cities.

More recently, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a mutual aid organisation called Common Ground Relief was founded by those in affected areas. This led to the creation of the Common Ground Health Clinic, which still delivers free medical care in New Orleans today. Similarly, Occupy activists formed Occupy Sandy, which organised direct relief to Hurricane Sandy victims in 2012. Thousands of volunteers provided necessities such as water and food, and set up community hubs where people could access resources and support.

Mutual aid and the pandemic

Covid has seen mutual aid gain mainstream popularity in an entirely different way. In March 2020 the NHS asked for 250,000 volunteers. One million signed up. By mid-march, a UK-wide mutual aid directory website was launched which now has over 4000 groups, each providing for localised needs.

Some examples in the US include distributing thousands of facemasks to low-income and homeless citizens in San Francisco, supplying masks, sanitiser and health information to undocumented labourers in San Francisco, or the Auntie Sewing Squad who produced more than 20,000 masks in Los Angeles for hospital workers, farmworkers, people leaving prison and ICE detention, immigrant communities and vulnerable groups. But that’s just the beginning:

 In Aurora, Colorado, a group of librarians started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn’t be getting their usual meals at school. Disabled people in the Bay Area organized assistance for one another; a large collective in Seattle set out explicitly to help “Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folxs who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis.” Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans. Prison abolitionists raised money so that incarcerated people could purchase commissary soap. And, in New York City, dozens of groups across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide child care and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent. Relief funds were organized for movie-theatre employeessex workers, and street venders. Shortly before the city’s restaurants closed, on March 16th, leaving nearly a quarter of a million people out of work, three restaurant employees started the Service Workers Coalition, quickly raising more than twenty-five thousand dollars to distribute as weekly stipends. Similar groups, some of which were organized by restaurant owners, are now active nationwide.

… In 2017, as wildfires ravaged Northern California, a collective of primarily disabled queer and trans people, who called themselves Mask Oakland, began giving out N95 masks to the homeless; in March and April, they donated thousands of masks that they had in reserve to local emergency rooms and clinics.

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In April 2020, nurses and doctors travelled to the Navajo reservation to provide voluntary healthcare, followed by more in May 2020. There’s an ongoing fundraiser for Navajo and Hopi communities that has raised over $7 million. At least $3 million of these funds were donated by Irish citizens, while the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix and the McClelland Irish Library next door volunteered to act as a drop-off hub for supplies. In 1847, when Irish people were suffering from the Great Famine, the Choctaw Nation send $170 (equivalent to $5,000 in the modern-day) to help. Irish citizens donated to the Navajo fundraiser as an act of reciprocity and solidarity. This shows the power of mutual aid to transcend the state, instead coming from the people for the people. It also shows how it bridges borders, as we unite in international solidarity against injustice.

How can I get involved in mutual aid?

It’s up to you how to support the mutual aid efforts in your area. The best way to start is to find your local mutual aid group, and to think about what you can offer. Perhaps it’s money you can donate, time you can volunteer, a car to pick up groceries. All contributions are equal and valid!

Most importantly, find what’s local to you. If there isn’t anything, build it! And always remember:

Solidarity, not charity.

 

Read this article on Ethical Unicorn

Can Mutual Aid Withstand Pandemic Fatigue?

Free goods and services distributed by mutual aid groups helped vulnerable New Yorkers survive 2020. As the pandemic eases, those organizations are more needed than ever.

New York is a crowded, loud, bustling city of 8.4 million people crammed into just over 300 square miles.

In the past that has meant jam-packed subway cars, endless lines for the latest museum exhibit, elbow-to-elbow seating in East Village hotspots, and constantly dodging tourists who have stopped slack-jawed to take it all in. As a born and raised New Yorker, I have witnessed this energy come to a frightening standstill only twice. Once, on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days after — and then again, just a little more than a year ago, when the perpetrator was the deadly novel coronavirus.

As hospitals became overwhelmed with the sick and deaths swept one neighborhood after another, our resolve as a collective was tested. But the heroism of the essential personnel that kept our city moving forward could not mask the contradictions that lurked beneath this social cohesion. It was not volunteerism, but an economic precariousness that forced predominately Black and Latinx residents into the role of frontline workers. As a result, their families and communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, as they bore the disproportionate burden of keeping us safe.

Exacerbated by the twin problems of class and racial inequalities, their suffering exposed gaps in health care and economic resources, catalyzing millions of citizens to take matters into their own hands. In spite of the stressors of quarantining, or maybe because of it, people came together to forge ahead. Thousands of new mutual aid groups — in the form of block associations, neighborhood councils, or extensions of philanthropic organizations — developed alongside more seasoned organizations.

[Read the rest of the article on Bloomberg]

The Usefulness of Mutual Aid Against Our Failing Government

One of the most effective ways to organize your community and eventually build power as people is to engage in what is known as mutual aid.

Mutual aid can be defined as a network of people working together to meet the needs and improve the conditions of the community. While it may be confused with charity or community service, it is different because mutual aid focuses on the root of community problems, rather than their symptoms.

This type of direct action forms long-lasting solidarity with those in need, rather than a one and done deal that other forms of help may offer.

Mutual aid also does not only apply when a natural disaster happens or during a crisis, it offers constant help regardless, recognizing that our communities are in a constant struggle.

While charity is indeed a viable option to help those in need, people may be more interested in writing off charities for their taxes instead of actually showing solidarity.

Take billionaires like Jeff Bezos, someone who consistently advertises his donations, which are always a minuscule percentage of his wealth.

It can make you wonder: does Bezos really care? Or is he only doing this to help his public image?

In contrast, there are no strings attached when it comes to mutual aid. It comes out of your own time and service, you can directly help others without any incentive other than your solidarity with those in need.

Mutual aid can come in a myriad of ways.

(Marmion Safe Haven Temporary Shelter / The Bridge)

Take the Marmion Safe Haven Temporary Shelter as an example, which provides chronically homeless people with temporary housing in New York. Their system is simple — providing housing to those who need it, unlike city run homeless shelters which often have requirements such as established sobriety.

Clients are provided primary care services, meetings with psychiatrists, laundry, meals, overdose prevention services and more. Additionally, the rooms at the Marimon Safe Haven are much less crowded compared to city shelters. There’s, at most, five people in one room.

(Trans Needles Exchange)

The Trans Needle Exchange (TNE) is a service that provides transgender people with hormone replacement therapy to transgender people who cannot afford it. This nonprofit, ran by a transgender person named Oliver, sends out over 150 packages a month throughout the United States with sterile syringes, bandages, alcohol pads, filters and more.

TNE also provides harm reduction supplies, such as menstrual and sexual health products. People can fill out a submission form, and TNE tries to get the necessary supplies out, free of charge.

(Jesse Wadarski / NY Daily News)

Invisible Hands is a New York based delivery service that handles groceries, medications and other necessities. It started off last year in response to COVID-19, initially bringing together less than 30 volunteers. Today, Invisible Hands has brought an astonishing 10,000 people to its cause.

The system of delivery is simple: a person in need requests a delivery form and is eventually linked with a local volunteer, who picks up and drops off the necessities free of charge.

This, just like the other organizations mentioned, are consistent efforts of direct action. Simply, they provide what people in their community need.

[Read the rest of this article on slice of culture]

Mutual Aid and Workers’ Power

Mutual aid has strengthened relationships and expanded our movement. Socialists should embrace mutual aid efforts as we fight for a society rooted in solidarity.

Much of the discussion and debate about mutual aid occurring among socialists looks at mutual aid in a very narrow way. It is argued that the only way in which mutual aid can be helpful is when it is operating in conversation and connection with labor, such as in the example of Bread for Ed, which raised money to provide food for striking teachers. This narrowness is misguided, because it discounts a lot of social movement work. In this article I am going to give several examples of ways in which mutual aid has been used to expand how the work is seen and understood. I’ll actually start with labor.

Recently in Chicago, teachers were preparing to strike over negotiations on returning to in-person learning in schools. A lot of the teachers that were preparing to strike, protesting every weekend, and going outside in solidarity with their colleagues to teach in the cold, were also participating in mutual aid efforts. The reason they were doing that is because they know that they have to be building power as workers, and they also have to be engaging with the communities that they know need them the most, and that this engagement builds solidarity with people that are going to also support the teacher’s struggle.

Ultimately, what we want is a society that is based on the values of solidarity.

These teachers were organizing mutual aid pantries, making sure that there were warm clothes available for students, and trying to help families in any way that they could. Several of my friends who are teachers engaged in this kind of work.

I think it is important to point this out because we want to be creating communities of care. Ultimately, what we want is a society that is based on the values of solidarity.

Mutual Aid in the Immigrant Rights Movement

In the immigrant rights movements here in Chicago, mutual aid is a core component. Here in my community, the Albany Park Defense Network has an initiative where people or families who had immigration cases would come and get help in terms of support, to have accompaniment to go with them to hearings, and for legal aid. There was also a lot of fundraising that was done for families that had lost a breadwinner due to deportation or incarceration.

After these people got help, they would then become part of the fabric of organizing, and would themselves accompany others to hearings, help fundraise, and help with legal aid. That built a lot of support in the immigrant rights movement and got people engaged. A lot of these folks who were doing that mutual aid work were also the same people that organized to pass the Welcoming City Ordinance without carve-outs that we were able to pass in the last City Council meeting here in Chicago. This ordinance is a huge deal and will make Chicago one of the safest cities for immigrants in the US.

Mutual Aid in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, mutual aid was the only thing that there was. It was really important for people to be able to have access to basic things like water and food, or medical help. The movement in Puerto Rico that culminated in the massive riots and revolt that ended up kicking out the Governor in Puerto Rico had a lot to do with those mutual aid projects that were created on the island.

And some of those mutual aid projects evolved. One mutual aid project in Caguas grew out of people occupying a building and doing mutual aid and community work from that building. Now, they have created a supermarket that is a workers’ co-op in that space. This is worker power right?

Mutual Aid and Building Power

It is important to trace out how mutual aid has impact and value beyond the very important immediate provision of support that the state is either unable or unwilling to provide. One example that points to this particular issue is that here in Chicago, there are a group of people who provide support to people who are being released from Cook County Jail. People are being released in the cold with no clothes, no shoes. So people sit in front of Cook County Jail, and they make sure that people released are clothed and that they have fare to take public transportation or that they have a ride. This work has very publicly illustrated cruelty that institutions like Cook County Jail inflict on people. As a result, now it has gotten Cook County’s attention and they are discussing how to change those policies.

[Read the rest of this article by Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez on Rampant]

The Solidarity Economy

As mutual aid groups pick up the government’s slack during the pandemic, social justice organizations and funders are looking at how to continue this momentum.

Ayear of the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions jobless, hundreds of thousands dead, and many turning to neighbors and mutual aid groups, instead of the government, to make ends meet.

When Chicago Public Schools suspended its meal distribution program in late May, Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Dominique James formed what would eventually become the People’s Grab-N-Go, a weekly program that by the beginning of September had given food and supplies to 3,700 families in need.

Robust mutual aid programs, like the one run by the Black and trans-led Brave Space Alliance, kept people connected to health care, stable housing, and harm reduction services. BSA’s makeup room and den also help connect trans and gender-nonconforming people to important gender-affirming products like packing underwear, binders, and cosmetics.

Food banks like Greater Chicago Food Depository are helping feed just a fraction of the roughly 42 million people—13 million of whom are children—in the United States that nonprofit and national food bank network Feeding America says may experience food insecurity this year.

These hyperlocal organizations have had to step up their operations exponentially in part thanks to the government’s shoddy response to the pandemic. And activists say it shows the need for what many are calling the “solidarity economy,” an economic system based on equity, justice, and democracy.

[Read the rest of the article on Chicago Reader]

 

COVID and Cooperation in NYC: 2020 in Review

Covid-19 has significantly impacted all New Yorkers, but the worst impacts have been among communities that regularly face racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism. Low-income people are “essential workers” who must face exposure to the virus to keep society functioning, according to the NY State and NYC governments, who designate what is “essential” and what can be closed down during Covid spikes.

Those who lack immigration documents have also been hit hard, left out of federal and state relief programs such as unemployment insurance benefits, which they have paid into via their taxes but cannot access without documentation. Still others have lost their jobs entirely, and NYC is experiencing escalating homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity as a result. These are the conditions that have propelled cooperatives and solidarity economy groups to action.

Gardens, food, and work, in cooperation

Covid-19 has impacted our regional and national food supply as well, which has consequences for food cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture, community gardens, and food industry worker cooperatives. Food co-ops, such as Park Slope Food Coop, implemented safety measures that are superior to the standards in corporate grocery stores, and to date just 3 of the staff at NYC’s largest food co-op have contracted the virus. Others, such as Windsor Terrace Food Coop, grew their bottom line while better serving their community by partnering with mutual aid groups to bring more fresh food to no and low-income residents of color, and by offering curbside pick up for their members. (These mutual aid groups are volunteer efforts that provide emergency relief but do not intend to become staffed long-term organizations.)

Community Supported Agriculture received a huge boost from households wishing to avoid grocery stores entirely by purchasing directly from a farmer, and a new generation of volunteers joined those groups as a result. Community gardens have always played a key role in food security in low-income neighborhoods, especially communities of color wishing to maintain agrarian traditions specific to their cultures, and this role continued during the pandemic. Some, such as Phoenix Community Garden in central Brooklyn, have also been able to expand their food box program to provide more fresh foods to elderly Black residents in the neighborhood. Worker co-ops, such as Brooklyn Packers, a grocery packing business, have also seen incredible growth as volunteer mutual aid groups across the borough have begun choosing them as their preferred vendor for sourcing and packing fresh foods to disperse to no income and low income residents. For the mutual aid groups, Packers can replace the volunteer efforts to locate and aggregate food, allowing the volunteers to focus on fundraising to buy the food and drivers to help deliver it. NYC’s mutual aid groups often have socialist or anarchist roots, so they are also eager to support local Black businesses, especially co-ops.

[Read the rest of this article by Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC on Medium]

‘Solidarity, Not Charity’: A Visual History of Mutual Aid

Tens of thousands of mutual aid networks and projects emerged around the world in 2020. They have long been a tool for marginalized groups.

2020 was a year of crisis. A year of isolation. A year of protest. And, a year of mutual aid.

From meal deliveries to sewing squadschildcare collectives to legal aid, neighbors and strangers opened their wallets, offered their skills, volunteered their time and joined together in solidarity to support one another.

Tens of thousands of mutual aid networks and projects have emerged around the world since the Covid-19 pandemic began, according to Mariame Kaba, an educator, abolitionist and organizer. During the first week of the U.S. lockdown in March 2020, Kaba joined with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to create Mutual Aid 101an online toolkit that educates and empowers people to build their own mutual aid networks throughout their buildings, blocks, neighborhoods and cities. Emphasizing a focus on “solidarity, not charity,” mutual aid is all about cooperation because, as the toolkit puts it, “we recognize that our well-being, health and dignity are all bound up in each other.”

“Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions,” says Dean Spade, a trans activist, writer, and speaker. “Not through symbolic acts or putting pressure on representatives, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable.”

While many are engaging with mutual aid for the first time this year, there is a rich history and legacy of communities — especially those failed by our systems of power — coming together to help each other survive, and thrive. Here are nine examples from history.

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Mutual Aid Can’t Do It Alone

As the pandemic plunged millions into economic insecurity, the burgeoning practice of mutual aid has been vital. But we must demand much more.

Hanukkah Is About Resistance. Let’s Resist This COVID Spike Through Mutual Aid.

With Hanukkah now upon us, the internet is abuzz with articles offering guidance on how to celebrate the holiday in the age of COVID-19. While most of them focus on practical issues such as socially distanced Hanukkah parties and Zoom candle lightings, I’ve been thinking a great deal on what the story of Hanukkah might have to offer to all of us as we gear up for a winter like none we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes.

Hanukkah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Hanukkah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Hanukkah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Hanukkah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

[Read the rest of the article on Truthout]

Mutual Aid: A Factor of Liberalism

Mutual-aid is in the air. Look near any anarchist or socialist project, and you will see the importance of it emphasized in big bold text. In the name of mutual-aid, people are doing food shares, repairing pot-holes in black bloc attirefixing brake lightsmucking and gutting flooded houses, and giving out Narcan and clean IV supplies to drug users. These have become ubiquitous practices on the left.

All very good deeds, how can we be against this? When people are hungry, you feed them. If you have two coats and your neighbor has none, you have one coat and your neighbor now has one. The impulse is more than relatable, I too believe in these things. The appeal is hard to disagree with. From disaster to crisis, mutual aid comes like Superman to save the day, feeding and housing everyone, saving each other’s lives.

But the truth is, mutual-aid isn’t a challenge or threat to the social order which produced hunger and precarity. The state is largely indifferent or even welcoming to it. In a world where the working class is increasingly being told to fend for itself, can we continue to call this “solidarity” with any honesty? If not, then what actually do these practices do for us?

[Read more from Regeneration]

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