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 funds, bystander 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.
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.
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 employees, sex 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.
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!
- You can find a UK-based mutual aid directory here and a US-based directory here
- You can use this Mutual Aid 101 toolkit with Mariame Kaba and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
- Mutual Aid Disaster Relief resources here
- Safety practices for mutual aid during a pandemic here
- Learn more on creating a neighborhood pod here
Most importantly, find what’s local to you. If there isn’t anything, build it! And always remember:
Solidarity, not charity.
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