Where do we turn when government fails us?
Marginalized communities have long survived by sharing skills, resources and creativity, but many of us are only now waking up to our collective responsibility. Those of us who identify as white, straight and/or cisgender have mostly enjoyed the illusion that the dominant systems will take care of us. And to a certain extent they have — at the cost of Black and Brown lives, labor and opportunity.
So what do we do? Sign another petition? Call our congressperson? Blackout our Facebook profile picture?
Mutual aid projects give us a way to help right now, while laying the foundation for a more just future.
What is Mutual Aid?
The term mutual aid was coined by Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin in 1902, but the concept of cooperation for the common good has existed across cultures for millenniums. We see it in the West African practice of Sou-Sou, and the Zapotec tradition of Guelaguetza, among others.
The most celebrated example of mutual aid in US history is the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped enslaved Blacks escape to free states. What most of us didn’t learn in school is that the Black Panthers organized the first free breakfast program for children in 1969, or that the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party started free clinics and daycare centers in the ’70s.
Lawyer/activist Dean Spade, who’s written extensively about mutual aid, defines it as a political act. It means not only taking responsibility for one another, but for changing oppressive political conditions. While Spade doesn’t oppose symbolic acts like marching and putting pressure on politicians, he stresses the need to build “new social relations that are more survivable.”
Mutual Aid is NOT
Charity — Charity addresses only the symptoms of inequality, like poverty, violence and disease. It allows the rich to feel good about themselves while doing nothing to challenge the underlying systems responsible for injustice. It also gives them the power to decide who is most worthy of help, i.e. sober people, working people or those of a particular religious faith. This reinforces the idea that poverty is a personal or moral failure, instead of the result of systemic inequality.
Social Work — Most nonprofits and social service agencies are hierarchical in structure. The people at the top make decisions for those at the bottom, who are the most impacted. As someone who works in the field, I see how this inherent power differential undermines our best intentions. No matter much we empathize with the people we claim to serve, this power dynamic makes it difficult to connect as true equals.
Even the most community-driven nonprofits are beholden to their funders, most often governmental agencies or charitable organizations with wealthy individual and corporate donors. Check out INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence for a full analysis of the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex.”
By contrast, Mutual Aid projects tend to be horizontal in structure. Decision making is shared and based on the understanding that the dominant systems, not the people they target, are responsible for insufferable conditions. Members work collaboratively, not only to meet each other’s immediate needs, but to dismantle harmful systems and create new, more equitable alternatives.
What does Mutual Aid look like?
Mutual aid comes in many forms — bail funds, food distribution, community safety, etc. — and adapts to the changing needs of the community.
I’ll use my own community as an example. Days after #45 took office, our immigrant and refugee community members came under attack as never before. Our elected officials in western Massachusetts were largely sympathetic, but we didn’t have time to wait on the system. ICE was in already in our neighborhoods and workplaces, separating families and targeting Black and Brown activists.
We didn’t have time to wait on the system. ICE was in already in our neighborhoods and workplaces, separating families and targeting Black and Brown activists
Sure, we made signs, organized protests, and blocked the entrance to the ICE building. But we also organized rides, delivered food and cared for children. We raised money for bail funds and legal fees. We set up a 24-hour bilingual hotline and rapid-response network, enabling us to mobilize thousands of trained volunteers with a single text message. We accompanied community members to immigration hearings, ICE-check-ins and traffic court, our presence signaling to authorities that somebody was watching, that somebody cared. We accomplished all this by sharing knowledge, skills and resources, like language and tech savvy, time and transportation.
When the pandemic broke out, this informal infrastructure was already in place. It didn’t take us long to adapt to the new reality. The immigration hotline began taking calls for Covid-related aid requests. We translated the online unemployment application into Spanish before the state of Massachusetts could. We used apps like Slack to coordinate food drop-offs and mask donations, and crowdfund thousands of dollars for families ineligible for federal pandemic relief. Weeks later, the same decentralized networks helped us show up again, in mass, for Black lives — and show up well prepared, with trained marshals, medics and PPE.
How to Get Involved
You won’t find any designated entry point to mutual aid work. This is intentional; one of the goals of mutual aid is to break down barriers to participation. Meetings and events are open to all. Volunteers find their way through various channels: paper flyers, email, social media and word of mouth. In my case, it was a Google form forwarded by a coworker.
You don’t have to have a tongue piercing or be born in this century to participate
You don’t have to have a tongue piercing or be born in this century to participate. The projects I’m involved in have volunteers of all ages. Older volunteers — yes, Boomers! — have a lot to contribute, especially the precious resource of time. Before Covid, it was the Boomers who made sure our neighbors made it to their 8 a.m. immigration hearings in Boston, while the rest of us were tied up with work and parenting responsibilities. What’s more, if the Boomers had to spend a few hours in jail for civil disobedience, they didn’t have to worry about who was going to pick up the kids.
If your community doesn’t already have a mutual aid network, consider starting one. How? True to the collaborative spirit of mutual aid, groups everywhere have made their resources freely available online, including blueprints for starting new projects. The following is just a sample of the growing mutual aid library at our fingertips.
Mutual Aid Toolbox From Dean Spade and the Big Door Brigade, a list of concrete tools for starting and maintaining mutual aid projects
Mutual Aid Hub An interactive map of mutual aid projects around the US, plus extensive links to resources.
Mutual Aid 101 A step-by-step toolkit by Mariame Kaba and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Information on everything from flood cleanup to anti-oppression strategies, including a free downloadable Mutual Aid Facilitator’s Manual
Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) How-to guide for building a neighborhood pod