Amid the effects of a pandemic, extreme weather, and obscene wealth inequality, you may have heard about the concept of mutual aid. In this blog post, Hailey explores what mutual aid means, its history including the significant contributions by the Black Panthers, and how we can get involved.
What is mutual aid?
In the face of crises like the pandemic and climate change, more and more people are feeling called to respond within their own communities. When this work is done alongside social movements advocating for transformative change, it’s called mutual aid (1,2).
Dean Spade (a trans activist, writer, and teacher) defines mutual aid as “a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions” (1, 2, 3). It happens when people in a community come together to share resources to meet each other’s needs. This can look like:
- Community-based childcare for working parents
- Organized potlucks to feed hungry neighbors
- Regular supply drops to your local crisis center
- And many other things.
Creating Transformative Change
Ultimately, mutual aid comes from the awareness that the systems currently in place are not going to meet people’s needs. Often, those systems have created the crisis or further exacerbated them. In response to these systems, mutual aid projects work to meet people’s needs and build a shared understanding about why people don’t have what they need.
The concept of mutual aid is not new. Mutual aid projects have been part of robust social movements for centuries. The most famous example in the US is the Black Panther Party’s multitude of survival programs of the 1960s and 1970s, which included:
- A free breakfast program
- Free ambulance program
- Free medical clinics
- Free errand rides for seniors
- Legal aid education.
The header image on this story is from one of the Black Panthers’ many mutual aid programs. Through soliciting food and money from neighbors and local businesses, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program fed 50,000 kids in 45 cities. Before that, mutual aid groups like the Free African Society in the late 1700s and the New York African Mutual Relief Society in the early 1800s organized in Philadelphia and New York City to take care of the sick, educate orphans, and protect deceased members’ families (2,5). To learn more about other mutual aid projects in history, please refer to, “What is Mutual Aid?” and “Solidarity, Not Charity: A Visual History of Mutual Aid” in the source section at the bottom of this post.
In today’s society, individual self-reliance is often praised over community care. Despite advances in technology to connect us, we’re more socially disconnected than ever (4). This means that many of us don’t have the networks around us to get help with mental health, drug use, domestic violence, or abuse until law enforcement is involved – which can often escalate rather than alleviate the problem. We’re forced to rely on institutions that undermine people’s ability to access what they need, and wealth and resources are increasingly concentrated at the highest socioeconomic levels. All of these factors undercut our ability to take care of ourselves and our communities. In this context, choosing to support and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us is a radical act (1,3).
Solidarity, Not Charity
To be clear, mutual aid is not charity (5,6). Terms like charity, social services, and aid usually refer to wealthy people, organizations, or government entities “giving back” to people who are struggling. The rich decide who gets help, the limits to that help, and the eligibility requirements to receive help. These models aren’t designed to address the root causes of injustice and fail to meet the true needs of people on the ground. They make the wealthy look generous while upholding the same systems that concentrate wealth.
Mutual aid, on the other hand, exposes the failures of current systems and offers an alternative. Mutual aid groups are run by organizers and volunteers who respond to the articulated needs of their community. They’re rooted in the belief that those on the front lines have the wisdom to solve the problems, and that collective action is the way to make it happen. By creating a space where people can come together to address a shared need despite different lived experiences, we can build solidarity and create lasting change.
Building Sustainable Systems
Mutual aid allows us to create new systems of care and solidarity to address harm and foster well-being within our communities. As we experience the worsening effects of climate change, the foundation of support that we build now will determine how prepared we are for the next disaster. Mutual aid projects operating in communities recently impacted by extreme weather are creating the relational infrastructure for new systems of care that will improve community preparedness for the future.
Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it was mutual aid networks like Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Centers of Mutual Aid, or CAM) working towards food justice that made it possible for many people to eat when the island’s food distribution systems were shut down. Similarly, it was local solar power initiatives organized by Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo and other Centros that allowed residents to charge medical devices and keep the lights on in the 11 months it took to restore the electrical grid (7,8).
Participating in mutual aid can help us imagine and create a transition from extractive and unjust systems to a sustainable and regenerative way of living. The foundations we build now will make our communities stronger for years to come.
How we can Get Involved
The first step is to take action. If you’re interested in joining a mutual aid network, it’s highly likely one already exists near you (9,10,11). Do some research to find out where people in your community are connecting and communicating. Some might use a community-specific Google doc, form, and spreadsheets while large mutual aid networks may rely on online applications (Facebook, Slack, and WhatsApp) to meet their infrastructure needs.
Mutual aid networks operate as diversely as the communities they serve. Below is a list of a few mutual aid projects currently operating in the area (there are so many more initiatives not included):
- Food Projects
- Temporary Housing
- Alleviating Concerns about Deportation
- Restorative Justice
- Childcare Collectives
- Accompaniment Projects
If there’s a particular issue you’re passionate about then search to see if there are mutual aid project(s) or group(s) near you. If not, then you can always start your own. There are mutual aid toolkits out there to help you create your own mutual aid group by instructing on how to build a neighborhood pod and engage with your neighbors (12). Unfortunately, there isn’t an extensive database that lays out all the mutual aid efforts in the DC area, but there are mutual aid groups operating in every ward of the city. The DC Mutual Aid Network (DCMA) is a grassroots community-led effort that aims to take care of each other and keep our city safe (12). There are autonomous groups for each ward (with Wards 7 and 8 combined) who share resources, best practices and offer referrals to other groups.
There are also so many opportunities to join mutual aid groups that are doing transformative work in the DMV.
It may take some time to find where you can plug in within your neighborhood, and ultimately, it’s up to you to determine how to get involved. Here are a few ways to get involved:
- Give money or material resources such as food or other articulated needs
- Give your time
- Reach out to local organizers and mutual aid networks to see where you can make the most impact in your neighborhood.
- Take initiative to create a new mutual aid network to respond to an unmet need
In the words of Dean Spade, “Activism and mutual aid shouldn’t feel like volunteering or a hobby ‒ it should feel like living in alignment with our hopes for the world and with our passions. It should enliven us” (1). It shows us that we know best how to address the different crises we face. It allows us to practice love and solidarity together with the belief that all of us play a role in the solutions to our problems. Our well-being, health, and dignity are all interconnected, and our survival depends on cooperation. The more we practice this work, the stronger we’ll be.
- Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) by Dean Spade, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55937838-mutual-aid?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=fIqXH2PfU7&rank=1
- What is Mutual Aid?, https://www.tyeshamaddox.com/what-is-mutual-aid
- A Mutual Aid Explainer (video), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsoYeD6JGu0
- Social Isolation and Loneliness, https://www.who.int/teams/social-determinants-of-health/demographic-change-and-healthy-ageing/social-isolation-and-loneliness
- Solidarity, Not Charity: A Visual History of Mutual Aid, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-12-22/a-visual-history-of-mutual-aid
- Differences between mutual aid and charity (podcast), https://www.stitcher.com/show/rebel-steps/episode/s1e5-support-your-community-mutual-aid-55103630
- Mutual Aid: Lessons from Puerto Rico, https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/mutual-aid-lessons-from-puerto-rico
- (Solar) Power to the People, https://mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/solar-power-to-the-people/?doing_wp_cron=1636040734.3724091053009033203125
- Mutual Aid Network, https://www.idealist.org/en/days/what-is-a-mutual-aid-network
- Idealist Mutual Aid Group Database, https://www.idealist.org/en/groups?q=&searchMode=true
- DC Mutual Aid Network, https://www.facebook.com/groups/492881801379594/
- Mutual Aid 101 Toolkit, https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vRMxV09kdojzMdyOfapJUOB6Ko2_1iAfIm8ELeIgma21wIt5HoTqP1QXadF01eZc0ySrPW6VtU_veyp/pub
- Mutual Aid, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_aid_(organization_theory)