By: Karen Guo
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a screeching halt to our normal everyday lives. As stay-at-home orders were placed throughout the nation, people could no longer go to work, attend classes, or even take a walk outside as they did before. In addition to changing the structure of daily life, the pandemic also created a new set of problems for many people. When people got laid off of work or had their hours cut, paying the rent and buying groceries became much harder. When schools moved classes remotely and daycare centers closed, families suddenly had to come up with new ways to provide childcare. When it was discovered that elders and those who are immunocompromised were at higher risk of having serious complications from the virus, stepping outside their homes became a great danger. Though we have plunged into this time of unforeseen difficulties, we have also seen a rise in tremendous efforts of people helping each other out in this time of need(to read more about why this may be so, check out the blog post on terror management theory).
What is Mutual Aid?
Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a resurgence of mutual aid projects popping up in communities across the nation. People have come up with all sorts of ways to help out under these projects, from organizing collective child care to setting up systems that deliver groceries to the elderly. Forms of mutual aid, however, have existed for a long time before the pandemic. The term “mutual aid” itself was popularized by philosopher Peter Kropotkin in the late 19th century. In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Kropotkin discusses how all animals, from insects to humans, exhibit a tendency to form cooperative and symbiotic relationships. He called this “mutual aid” and believed that species and organisms who were able to form these relationships had a higher chance of survival, and therefore were able to live long enough to undergo evolution. The term has since changed to describe any relationship that is based on a voluntary but reciprocal exchange of goods, services, or knowledge.
History in the US
Mutual aid has a long history in the United States and one of the bigger examples was the Self-Help Cooperative Movement. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the US economy experienced a crash that shook the nation and at its peak, 15 million people were unemployed. Groups of unemployed workers and farmers started collectives where people exchanged labor for food. This allowed farmers to “hire” people to tend to their crops in a time where they could not afford to monetarily pay workers while simultaneously making sure that people did not go hungry. Collectives like these emerged all throughout the nation, eventually involving 1.3 million people in 30 states. However, as the government introduced policies such as the New Deal programs to help people get employed, the collectives dissolved one by one. Many of the programs created by the Black Panthers are also considered forms of mutual aid. Among numerous of the Black Panther Party programs was the creation of the People’s Free Medical Centers. These clinics provided free services such as testing, physical exams, and treatments for various illnesses. Located in 13 cities, the establishment of these clinics came at a time where public health clinics operated by the government were being overwhelmed. The People’s Free Medical Centers operated with a staff of at least ten volunteers and were based in trailers and storefronts but provided an invaluable service for the communities they served.
Not Charity– What’s the Difference?
Though mutual aid may have similar goals as practicing charity, they have major fundamental differences. As the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Network writes, “mutual aid is different from charity in that it strives to deconstruct the hierarchical relationships we are so in the habit of acting through.” The goal of mutual aid is to reallocate resources within a community for the greater benefit of everyone and to work against the constrictions of living under a capitalist system. Charity, on the other hand, works within capitalism and reinforces a binary of wealth between the “haves and have nots”. Charity only temporarily redistributes wealth and does not work towards addressing the issues of why certain people live in poverty while others live in access. Mutual aid, in this sense, becomes a political act. It defies a system where labor and productivity determine the value of a person and is rewarded in monetary terms. Instead, mutual aid builds a community of people working together for mutual benefit in a system that promotes prioritizing individual survival.
Power and Future of Mutual Aid
The nature of mutual aid being anti-capitalist makes it a great tool to fight against the system. We have seen mutual aid projects appearing in disasters such as the current pandemic and during the Great Depression, but it has also served as many forms of resistance. As discussed by Dean Spade, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, “mutual aid projects are a way to plug into helping people and mobilizing for change”. As the Black Lives Matter Movement resurged, people have organized community bail funds to release people from jails and trained street medics to deliver care to protestors in the case of a violent response from the police. As ICE increased the frequency of its raids, people started rapid response networks which warned people of nearby raids occurring and set up systems that connected those who are undocumented with free legal help.
Mutual aid doesn’t necessarily need to be big, organized, nor political, like the examples of projects mentioned above. It can look like simple, everyday actions such as offering to look after your neighbor’s kids or having nights where everyone chips in to make a meal together. Practicing mutual aid allows us to form deeper and more meaningful connections with those around us. It builds lasting relationships based on cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity.
When considering the future of mutual aid, it is important to reflect on the ways that the pandemic has exposed how much the current capitalistic system fails at supporting the people. During this time, the combined wealth of the 614 U.S. billionaires increased by $584 billion while normal families lost their source of income and struggled to pay for basic necessities. To better prepare for a similar future disaster and to work towards deconstructing systems that oppress the people, these efforts need to be long term commitments to the community. Even if the pandemic ends, the inequalities that were more exposed during this time do not disappear. Poverty and wealth inequalities will still exist and affect families. By practicing mutual aid now and beyond this time, communities establish new ways of survival in a system that fails them.
The most beautiful thing about mutual aid is that anyone can contribute to it. Whether you have access time, money, supplies, or simply have shareable skills, you can be a part of the efforts. If you are lost as to what to do to help your community out during the pandemic, or during other difficult times, check in with your local mutual aid networks! If there isn’t one, start your own project!
Mutual aid is powerful. In essence, it is an effort by the people, for the people. Mutual aid brings us back to our very nature as social beings, dependent on one another not just to survive, but to thrive in life. It has long been time for change in the systems that oppress us and mutual aid will be one of the ways we can bring about that change.
Here’s another post by Karen Guo: Anti-Black Racism is a Public Health Crisis.
To read more about mutual aid:
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief – Evaluating What Skills You Can Bring to Radical Organizing (Zine)
Mutual Aid Medford and Sommerville – Mutual Aid: How to Build a Network in Your Neighborhood
Regan De Loggans – Let’s Talk Mutual Aid (Zine)
Compilations of mutual aid projects:
Mutual Aid Hub (US States)
Existing Campaigns & Mutual Aid by Location (US States and Territories)
Collective Care is Our Best Weapon Directory (US, Europe, Canada)