This post is an exercise in bringing clarity to the term “mutual aid” based on how this idea, as an organizing aspiration, is spreading through my community in Staunton, Virginia. That said, I imagine what is happening here is happening in a lot of communities at the moment: that large and quickly-formed networks, chaotically-online and predominately on Facebook, have formed under the banner of “mutual aid” and are managed by people who are best described as active community members but not organizers. On the contrary, their status as active community members might even make them people who, under different circumstances, could be targets of organizing themselves: landlords, business owners, and local politicians, for example.
What I want to emphasize here is that there are important, key differences between being helpful, neighborly, community-spirited or self-nominating as a leader, and engaging in mutual aid. Mutual aid is a type of organizing with a long history that aspires to do specific things and bring about specific outcomes while also accepting certain universal truths. Most notably, mutual aid is a survival strategy that accepts as truth the failure of our systems — political, social, and economic — to meet our basic needs. Mutual aid is a product of precarity, which is often an artificially-rendered state, and its goal is to replace this precarity with radical care.
Here is how organizer Dean Spade defines mutual aid, “Mutual aid is a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are survivable.” Many people see mutual aid as a form of resistance, understanding that it helps ordinary people live beyond and imagine a future free from oppression. Another helpful definition of mutual aid comes from prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, who recently collaborated on a Mutual Aid 101 primer with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Kaba defines mutual aid as “a practice and politics that emphasizes solidarity rather than charity…It means that we recognize our well-being, health and dignity are all bound up in each other.” Other useful resources include a recently recorded program by the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and tools from Big Door Brigade. There is information about many historic and contemporary examples of successful mutual aid projects linked in those toolkits, from the Black Panthers’ free breakfast programs to community bail organizations and rapid response projects specific to COVID-19.
Locally — but I suspect this is also true beyond my community — I see a lot of conflict stemming from the fact that newly-formed mutual aid groups want to reinvent mutual aid without politics. Mutual aid is always political, because it is a form of political action. This does not mean mutual aid is a tool for securing political patronage, or that it seeks to advance the agendas of political parties. Rather, what makes mutual aid political is the way that it elevates the needs of people over the needs of the system and seeks ways to reduce its power. It replaces accomodation with participation and self-help. To be clear, for mutual aid to work and be sustainable, to actually be mutual aid, we must accept that we are living in a state of failure with guaranteed and intentional harm promised to the most vulnerable. Many people in this moment hope that this failure will be temporary, but longtime organizers understand that the forces we live under — capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism — are designed to fail people and harm them so that wealth and power can continue to consolidate among the few.
Skilled organizers know ways to channel political angst into action. But in the absence of this experience, I see a lot of energy and concern prematurely stifled with warnings to keep politics or personal opinions out of engagement and information sharing. Organizing is about providing material aid, but it is also about broadening awareness and creating opportunities for personal growth building toward systemic change. For example, in helping others navigate the bureaucratic nightmare of filing for unemployment, it is good to reflect on and talk about the fact that the systems we are seeking relief from have never provided adequately for people who need urgent assistance, and will continue to fail people long after the worst impact of the pandemic has passed. It is necessary for our continued survival to see how fragile our existing social contracts are, and to consider ways to replace them with something better. Novelist Arundhati Roy invites us to consider the pandemic as a portal, “a gateway between one world and the next.” In the new mutual aid groups that exist in my community, such discussion and conscious-raising is very much forbidden.
This heavy-handed strategy is likely a product of several choices, the most unhelpful of which is to protect the feelings of people whose actions helped bring us to this moment. This group obviously includes Trump supporters, but might also include people who have exploited workers as business owners, those who have sought to hoard community resources like property, or anyone who tacitly accepts that certain people are disposable. Given the scope of the current crisis, I think it would be a good thing to consider ways that these individuals, who are normally protective of the system and antagonistic toward change, might be useful or even challenged about their actions and beliefs. But shielding them from discomfort at the expense of others is counter-productive and reinforces privilege and hierarchies that are already disadvantageous to vulnerable people. This is emphatically true when these individuals are the ones claiming to lead mutual aid efforts.
Another stumbling block is conflating mutual aid with charity. Mutual aid is never charity, it is a form of solidarity. One reason this distinction is important is because charity is often deployed based on notions of who is worthy or unworthy of support or even the right to survive. Dean Spade writes, “Charity makes rich people and corporations look generous and upholds and legitimizes the systems that concentrate wealth.” One goal of mutual aid is liberating people from competition for resources and a system that requires them to perpetually demonstrate that they are worthy of having their basic needs met, not rationed away. In charitable giving, the organization or individual retains the power to determine who will receive resources, typically because the giver isn’t burdened by the hardships of those forced to seek charity. Using mutual aid, individuals and communities receive the tools and resources to meet their own needs and exchange resources among themselves, each according to their own needs and ability to provide.
Being neighborly and encouraging community spirit is also not mutual aid. It is enormously helpful at the moment to keep track of store inventory, and to report to people who are uncomfortable going out where they can most easily locate supplies. For those who have the means, coordinated efforts to support local businesses are also very welcomed. Being a good steward of one’s community is impactful, genuine, and matters. When I say that these actions are meaningful but also adjacent to mutual aid, I am not dismissing them. On the contrary, the majority of my own actions at the moment look precisely like this — I have shopped at business that need support, I have made small donations to organizations with a greater capacity to do work and maximize those resources, and I am providing individual help and mutual assistance to one of my communities, which is self-employed individuals trying to navigate public benefits.
Is it a big deal that people are doing these and other good things and calling it mutual aid? On one hand, not at all and especially not now that preserving community health is rapidly stretching our conception of mutual support. But on the other hand, I think it is vitally important for new organizers to understand the history of the tools and theory they are trying to use. The practice of mutual aid, in America, has a long history in black, brown, and indigenous communities, in queer and trans communities, and in places where depravation, exploitation, and climate catastrophe are ongoing. To engage in sustained efforts to depoliticize mutual aid, to distance it from its implied critique of capitalism and racism, is wrong. Being successful at mutual aid is tantamount to threatening power structures that are both obvious and seemingly benign and it is not possible to be engaged with and committed to these practices at the same time one is invested in upholding or restoring the system. There is a useful term for helping others outside of political struggle, and that is volunteering.
My concerns about this have been exacerbated by the way my local government has promoted and endorsed this iteration of mutual aid work. In email digests, city government has linked to these groups and elected leaders seem to be active in them as well. Mutual aid is also not typically endorsed, supported, or utilized by government. To the extent that the government wants to be informally involved in this practice, either by recommending that people use new mutual aid networks to meet their needs or through the efforts of elected leaders to manage or moderate mutual aid networks, we should be cautious. Joining these groups means attempting to organize, engage with others, and seek assistance through a space where discussions deemed political, opinionated or negative are suppressed and can result in a loss of access to the tools the government is actively recommending. Lines are blurring and fast because of the gravity of the situation we are facing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be thoughtful about the conditions we place on people in exchange for support and whose comfort and needs we are prioritizing.