As you look for resources or ways to help others in regards to COVID-19, you may find the term “mutual aid” being used to describe a particular community response or network. What is mutual aid and where did the term come from? How does a mutua aid network work and how can you get involved?
Mutual aid is a form of solidarity-based support, where a community comes together around a common struggle instead of leaving individuals to fend for themselves. Communities with less infrastructure and resources, such as BIPOC, immigrant and LGBTQ communities have been organizing mutual-aid networks for a long time. In the last year, COVID-19 and the severe challenges involved have elevated the concept towards broader recognition and implementation.
What is Mutual Aid?
In mutual aid networks, people cooperate to ensure that everyone within the community has their needs met. Mutual-aid systems operate under the notion that everyone has something to contribute, and everyone has something they need.
People offer help — which could be resources, like food or money, or skills, like driving or picking up prescriptions — which are then redistributed to those in the community who are in need.
It’s different from the one-way relationships within charity, where an organization provides resources to recipients, often addressing the effects of inequity but not its causes.
Mutual aid instead builds solidarity between neighbors, and cultivates sustainability within community. As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba explained to the New Yorker: “It’s not community service — you’re not doing service for service’s sake. You’re trying to address real material needs.”
Mutual aid is not just a response to a crisis or an emerging need. While many networks have emerged this year in response to COVID, the effect will be to establish lasting bonds between people united against a common struggle.
Brief History of Mutual Aid
The term “mutual aid” was coined by Peter Kropotkin, a 19th-century anarchist who developed the concept during a trip to the Siberian wilderness. He expected to observe competition as the primary logic within the natural world (as modeled by Darwin), but instead found animals working together to survive the harsh elements.
As he wrote in his 1902 essay collection, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, “In the long run, the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.”
There are examples throughout human history, including the following:
- Friendly Society unions were common throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries
- In medieval times, craft guilds were organized to protect common interests.
- “Fraternity societies” came together in the US during the Great Depression to ensure members had health insurance, life insurance and funeral benefits.
- In Oakland, the Black Panthers created the free breakfast program in 1969, providing food for 20,000 children across 19 cities within the first year.
- The Young Lords was organized in the 70s for Puerto Ricans, Latino and other colonized peoples in the US, including free breakfasts, health and dental clinics, day care centers and clothing drives.
- Food Not Bombs emerged in the 80s to share food and protest war, poverty and environmental destruction.
- After Hurricane Katrina, the Common Ground Collective setup aid distribution centers, medical clinics, rebuilding programs, computer centers and legal counseling.
- Similar disaster aid emerged after Hurricane Sandy and other recent storm events in the Southeast.
How does a Mutual Aid network work?
Mutual-aid groups are made up of organizers and volunteers directly within the community. Each network operates differently, depending on the needs and nature of the group itself. Many of the efforts that have emerged in response to the pandemic started in Google Docs, on Facebook or on Slack, where people came together to discuss how to support each other at the local level, and began to collect resources and share information.
There are many various examples. In Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy Strong started in response to the pandemic, but has recently been cleaning the neighborhood and posting flyers encouraging the community to fill out their census forms.
During the Black Lives Matters demonstrations, networks have provided snacks and supplies to protesters. And this summer, the grassroots collective The Okra Project created emergency mutual-aid funds to help Black trans people pay for therapy sessions with licensed Black therapists.
There isn’t really a definitive database with all the mutual-aid efforts across the country. Instead, you’ll likely have to spend some time digging around on Google or social-media platforms to find local efforts. You could also reach out to local community organizers for guidance. However, we have listed below some of the local Mutual Aid efforts in King County.
It’s up to you how to participate. You could give money or volunteer your time. You might be invited to an orientation or meeting. Or maybe you are inspired to take the initiative to create a new mutual-aid network with your own neighbors.
Mutual Aid in Seattle and King County
Seattle COVID-19 Mutual Aid “Request Support” Form – If you need food or other supplies dropped at your front door. (Also in испанский язык, Amharic, Tigrinya, и вьетнамский)
Google group for announcements: firstname.lastname@example.org
To donate supplies directly to our unhoused neighbors, please contact “this cold, cold world” on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/This-cold-cold-world-101964174676844/
To contribute to the COVID-19 Survival Fund for the People: https://www.gofundme.com/f/covid19-survival-fund-for-the-people
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