Mutual aid has been a buzzword of 2020, especially within the last couple of months—but what is mutual aid and why is everyone talking about it? In a political landscape where people are living paycheck to paycheck and a pandemic is still sweeping the nation (compared to the rest of the world), people have been looking for new ways to help and connect to each other. It’s important to note that mutual aid is not a new concept or even a Western concept, as community care has been practiced for centuries before rampant colonization and industrialization.
Willie Tolliver, an associate professor of social work at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, said mutual aid is deeply rooted in African American and immigrant communities. In his research, he’s traced mutual aid among African Americans in New York City to as early as the late 1700s. He noted the mutual aid ideology embodied by the Black Panther Party, which coordinated free breakfast programs and errands for the elderly.Elizabeth Lawrence, NPR
Indigenous people lived in multi-family living and cared for one another in very intimate and communal ways, although genetic familial bonds were not always present. Even after colonization and industrialization, mutual aid and affinity groups formed out of necessity. For instance, the Free African Society was created in 1787 to offer newly freed Blacks support as they navigated a hostile American society that still very much viewed them as “Other”. These mutual aid groups sprung up out of a need for survival, rather than societal frameworks in competition with one another.
This is an extremely important component of mutual aid and what differentiates it from typical charitable work groups. Mutual aid seeks to eliminate the separation between those seeking help and those providing it. This collective perspective is unique to mutual aid as it emphasizes the solidarity being provided to one another, rather than the “haves” giving to the “have nots”. It is truly the community taking care of the community.
Another aspect crucial to mutual aid is its horizontal structure of power. In most charitable organizations, there is a vertical power of structure and a strict hierarchy. In vertical structures there is a very small number of people at the top consolidating the most power and decision making, yet a large number of people at the bottom who have very little power or substantial influence. In mutual aid and horizontal structures, there is power all across the board with no typical “leaders”. Everyone is empowered to plug in, suggest, criticize, or change things just as much as the next person. Most mutual aid groups are completely donation based and there is no profit made from the work that they do. How are mutual aid groups formed? Essentially they are formed from affinity groups.
An affinity group could be artists that meet twice a week or a neighborhood meeting of local gardeners and composters. Affinity groups are autonomous with no one leader and everyone is equally represented and respected. There is also a level of innate trust within one another and a mutual understanding of working together with their same needs. Affinity groups are sometimes more effective than typical organizations or clubs as they don’t enforce gatekeeping or hierarchy. As a result, many things can be achieved quickly since calls-to-action don’t have to go through bureaucracy. People are also empowered to pool their resources and knowledge rather than rely on a single leader’s discretion.
Free community fridges receiving food waste from grocery stores and bakeries have been granting regular groceries and essential groups to all people affected during these trying times. Navajo Nation Mutual Aid has been organizing to get electricity and running water to Navajo reservations for years. COVID-19 mutual aid groups have worked to get groceries and supplies to elderly and immunocompromised members of their community. There’s no one way for how a mutual aid group has to look, but there are many ways in how they can help instill change. Mutual aid and affinity groups are something to watch out for in your city and may even be something you can start organizing yourself.