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Solidarity, Not Charity: Sustaining Mutual Aid in a Pandemic

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Woman holding a bag of flour and a man holding a big bottle of what looks like cooking oil with assorted food stuff in the background

True mutual aid is people who have little on their own, who have been failed by larger systems, joining forces with others like them

I almost didn’t go to my mutual aid meeting last week. I was tired – I had spent the day juggling a million competing tasks. Remote work, kids bouncing off the walls, dinner not yet cooked. Was I really going to have the energy for *another* Zoom meeting? On the one hand, I was the Facebook admin for the mutual aid group, I really shouldn’t skip out on the weekly meeting. On the other, who cares about Facebook when the real world is so unmanageable?

In mid-March, just before the NYC school system shut down, I started a mutual aid Facebook group for my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I had been following the COVID news since January and had gotten progressively more worried. I’m a worrier in general, but this sure looked like it had all the makings of the long overdue global pandemic I had read about.

And if it was, what would happen next? Panic buying in supermarkets, once everyone checked their cupboards and found nothing but a few expired cans of coconut milk? Boredom, when parents realized they were going to be stuck indoors with their kids for weeks on end? And of course, how many people could actually afford to stay indoors for weeks on end? How many people were already living off the gig economy, with no financial cushion and no money to panic-buy groceries even if they wanted to?

A lot of need

I started a Facebook group because I figured it would be the easiest way to connect people in the neighborhood virtually. There was going to be a lot of need, and when everything shut down, the response to it would have to be mostly local. I didn’t really have rules for the group except: if you need something, ask. If you have something to offer, do so. And don’t get into arguments, we’re here to help each other. It was the internet, after all.

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If other people hadn’t stepped in, it probably would’ve just been another neighborhood freecycle group, with moms trading brand-name baby equipment and recommendations for local businesses. But people did step in. Several people had already started smaller groups for their block or their building, and they joined, so we consolidated our groups.

People started posting requests and offers of help in the group, and it turned out that the main thing people needed were grocery deliveries for older folks and people with medical conditions that kept them mostly indoors. So volunteers stepped up to help create a system for online grocery requests and online sign-up for volunteers to buy and deliver them (contactless delivery, of course). A few tech-savvy volunteers built a database system for tracking requests, keeping names and addresses anonymous until each request had been matched with a volunteer. And we started holding weekly Zoom meetings, giving our core group of volunteers a place where we could meet and discuss our work.

At first, we had more help and resources than we needed. The gentrifiers in the neighborhood were the first to volunteer, with extra time and energy to spend, now that they were stuck at home with not much to do. We had more donations coming in than we had requests, and we took on requests from other neighborhood mutual aid groups, to fill their gaps.

But we knew there must be tremendous need in our neighborhood that wasn’t showing up on Facebook, so we had a flyering campaign around the neighborhood to reach out to folks who might not be on the internet. A couple young Bengali activists joined, and through them, the group started reaching out to the huge Bengali immigrant community in the neighborhood. We partnered with a local non-profit, People in Need, run by a Bengali woman who did bulk food distribution and organized community events.

People give what they can, until…

Everyone pitched in where they could. Several neighbors sewed handmade masks and distributed them to anyone who needed them. Another neighbor worked for the city council person’s office and included us in their list of local resources in the weekly newsletter. Another moderated our weekly meetings and connected us to Mutual Aid NYC, the umbrella organizing group for the more than 90 mutual aid groups that had spontaneously sprung up around the city.

Everyone shared links to resources: which stores had just gotten a shipment of toilet paper, of hand sanitizer, of masks. A list of food pantries. A list of online educational resources for kids. One member offered their dog-walking services, another offered free legal advice. And one brave soul stepped up and volunteered to be our bookkeeper.

Here’s something I learned in the process: if you’re in a Zoom meeting full of folks who have never met each other in real life, keep your video on: having a face to go with a name is invaluable. Also, if you’re moderating the meeting, start by letting everyone introduce themselves and give them a prompt for something to share: their favorite outdoor activity, one thing they’re proud of today, their favorite noise that they can hear through their windows. And give people a way to ask for the floor unobtrusively (we use a progressive stack system, commenting “stack” in the chat if we’d like to speak next, and giving priority to folks who haven’t yet spoken much). Little details like that keep the whole thing running smoothly.

Here’s something else I’ve learned: in an all-volunteer organization, people come and go. People will give all the effort they can, until they can’t any more. And then other people step in. Our group likes to remind each other that this work we do is a marathon, not a foot race. The COVID crisis isn’t going away any time soon, we’re here to build lasting connections and the structures that will keep those connections alive.

Last I checked, our group had received and distributed over $70,000 in money for groceries and small cash grants, not counting in-kind donations. We have a website, a weekly newsletter, and committees for organizing volunteers, intake, dispatch, communications, fundraising, and bulk food buying. We have several members moderating the FB group. We have several people who handle the tech side of things: Airtable, Zoom, Slack, our website and all the passwords involved.

I’ve been there

But those are just the practical bits. More importantly, we’ve discussed the best ways to enact the mutual aid principle of “solidarity, not charity” in our everyday work. We’ve discussed how to ensure that our practices are in line with the principles of not questioning anyone’s need, consensus-based decision-making, and racial, linguistic and socio-economic inclusion. How can we educate ourselves on what mutual aid is, its history, its politics? How should we let people receiving groceries know that they were welcome to join in the group’s work in any way they feel able, without pressuring them?

And the discussions went in all kinds of directions. When we were talking about how to encourage recipients to join the group’s work, I remember one member offered to donate their stash of thank-you cards. They said they had a bag full of them, and maybe we could use them? I couldn’t figure out what we could possibly use thank-you cards for, but they explained: we could put one card in every grocery bag, with a handwritten note welcoming people to join our efforts as full members themselves. The member said they knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end of aid, they had been homeless before, and they wanted to extend a friendly hand to anyone who might be embarrassed at having to ask for help. Hell, that’s why I’m here, they said. I want to help cause I’ve been there.

Offers like that blow me away. People are giving of their time, energy, money. They’re giving out of their excess and privilege, but also from the little that they have, because they know what it’s like to have even less.

A natural human impulse

And that’s the key to the bigger picture, isn’t it? The essence of mutual aid isn’t just people helping each other temporarily, through an emergency situation, out of a sense of charity – although it can include that. True mutual aid is people who have little on their own, who have been failed by larger systems, joining forces with others like them, so that their efforts aren’t just a drop in the bucket. Collective efforts achieve more than individual efforts.

Mutual aid societies throughout history have provided collective benefits for their members, including health insurance, union representation, savings and loan services, and coverage for funeral and burial costs that weren’t provided by the government or society at large. Historical mutual aid societies based on trade or community affiliation persist to this day (such as Friendly Societies in the U.K. and fraternal lodges in the U.S.), and even more are currently thriving in marginalized communities, though they go by different names –  tandas in Mexico (and among Mexican immigrants to the US), sousous (originally from West Africa) in African American communities. Mutual aid is a natural human impulse, it turns out.

I’m often too tired for another Zoom meeting. I often think of the million things I’m juggling and how I definitely don’t have room for one more thing. I waffle on whether I can manage to show up for another Zoom meeting. But then I do, and someone asks for spare boxes for the bulk food distribution efforts, and someone else says, shoot, I’ve been keeping all my Amazon boxes in a pile in my living room, you can have all 30 of them. And I realize that my little contribution, plus theirs, plus a hundred others, really add up. We’re making a difference. And suddenly the Zoom meeting is the most restorative thing I’ve done all day. I come out of it buoyed by everyone else’s energy. And I promise myself I’ll never think of skipping another meeting.



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