We’ve reached a pivotal moment in our history in recent weeks, and many have shifted their gaze toward actively and effectively fighting for racial justice and lasting systemic change alongside those who have been working for justice for years. Black communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, magnifying the systemic inequalities that exist in the United States. Additionally, reports show that nearly 95 percent of black-owned businesses that applied for PPP loans were denied them, and more than 40 percent of black-owned businesses were forced to shut down during the pandemic. (That’s almost 450,000 business owners—more than any other group.) Meanwhile, the murder of George Floyd created an urgent call to action against the racial injustices thriving in the U.S.
What Is Mutual Aid?
If we look back at major civil rights movements in this country’s history, there is a common thread made up of activists ready to help and provide support. Enter mutual aid groups. While the name may sound clinical, it’s not another government agency or questionable corporate nonprofit. All mutual aid means is helping each other—it’s simply people joining together to help others meet basic needs. As Peter Kriptotkin, an anarchist theorist, explained in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, the concept of mutual aid is vital to our survival. Typically, mutual aid groups are formed with an understanding that the system we currently have in place is simply not going to meet the needs of vulnerable communities, something we watched so vividly play out with the President’s inability to effectively react to the outbreak. Thus, it’s up to individuals to create meaningful change in an actionable and serviceable manner.
Mutual aid is nothing new. It’s a tactic long used by activists to ignite change–as The New Yorker points out, we saw these networks in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “when the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries opened a shelter for homeless trans youth in New York or when the Black Panther Party started a free-breakfast program.” And while these groups have often quietly existed at a hyper-local level, we typically see mutual aid groups rise up during times of crisis because these networks are skilled in implementing immediate action, not just a government-supplied bandage meant to appease us long enough for us to forget why we were so worked up in the first place.
Why Are Mutual Aid Networks Important?
So why is it that mutual aid groups often work more effectively and in a timely manner as opposed to government-run programs and charities? In short, the day-to-day of mutual aid groups is much simpler. The top-down, hierarchical decision-making present in charities is deemed obsolete in mutual aid groups, which instead are shaped by volunteers and those actually receiving the services. Essentially, the bureaucracy and the not-so-metaphorical strings attached to several charities are removed. Mutual aid groups pivot away from the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (i.e., the privatization of social services and charities followed by a competition for grants from large corporations), thus removing the state’s power in monitoring social justice movements. This allows for mutual aid programs to focus on the root causes that created the structural and systemic inequalities to begin with, rather than fumbling through government policy.
How Can We Get Involved?
Fortunately, aid can take on several shapes, whether that be donations, volunteering, providing material goods, and mental health support groups. Looking to start a mutual aid program? Well, like with anything new, it’s valuable to do your homework and research what organizations existed before we entered a global pandemic and then work to fill the negative space. Finding these networks couldn’t be simpler. Sites like Mutual Aid Hub make it easy to find mutual aid networks and self-support projects in your area. Some of our favorite NY-based mutual aid networks are NYC COVID Care Network, which offers free mental health support for essential workers and their families; Invisible Hands, a grocery and supply delivery service for the elderly, disabled, and immunocompromised; and Financial Solidarity for Formerly Incarcerated People and Their Families Mutual Aid Project, which provides just that.
Communities don’t just magically come together; it requires work and action. During a global pandemic, the people who are traditionally marginalized are the same folks who are the most at risk. While it can be humanizing and inspiring to watch communities unite in this moment, it’s critical to remember that it is not new for people in the United States to be without food, to be unemployed, or to not have access to basic goods. We must remember these facts moving forward and stay motivated and mobilized rather than leisurely moving on to the next trending topic. We will continue to make mistakes as individuals and as a community, but let’s make new mistakes instead of just repeating our old ones.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest