Neighbors (not) Helping Neighbors?

by | Mar 1, 2021 | 0 comments

Mutual aid has become a mainstay in these Covid times of massive need. Folks unfamiliar with the concept and execution of mutual aid may think that mutual aid is a relatively new social aid, not realizing that people have been practicing mutual aid for all of human history, as it is the backbone of humanity. 

The activist/law professor Dean Spade, author of the 2020 popular nonfiction release Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), defines mutual aid as, “…collective coordination to meet each others’ needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” Although not always called mutual aid, most marginalized communities have depended on many different forms of mutual aid in order to survive. From the Black Panthers’ revolutionary survival programs including legal aid, free breakfast for school kids, health care clinics, and support for elders that empowered the Black community; to childcare collectives, abortion defenders, and health care clinics that helped support the Women’s/Reproductive Rights movements; to condom distribution programs, safe drug use programs, sex worker collectives, HIV/AIDS health care resources, and chosen families for youth who’ve been kicked out of their homes in the LGBTQ+ community; every social movement has relied on mutual aid to support their efforts. 

The basics of mutual aid are to trust that people know what they need and that people know what they can give, and that exchanges of aid occur with no strings attached. Mutual aid can be in the form of cash, non-cash financial assistance, shelter, clothing, food, access to computers and phones—basically anything that someone might need to help support their life. Mutual aid also provides ways for people to help out even if they do not have money or goods to fulfill the requests, and it gives everyone in the situation some agency to make their own decisions, because mutual aid recognizes that our individual wellbeing is wrapped up in the collective wellbeing of all people.

Pandemic impact

Covid has created a larger need in the community, particularly among folks who have been unable to work since March 2020 and/or those who are dealing with illness and death in their families. Many communities’ mutual aid groups formed in an attempt to meet people’s immediate needs while waiting for the government to act. 

It has been heartwarming to see the call to action in the community in creating mutual aid opportunities that expand the reach of food access to those who are experiencing food insecurity. We have seen in Madison several neighborhood pantries and community fridges established and maintained through a network of donations and community volunteers, as well as community outreach organizations such as Freedom, Inc., Urban Triage, the Progress Center for Black Women, Black Umbrella Global, Feeding the Youth, and the Dane County Community Defense. There has also been a generous outpouring of mutual aid from the community during the Black Lives Matter protests that have been occurring in Madison since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.

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Mutual aid groups have also been prevalent on social media before Covid, with “Free” groups where people offered others goods at no cost, as well as marketplaces (including Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace) that allow people to offer goods for free. The Covid19 Mutual Aid Madison group has a wonderful model for how mutual aid can work via social media, with rules and guidance to help vulnerable people get their support needs met. Their group model includes providing anonymous feedback forms to the group and an admin/mod team that meet and reflect on what is working and what isn’t working in the group. There are also several hybrid mutual aid groups that use social media to connect with folks in need of support but provide goods and services in the community. Many of the organizations listed above use hybrid organizing to provide in-person mutual aid in the community.

Social gatekeeping

“Solidarity, not charity,” is the foundation of mutual aid, with a focus on community supporting community outside of the barriers imposed by charity nonprofits. However, among the efforts to provide online support there have been groups created and maintained through social media that masquerade as mutual aid community support groups that participate in gatekeeping—by dictating who is worthy of support, what requests are deemed legitimate, and who gets credit for giving support. This gatekeeping of who is worthy of support and focus on crediting one individual with work that is done in the community by the community is in direct opposition to the principles of mutual aid. However, these groups are allowed to continue unchecked due to the power that they hold, because they do some good in the community, and ultimately, because the people the group discriminates against are those most vulnerable in the community. This harm occurs namely through racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ+ and transmisia, anti-immigration/undocumented views, ableism, basically any marginalized identities, overt and covert, macro and microaggressions that mirror discrimination that occurs due to systemic oppression in the charity nonprofit system. It is easier for people in the group to overlook, accept, and not question the discrimination that occurs. In both the charity nonprofit system and with mutual aid groups, this creates a dilemma as to how to hold the nonprofit and/or mutual aid group accountable in a way that doesn’t interrupt the good work that they are doing in the community.

It is deeply upsetting when a charity nonprofit or a mutual aid group contributes to discriminate against already marginalized groups that are part of the community they claim to serve. It is especially upsetting when the charity nonprofit or mutual aid group has a large following and membership, claims to be a community resource, and could be used to help so many more people in the community than other smaller nonprofits and mutual aid groups. It is doubly frustrating when they are unwilling to work with others in the community, unwilling to be transparent as to their process in determining what needs are legitimate, and are unwilling to respond to questions regarding equity and accountability. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that respectability politics, social issues, and power dynamics have played out in nonprofits and mutual aid groups that claim to provide assistance to all. These dynamics directly impact the health and well-being not only of the most vulnerable in our community, but all of us in the community. 

Is there an accountability solution beyond exposing, defunding, and dismantling these charity nonprofits and mutual aid groups? Especially knowing that these actions will impact those who are able to find help through these venues? How do we work as a community to hold them accountable without forcing the most vulnerable among us to suffer unnecessarily? 

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These issues are not new, and are consistent with the charity nonprofit model of giving. We are socially conditioned to accept that people must prove that they are in need and that their needs are worthy of support. Proof and worth are usually established through massive amounts of paperwork and filings, phone calls, appointments, follow-up, emotional labor, being bounced around, having to wait for systems to approve or deny requests, and constantly retelling trauma in hopes of being humanized. This perpetuates the idea that people who are in need of support should be grateful for anything that people are willing to give them, even when the support is not what they need or asked for. This is consistent with the outdated and capitalistic proverb, “beggars can’t be choosers.” This ideology is why there are so many bureaucratic barriers for people who try to access government-provided social assistance programs. 

The charity nonprofit model focuses on proving that an individual is in need by prioritizing the perceived needs of the individual; those that fit within the status quo of what is acceptable to ask for/receive as a person in need. This model removes agency from the person who is in need of support, and makes assumptions about one’s support needs. Mutual aid prioritizes collective needs, meaning that there is not a hierarchy in who is deserving of aid based on bureaucratic benchmarks and paternalism. Whereas charity requires the person in need of support to prove their need, often through a lengthy and time consuming, and emotionally laborious process in order to receive support. With mutual aid, people in need of support can often get their needs met relatively quickly and often without having to traumatize and/or retraumatize themselves in order to receive support. 

These aspects of mutual aid help protect the most traumatized, marginalized, and vulnerable individuals in our community, without placing further expectations of “returning the favor,” or proving their worthiness for the aid that they need. Ask any person that has been in crisis and has tried to seek help—more than likely they will tell you a story about how folks may have helped them, but that this assistance likely came with expectations, and more than likely required them having to parade their trauma to prove their worthiness of receiving help. This exploits the emotional labor of the most marginalized in our community and serves to perpetuate class based stereotypes that encourage pity instead of empathy. One can see how precarious a situation this puts a person in need of support in when having to play into respectability politics, tend to the emotions of more privileged folks/those with power, all while managing the situation that led to needing support.

Need ≠ Morality

There is a great misconception that people are in need due to their own moral failing, when the reality is that discrimination/bigotry, capitalism, generational poverty, exorbitant health care costs, and any set of unpredictable factors can lead someone into poverty regardless of their moral character. We aren’t taught to view food, clothing, shelter, and health care as basic human needs; we are taught that they are commodities that we must earn. And if you cannot earn these commodities, you must rely on charity and welfare—systems that are set up to exhaust those who are forced to access them. Systems that are not set up to provide basic human needs to elevate someone, but rather set up to keep people in the cycle of poverty through bureaucratic and social mechanisms. 

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All of Us campaign

At this moment, both charity and mutual aid are necessary to meet the basic human needs of the most people. In order to truly do the work toward collective liberation, we must work on shifting from the charity/philanthropic model of support to broader systems of mutual aid. It will take work to unlearn the myth of the rugged individual, and to view all humans as worthy of support. We have a long way to go, but nothing can be solved if we ignore the harm that is perpetuated through gatekeeping access to support through a moral lens of worthiness. Additionally, we must work to hold charity nonprofits and mutual aid groups accountable for the harm that they cause in community but be mindful of the way in which we hold these groups accountable so that those who are actually being served can still find support. This cannot be solved by one person or even one group of people; it must be taken on by the entire community.

The next time someone reaches out and asks for aid in meeting their basic needs—whether it is giving someone a few bucks standing on the street corner, delivering supplies to a local organization, or donating money to someone’s gofundme—and you are able to provide mutual aid, please do so without strings attached. If you find yourself questioning the person in need of support or the authenticity of their ask, reflect on why that might be and whether you are giving to help another human meet their needs or whether you are giving because the aid that is asked for is consistent with what you think that person needs. Giving freely and without expectation is the future of community care. Let’s change the way we view community and need so we can create communities where folks aren’t afraid to ask for what they need, where we trust that people know what they need, and where we see the inherent worth of all people in getting their needs met.


Mutual Aid Resources

If you are in need of support or looking for resources to receive support here are some resources to help get your needs met: 


Jill Nagler is serving their second term as President of the Board of Directors at OutReach where ze has brought a focus to issues of racial justice and representation in the LGBTQ+ community, including co-founding and facilitating Reading Antiracism: An OutReach Book Club.

Calvin Smith is a genderqueer non-binary comedian, storyteller, all-around artist, and activist. Zie has previous experience within higher education doing LGBTQ+ education and programming. Smith has been a homelessness advocate and has experienced it firsthand themselves. This has given zie insight to the inner workings of giving and receiving mutual aid within community spaces 

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