Get involved in the existing mutual aid networks in your area. Scroll down to the exhaustive, state-by-state list of resources at Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, or simply Google “ your city+mutual aid.” (Many of these networks appreciate non-financial support as well!)
Evaluate what kinds of groups, organizations, or people you’ve given money to in the past. How did you evaluate whom to give to? Has the white savior complex infected your giving philosophy?
Research the organizations you support. How do they stack up against Dean Spade’s chart on mutual aid vs. hierarchical charitable programs?
Throughout 2020, more of us have heard about mutual aid than ever before. After COVID-19 started affecting people’s livelihoods, mutual aid networks popped up like never before—with new networks likely in the thousands (Sustainable Economies Law Center). The uprisings after George Floyd’s death also accelerated mutual aid; groups quickly came together to feed protesters (Eater), post bail (Chicago Community Bond Fund), and provide support in many other ways.
But the concept of mutual aid is much more deeply rooted than the simple act of Venmo-ing $15 to a stranger on Twitter.
“Mutual aid consists of the collective actions it takes to support community wellbeing and reaffirm that all lives have inherent value. We all have needs and we are all capable of helping each other to fulfill some of these needs. This approach is distinctively egalitarian and rooted in reciprocity and agency.”
One of the core tenets of mutual aid is the idea of solidarity, not charity. Solidarity involves collectively working together to solve the root causes of structural inequity, as trans activist and scholar Dean Spade outlines in a chart comparing mutual aid to nonprofits (DeanSpade.net).
Meanwhile, the charity philosophy possesses an “inherent imbalance; it moves resources from places of abundance to places deemed as needy, a deficit-based perspective instead of one based on the values and abundance already present within communities” (Climate Justice Alliance).
The concept of mutual aid (if not the specific term itself) has been practiced for generations, particularly among Black and Brown communities and immigrant populations. In the 1780s-1830s, Black “benevolent societies” developed in the northern states, wherein Black people— many previously enslaved— supported each other through voluntary cooperation (The Massachusetts Review). As documents from the era show, the “earliest mutual assistance societies among free blacks provided a form of health and life insurance for their members—care of the sick, burials for the dead, and support for widows and orphans” (National Humanities Center).
Mutual aid is also central to many Indigenous cultures and economies, as the founder of the First Nations Development Institute explains in an interview for Yes! Magazine. Other historical examples of mutual aid include the mutualista societies that Mexican immigrants brought with them to Texas and the Black Panther free breakfast program (Sustainable Economies Law Center). I think of how, a couple years after my grandfather was released from a Japanese American incarceration camp, my grandfather ran out of money during a cross-country bus trip. He had to live in a Chicago bus station for a few weeks until he ran into a guy he’d known in camp, whose mother let him live in her boarding house rent-free for six months.
For many of these Black and Brown and immigrant communities, mutual aid was not— and is not— a philosophical choice, but an act of “resilience and defiance, practiced out of necessity in the face of inequitable access to basic needs” (Sustainable Economies Law Center). Such communities often get overlooked by dominant aid structures. Grassroots projects dedicated to queer and trans Black and Brown people, for example, often don’t have enough funding because money gets funneled to bigger nonprofits that leave those communities behind (Zora).
Believing in the mission of mutual aid requires us to reflect deeply on our actions and our beliefs. It’s not just a matter of choosing what kind of people/organizations/projects we give our money or time to. It’s a matter of how we think about it. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of white saviorism, for us to think we know better than the people we are giving to, for us to elevate ourselves higher while ignoring structural problems. As Teju Cole writes in his illuminating article in The Atlantic:
“The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund. I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved.”
Many nonprofits function on the idea of charity, utilizing a hierarchical structure that keeps the power in the hands of the givers. They decide who is deserving and what they deserve. As Jennifer Seema Samimi explains, the “separation of social justice and social service provisions has silenced the people most directly affected by issues of injustice, and it privileges educated employees and board members of nonprofits” (Columbia Social Work Review). On the other hand, the mutual aid framework focuses on keeping social justice at the center while empowering those most directly affected.
When we redistribute funds, we need to remember our own position. Remember that “charity can do more harm than good because often people outside of the community dictate what the community itself needs, rather than based on what the community itself knows it needs” (Climate Justice Alliance). Believe in everyone’s own self-determination. Believe in the strength of solidarity and our own collective power.
The concept of mutual aid has been practiced for generations, particularly in Black and Brown communities and immigrant populations often overlooked by other governmental and nonprofit aid.
One of the core tenets of mutual aid is the idea of solidarity, not charity. Solidarity involves collectively working together to solve the root causes of structural inequity.
Many nonprofits function on the idea of charity, utilizing a top-down, hierarchical structure that keeps the power in the hands of the givers.