What is Mutual Aid — And How Can I Get Involved?

A woman wearing a face mask stands on the back of a truck and hands a volunteer a box of produce as a part of a mutual aid fund

Mutual aid could, quite literally, save your life. According to Peter Kropotkin — the philosopher who coined the term ‘Mutual Aid’ — mutual aid has been the driving force of evolution because of the millions of everyday citizens who step up as leaders and caretakers during times of need. 

While there are many ways to aid communities during times of crisis, mutual aid is one of the oldest and most effective forms of lending a helping hand. 

What makes mutual aid different from a nonprofit organization, for example, is that mutual aid isn’t necessarily a “formed” organization.

Most mutual aid groups are led by organizers and activists and don’t have the traditional hierarchical structure that nonprofits and for-profit organizations have. Most mutual aid organizations are also central to their region, making them extremely effective in getting help to those who need it. 

A woman wearing a face mask stands on the back of a truck and hands a volunteer a box of produce
Photo courtesy of Joel Muniz

For example, when someone cannot afford or access the basic necessities of life (food, water, shelter, clothes, etc.), fellow members of the community step up to provide for them through a collective effort. 

Also unlike a nonprofit or for-profit organization, most mutual aid organizations are volunteer-led versus it being an actual, paying job. 

Mutual aid leaders have deep ties to their community and oftentimes have a direct connection to the issues at hand, enabling them to offer relief efforts quicker than nonprofits and government programs. 

When Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans, it caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage. Community members’ response to this? Mutual aid funds.

There were grass-roots, low-income, people-of-color-led fundraisers to help both families and greater communities build themselves back up by distributing means (food, money, shelter, etc) directly to those affected.

Two people wearing face masks in a crowded room look through plastic bags
Photo courtesy of Joel Muniz

This is an example of mutual aid — when an entire community comes together to help each other out, without requiring the government to step in.

Unfortunately, while there is state and federal aid that is supposed to be available to the public during times of crisis like Katrina, it’s not always fairly distributed to those who need it.

When our government programs fail and nonprofits aren’t reaching everyone they should, that’s when mutual aid steps in — and for a lot of people, it’s life-changing. 

Mutual aid has deep roots in Black and Indigenous culture — and has been around for a long time. But it’s also understandable if the concept of mutual aid isn’t familiar, especially since they’re not formal organizations.

That’s why Good Good Good put together an explainer on what exactly mutual aid is, how to find efforts in your area, and how you can start one yourself.

What’s An Example of Mutual Aid?

Between the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and January 2021, approximately 8.4 million people lost their jobs, leaving them unable to afford food, rent, and other necessities.

Over the course of the pandemic, we saw that there was a disproportionate racial impact on marginalized communities, which left vulnerable populations even more susceptible to already existing injustices in healthcare, housing, employment, and more. 

During this time, there was a clear need for mutual aid. While mutual aid has been around for ages, the concept has gained significant traction and awareness over the last two years, as communities across the country stepped up to support their neighbors and their immediate needs through direct giving.

A group of volunteers carrying mutual aid collections from a truck
Photo courtesy of Joel Muniz

Across the United States, and across the globe, mutual aid groups organized to provide people with preventative healthcare services (doctor’s visits, vaccination clinics, or administrative assistance), protective resources (masks, face shields, etc.), access to food, and direct funds for those who have lost their source of income. 

For example, according to the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Organization of Seattle, donations were urged to be made for “Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folxs who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis.” These donations have been used to purchase masks, groceries, financial and rental assistance, and other supplies.

Additionally, these teams of Seattle volunteers are working to fulfill requests, “prioritizing folks who were sick, quarantined without pay, elderly, undocumented, LGBTQI and BIPOC.”

While not all mutual aid groups work directly with traditional nonprofits, this group partnered with organizations such as United Way and Lifelong to create a network of volunteers delivering groceries and hot meals weekly to five hundred families and elders.

Someone wearing gloves while they distribute mutual aid through food
Photo courtesy of Joel Muniz

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the hundreds of mutual aid organizations and campaigns calling for the safety of populations vulnerable to the virus.

If you’re looking for COVID-specific mutual aid groups, here’s a directory of local mutual aid groups across the world.

As we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s reassuring to know there are mutual aid groups doing the important work of supporting vulnerable populations during this time.

How Can I Know Where Mutual Aid Money Is Going? 

While traditional nonprofits are ultimately monitored by the IRS and the federal government and therefore have to subscribe to tracking systems, mutual aid, and community-led initiatives are more trust-based. 

Trust in a relationship with a mutual aid organization is everything, which is why most mutual aid groups have a clear breakdown of where your money is going. 

Think of it this way: studies have shown that the best way to help someone through hardship is by providing direct cash relief. Mutual aid ensures that the people in need of relief are able to access that cash quickly and effectively. 

If you’re donating to a mutual aid group and want a step-by-step breakdown of where your money (and time) is going, you can check the organization for a public health mutual agreement. A public health mutual agreement is a statement where they explain their role in providing donations and other funds to other people or organizations. For a list of verified mutual aid organizations, the Idealist vets through groups listed on their platform for discoverability

How Can I Start My Own Mutual Aid Fund?

The incredible thing about mutual aid organizations is that anyone can start one. That being said, mutual aid groups also take a good amount of organizational responsibility and upkeep; but if you’re able to shoulder the work, then mutual aid is a great way to help your community in a way that it’s not currently being helped.

Mutual aid organizers are the ultimate do-gooders and we’re seeing a lot more of them over the past few years.

The American Friends Service Committee published a listicle with a few ways to organize your own mutual aid network. Consider reading the Mutual Aid Toolkit 101, created by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organizer Mariame Kaba. 

It’s also helpful to create channels of communication (Facebook, Twitter, Slack), where you can communicate with both your team and your audience. You’ll then be able to create a general mission and list of goals, all of which can help you with your actions (raising money for communities after a natural disaster, delivering groceries to those in need, etc.).

No matter what platform you choose to host information on — whether it be a website or social media account — access is everything; people in need and people supporting mutual aid will need to be able to contact you in order for the aid to be successful. 

Ultimately, mutual aid can only work if we continue doing it together. It’s one of the oldest forms of community care and as we’ve seen from the past few years, it’s extremely effective and will continue to be around in times of crisis.

The examples above prove the power of both teamwork and our inherent desire to help one another in times of need — you, too, can help your community.

Article Details

October 12, 2021 9:48 AM
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