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How to Better Your Community with Mutual Aid

Photo by Polina Kovaleva from Pexels

This is the 24th installment in our What’s on your mind? blog series and was written by CCJ Organizing Fellow Saint McClendon. Have something on your mind? Write about it! Please read this blog for more information.

The term mutual aid has popped up more within the last two years, yet it has been around for quite some time. Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of mutual aid projects have created a space where people in communities can access necessities including food, clothes, personal protective equipment, shelter, and other needs. Marginalized groups have used this method at least for decades, if not hundreds of years. For example, in Philadelphia there was a vicious Yellow Fever outbreak in 1793 that killed thousands, forced half of the residents to leave the city, and left children to roam the streets without parents. To combat the outbreak, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, both residents of Philadelphia, founded the first Black Mutual Aid Society in the country. The group buried the dead, gave housing to those who needed it, and aided the afflicted. 

Societies have practiced mutual aid for hundreds of years, and some still do. However, in today’s Western society it is ingrained that we look out for ourselves, and that if we work really hard we will succeed. That is not always the case. When a country puts profit over people, situations arise that most commonly affect the working class and those living below the poverty level. Modern human nature often compels us to fend for ourselves when it comes to food, water, housing, transportation, and other necessities. In reality, many of these things are human rights. Maine recently became the first state to account for the right to food in their state constitution, even though in previous years the United States voted against making it a right through the United Nations. Poverty could be solved, but people in power chose not to take action. Because of this, folks have been taking matters into their own hands.

Mutual aid can be whatever a community or neighborhood wants it to be. Mutual aid groups do not need paperwork or to file anything with the state. Put simply, it is people banding together to help each other out. There needs to be a level of understanding and respect among one another, because that is what neighbors are supposed to do. As part of a community, it is our responsibility to acknowledge problems and realize that current programs do not always work for everyone. Mutual aid is not charity, it is solidarity. It is trust and support. Mutual aid is a great way to support folks that are too often overlooked by the traditional system such as those who are unhoused, the elderly, undocumented and documented immigrants, and other minorities. One major attitude that fosters mutual aid is realizing that we all have different strengths, needs, and resources to offer each other.  Own a bakery or work in one? The mutual aid you provide could be taking some of the many loaves produced and giving them to folks who need it. Do you have access to a space that could be livable housing? Give an unhoused person a home before the sweeps, they get attacked, or it gets too cold outside. Have a surplus pack of body soap that you can part with? Give it to somebody who needs it. Anything that is led by the neighborhood that aims to better the circumstances of everyone is mutual aid. 

When thinking about starting a mutual aid project, there are some questions that you need to ask yourself. First: What are your strengths and weaknesses; what do you have to offer and what do you lack? What does your community need? There you go! There’s the base of your project. Next, you need to figure out how to engage in that. Ask: What people do you know that have skills that could be beneficial to the project, and are there folks that would be willing to help in general? Do you know folks that are bilingual and could help communicate to certain people? Who has a car to help transport supplies? Utilizing the resources that are near you plays a large role in mutual aid. 

You should also begin to make a list of people who could support this project. Supporters could write information and create graphics to share with neighbors, transport items, talk to community members, and more. Don’t forget to ask folks around you what they think needs to be improved and get their input on what this mutual aid project could look like. You may be dealing with something completely different than the person next to you, and one of the goals of mutual aid is to be inclusive to everyone. Getting family and friends to pitch in is a good idea as well. Who knows, this mutual aid project may provide some bonding time and y’all will be able to witness powerful change in your neighborhood. 

Next, you need to get the funds. These projects do not require large sums of money to get started, but having some surely helps. Crowdfunding is a popular method of raising funds for mutual aid groups. There are multiple ways to do this, including online fundraising, hosting in-person events with a goal to raise a certain amount of money, selling items (individuals could make items or simply have a garage sale), house parties that consist of raising funds for particular uses such as rent, and other ideas that suit you and your community. 

Okay so now that you know what the project is for, and have people that are willing to help and a way to raise money, how do you plan to execute it? Keep in mind that neighbors need to know about your project, so you should have ways to get the word out. Folks will also need to know how to reach out when support is needed and how the support will be delivered (contactless, meeting spot, directly to their location, etc.). 

Mutual aid is powerful when done correctly. It can transform communities. Mutual aid is not charity or something you should do because it makes you feel better about yourself. Do it because you and others recognize that the neighborhood could be in better shape if we consistently looked out for each other. Mutual aid is solidarity. 

Author

  • Saint McClendon (they/them) is our organizing fellow from North Strabane Township, Washington County. They are a graduate of Robert Morris University where they earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and a minor degree in Cyber Forensics. Saint loves to cook, paint and is a gamer in their free time.

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