Mutual aid

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Mutual aid describes acts of care, reciprocity, and solidarity people engage in to meet each other’s needs without support from the state or charities, particularly during times of crisis or changes in political conditions; building new social relations to create more survivable conditions. - Dean Spade, adapted by Michelle Xie [1]

Mutual aid is a form of political participation within communities, with the objective of better meeting the needs of everyone involved. [2] Mutual aid movements allow the building of new social relations to improve conditions within underserved communities. It compliments work that pressures institutions to change political conditions, ensuring basic needs are met in in the meantime. [3] Mutual aid groups are usually composed of organizers and volunteers, and everyone is involved in decisions related to the group’s structure and activities. [4] Therefore, it is often based on horizontal participatory decision-making to solve problems through collective action. [5] Members in mutual aid groups usually face different realities and are exposed to different levels of vulnerability, which often leads to multi-issues goals in these movements. [6] . Mutual aid is a way to empower communities and to build relations through solidarity. Mutual aid, under our current systems, is key to community resilience.

How is it different from charity?

Charity is based on a one-way relationship between an organization and the recipients of the resources donated. [7] Compared to the horizontal approach of mutual aid, the approach of charity is hierarchical. Providers are often deciding who deserves charity, which perpetuates social discrimination. [8] Charity legitimizes the system that created unjust social conditions in the first place, because it addresses the effects of inequalities without working to address its root causes. [9] Mutual aid, in contrast, is based on solidarity, cooperation and direct action for transformative change. [10]  

Examples of mutual aid

Food distribution 

  • The Black Panther Party used a breakfast program to provide 20,000 meals a week to Black children in nineteen cities. [11]
  • Eli Zain founded Denver Community fridges in 2020 to provide free food to everyone in need in the city. [12] The fridges are accessible at any time to grab or to donate food. The team in charge of this project, which is non-hierarchical, works voluntarily to respond to basic needs in the community. There are no restrictions on food gatherings, because, as stated on their website, "we understand that our community members in the most vulnerable circumstances know their needs best." [13]  
Access to housing
  • To limit increases in rental prices and to slow gentrification on the Island of Montreal, a mutual aid movement "J’te cède mon bail" was created in 2008. In this Facebook group, people can offer their apartment through a lease transfer to limit the unjustified increase in the price of housing. This makes renting more accessible to people with lower incomes. [14]  

Pandemic safety

  • Mutual aid groups in San Francisco supplied masks, sanitizer and health information to undocumented labourers [15]
  • Auntie sewing squad made more than 20,000 masks in Los Angeles for hospital workers, farmworkers, former prisoners, immigrant communities and other vulnerable groups. [16]
Disaster relief
  • Common Ground Relief was created in 2015 following hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. [17] The people who stayed in the region through the storm didn't get much support by the government. [18] Common Ground Relief offered food and medication to support local communities, and evolved into a broader organization offering health care at seven different clinics. It also offered housing, clothing and legal support to the residents. [19]
Legal support
  • The Sylva Rivera Law Project (SRLP) is a collective that works on social, health and legal services for trans and gender-nonconforming people who are low income or people of colour. This non-hierarchical and community-based collective offers a variety of resources for the community, like documents on immigration rights, healthcare rights, police interaction, resources for incarcerated people and many more. SRLP also offers legal help in three areas, which are Survival and self-determination, Immigration justice and Prisoner justice. [20]  
  • The Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) was created in 2015 in Cook County, Illinois to raise money to bail out people charged with crimes. CCBF works to "restore the presumption of innocence before trial" and supports communities impacted by structural violence. [21] This fund is the work of nearly 100 volunteers. Donations allowed the release of 146 people between 2020-2021. [22]  
  • Crown Heights Mutual Aid in New York is a group of neighbours that created a group to meet basic needs at the beginning of the pandemic. Today, they also work to address state violence, food injustice and housing inequalities. They organize events where members of the community can exchange or donate personal belongings to meet current needs. [23]

For further examples, see the Mutual Aid Hub, a 2020 creation of the Town Hall Project that highlights mutual aid initiatives in the US. 

A special thanks to Laury Ouellet for their tremendous work compiling content for this page.

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  2. Spade, D. (2020). Solidarity not charity: Mutual aid for mobilization and survival. Social Text, 38(1), 131-151.
  5. Spade, D. (2020). Solidarity not charity: Mutual aid for mobilization and survival. Social Text, 38(1), 131-151.
  6. Spade, D. (2020). Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Verso Books
  9. Spade, D. (2020). Solidarity not charity: Mutual aid for mobilization and survival. Social Text, 38(1), 131-151.