Activism 101: What is Mutual Aid?

Ever since the pandemic came through and devastated so many communities, mutual aid projects have been popping up left and right. I didn’t even know what mutual aid was until this year.

As I kept hearing “mutual aid” and seeing people post CashApp and Venmo names, I started getting curious about it. What was this mutual-aid business about?

Mutual aid is when people get together to meet each other’s basic survival needs with a shared understanding that the systems we live under are not going to meet our needs…”

As I was learning more about it, the more I wanted to start participating more in mutual aid projects, but I didn’t know where to start. Well, you can start her by learning more about mutual aid!

Where did mutual aid come from?

The term “mutual aid” comes from Peter Kropotkin, a 19th-century anarchist,  who developed the theory after visiting the Siberian wilderness. Going off the Darwinian theory, he expected to observe competition in the wilderness. Instead he witnessed animals coming together against common struggles. He outlined his theory in a 1902 essay collection, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (which you can read for free here).

Mutual-aid efforts have been around forever. During the 19th and 20th centuries, there were organizations called “fraternal societies” run by the poor and working class that provided access to health care, paid leave, and life insurance to people in their communities across the country. 

The Black Panther Party, while they often get dragged in history textbooks, is also a good example of mutual aid. They were responsible for organizing a number of mutual-aid efforts in the 60s. The most well-known one was its free-breakfast program that provided meals to children.

How do mutual aid networks operate?

Mutual-aid groups are typically made up of organizers and volunteers who respond to the needs of communities. The important part to remember is that they are first listening to the needs of the community before they respond. They are members of that community, not outsiders who come into a community and dictate the needs.

Mutual aid is also those sharing those CashApp and Venmo names on their social media. While it is not traditional mutual aid, listening to the needs of a person or community and sharing how to meet those needs with the community is a form of mutual aid. Social media has revolutionized how mutual aid can operate.

One important distinction to make is the one between mutual aid and charity. Charity creates an inherent power differential with rich people determining how to distribute their money to poor folx. Oftentimes that comes with strict guidelines on who gets and deserves the money. With the charity system, we blame the poor for being poor, rather than examining the pitfalls of the social system that creates such inequality.

Still want to learn more about mutual aid?

You can read the book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) by Dean Spade.

You can also check out this guide by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organizer Mariame Kaba.

This video also by Dean Spade is a great crash course.

Follow me on Instagram, as I post every mutual aid opportunity. And if you see one you can share it with me to repost!

Note: This post contains affiliate links to our Bookshop store that contribute to the 10% back to organizations 🙂

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