A radical act

“Mutual Aid is essential to our survival” by Dean Spade, Truthout, October 28, 2020, is a primer about the concept of Mutual Aid. I recommend reading the entire article. I’ll be quoting it more extensively than I usually like to do but it is not hyperbole to say Mutual Aid is essential to our survival, and this article explains this well.

For good reason, many people feel scared right now. We face terrifying unknowns about the worsening economic crisis, climate change-induced disasters, rising COVID-19 infections and long-term health problems facing people who survive being infected, ongoing racism and violence at the hands of law enforcement of all kinds, and increasing mobilization of armed white supremacist right-wing people and organizations. It is difficult to have any faith that, no matter who is in the White House, we will see a massive redistribution of wealth, immediate action to stop climate change, an end to policing, borders and war, and universal housing, health care or child care. Under these conditions, we need mutual aid to survive and to build resistance movements of hundreds of millions of people who can fight to stop the systems of extraction that govern our lives and build a world we can survive.

There is nothing new about mutual aid — people have worked together to survive for all of human history. But capitalism and colonialism created structures that have disrupted how people have historically connected with each other and shared everything they needed to survive. As people were forced into systems of wage labor and private property, and wealth became increasingly concentrated, our ways of caring for each other have become more and more tenuous.

“Mutual aid” is one term used to describe collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually stemming from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them. Those systems, in fact, have often created the crisis, or are making things worse. We see examples of mutual aid in every single social movement, whether it’s people raising money for workers on strike, setting up a car pooling system during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, putting drinking water in the desert for migrants crossing the border, training each other in emergency medicine because ambulance response time in poor neighborhoods is too slow, raising money to pay for abortions for those who can’t afford them, or coordinating letter-writing to prisoners. These are mutual aid projects. They directly meet people’s survival needs, and are based on a shared understanding that the conditions in which we are made to live are unjust.

In this context of social isolation and forced dependency on hostile systems, mutual aid — where we choose to help each other out, share things, and put time and resources into caring for the most vulnerable — is a radical act.

“Mutual Aid is essential to our survival” by Dean Spade, Truthout, October 28, 2020

As I highlighted above, “capitalism and colonialism created structures that have disrupted how people have historically connected with each other and shared every everything they needed to survive.”

I’ve been working on the following diagram to illustrate these ideas. In this most recent version I added MUTUAL AID.

Mutual Aid has been around since the beginning of human communities. I wasn’t aware of using the idea of Mutual Aid as an organizing concept until I met Ronnie James. As I think about how to characterize his role, I remember one of the important aspects of Mutual Aid is there isn’t a hierarchy with some people in leadership positions. In Mutual Aid, we all take care of each other, and all have an equal say in what we do.

You might notice I say “we” because I have been blessed to join in some of the work of Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA). Saturday mornings I look forward to gathering with my new friends to make boxes of food to distribute at the Free Food Store.

Three Key Elements Of Mutual Aid

One: Mutual aid projects work to meet survival needs and build shared understanding about why people do not have what they need.

Mutual aid projects expose the reality that people do not have what they need and propose that we can address this injustice together. The most famous example in the United States is the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, which ran throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including a free breakfast programfree ambulance programfree medical clinics, a service offering rides to elderly people doing errands, and a school aimed at providing a rigorous liberation curriculum to children. The Black Panther programs welcomed people into the liberation struggle by creating spaces where they could meet basic needs and build a shared analysis about the conditions they were facing. Instead of feeling ashamed about not being able to feed their kids in a culture that blames poor people (especially poor Black people) for their poverty, people attending the Panthers’ free breakfast program got food and a chance to build shared analysis about Black poverty. It broke stigma and isolation, met material needs and got people fired up to work together for change.

“Mutual Aid is essential to our survival” by Dean Spade, Truthout, October 28, 2020

As I began to get to know Ronnie James, I first learned about the Black Panther connection to Des Moines Mutual Aid when he told me how DMMA started:

It started as group of my friends working with the houseless camps some years back. It has now grown into a solid crew that runs a free food store started by the Black Panthers, still work with the camps, we organized a bail fund that has gotten every protester out of jail the last few months, and we just started an eviction relief fund to try to get a head of the coming crisis, in cooperation with Des Moines BLM. We have raised $13,000 since Wednesday and the application to apply for the grants goes live this week.

Ronnie James

Just a few days ago he wrote:

Happy 54th Birthday to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Panthers have been a lifelong inspiration and one of the major influences on how I act in this world. The Free Food Store that Des Moines Mutual Aid helps coordinate was founded by the Des Moines chapter of the Panthers and has continued to this day. I deeply value that we get to carry on that legacy. All Power To The People.

Ronnie James

As a result, I’ve been studying about the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Two. Mutual aid projects mobilize people, expand solidarity and build movements.

Mutual aid is essential to building social movements. People often come to social movement groups because they need something: eviction defense, child care, social connection, health care, or help in a fight with the government about something like welfare benefits, disability services, immigration status or custody of their children. Being able to get help in a crisis is often a condition for being politically active, because it’s very difficult to organize when you are also struggling to survive. Getting support through a mutual aid project that has a political analysis of the conditions that produced your crisis also helps to break stigma, shame and isolation. Under capitalism, social problems resulting from exploitation and the maldistribution of resources are understood as individual moral failings, not systemic problems. Getting support at a place that sees the systems, not the people suffering in them, as the problem can help people move from shame to anger and defiance. Mutual aid exposes the failures of the current system and shows an alternative. This work is based in a belief that those on the front lines of a crisis have the best wisdom to solve the problems, and that collective action is the way forward.

Mutual aid projects also build solidarity. By working together, members of mutual aid projects learn about experiences different from theirs and build solidarity across those differences. Solidarity is what builds and connects large-scale movements. In the context of professionalized nonprofit organizations, groups are urged to be single-issue oriented, framing their message around “deserving” people within the population they serve, and using tactics palatable to elites.

“Mutual Aid is essential to our survival” by Dean Spade, Truthout, October 28, 2020

Three. Mutual aid projects are participatory, solving problems through collective action rather than waiting for saviors.

Mutual aid projects help people develop skills for collaboration, participation and decision-making. For example, people engaged in a project to help deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people in their neighborhoods who can risk COVID exposure going to the pharmacy will learn about COVID delivery safety protocols, but they will also learn about meeting facilitation, working across differences, retaining volunteers, addressing conflict, giving and receiving feedback, following through, and coordinating schedules and transportation. They may also learn that it is not nonprofits or social service agencies who can directly support people, and that many people — including themselves! — have something to offer. This departs from expertise-based social services that tell us we need to have a social worker, licensed therapist, lawyer or some other person with an advanced degree to get things done.

Mutual aid is inherently anti-authoritarian, demonstrating how we can do things together in ways we were told not to imagine, and that we can organize human activity without coercion. Most people have never been to a meeting where there was not a boss or authority figure with decision-making power. Most people work or go to school inside hierarchies where disobedience leads to punishment or exclusion. We bring our learned practices of hierarchy with us even when no paycheck or punishment enforces our participation, so even in volunteer groups we often find ourselves in conflicts stemming from learned dominance behaviors. But collective spaces, like mutual aid organizing, can give us opportunities to unlearn conditioning and build new skills and capacities.

By participating in groups in new ways and practicing new ways of being together, we are both building the world we want and becoming the kind of people who could live in such a world together.

“Mutual Aid is essential to our survival” by Dean Spade, Truthout, October 28, 2020

That describes my experiences with the Free Food Store. I wanted to help with the effort, but also knew this was something I would like to do in my own community. So I saw joining the Free Food Store would teach me how to organize Free Food Stores elsewhere.

From my experiences I have concluded that the way for people of different communities or cultures to understand and trust each other is to spend significant time together. Times where ideas are shared during book discussions, or when working on physical projects, building things together. I often share this quote that expresses this idea:


From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time.

Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017)
Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada

Before I knew about Mutual Aid, I wrote I was truly blessed to have become involved with the Kheprw Institute (KI) in Indianapolis. Monthly, mainly white Quakers from the meeting I attended would participate in book discussions at KI. Once Imhotep Adisa, one of the leaders of KI, said, “these conversations are revolutionary.” I was surprised, but saw that was true. People of color and White people sharing their stories with each other, getting to know each other. Becoming friends.

There is a lot more discussion about Mutual Aid in this article, which I recommend you read if you want to learn more about these ideas.

This entry was posted in Black Lives, decolonize, Des Moines Mutual Aid, Great Plains Action Society, Mutual Aid, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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