The system is a disaster and the victims can best determine their own needs -- only the people save the people.
“Mutual aid builds power from below, more effectively than any other means.”
In this feature, we ask organizers involved in mutual aid projects to share a little bit about their work. We understand mutual aid work as the part of social movement organizing that meets people's direct needs. Unlike charity work, however, mutual aid is part of a broader strategy to address the root causes of injustice by mobilizing people to dismantle structures of domination and build the world we want.
Mutual aid efforts are proliferating as people respond to the Coronavirus pandemic. You can track emerging projects atmutualaidhub.org, and we recommend checking out this useful guide from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief about how to start COVID-19 mutual aid projects and do the work safely and effectively. We also recommend the Big Door Brigade’s Mutual Aid Toolbox and this shortmutual aid explainer video, for starting conversations about what mutual aid is and why it is a vital tactic to expand right now.
This week, we had the honor of interviewing Mutual Aid Disaster Relief.
Dean Spade and Roberto Sirvent: Can you please tell readers of the Black Agenda Report a little about your background and the mutual aid work you have been involved in?
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief: Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a grassroots network that provides disaster relief based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action. By working with, listening to, and supporting impacted communities, especially their most vulnerable members, to lead their own recovery, we build long-term, sustainable and resilient communities. Like our little logo shows, we act as a swiss army knife for the autonomous disaster relief movement. We engage directly with disaster survivors and are flexible and responsive to their self-determined needs, and we amplify and support other spontaneous manifestations of mutual aid. Practically speaking, this can look like practicing herbal medicine or other wellness services, setting up distribution centers where survivors and those in solidarity can share goods and services freely, mobile supplies distribution, installing solar infrastructure, tarping roofs, cleaning up flooded homes, resisting evictions, tool-lending libraries, clearing debris and similar activities. Popular education, skillshares, and trainings are also an important component of this work as well.
How does this work fit into the broader struggle for change you are working on? How does it mobilize for change rather than merely being a "band aid" on a harmful system?
Mutual aid is an organizing strategy for our survival and collective liberation. It builds power from below, more effectively than any other means. Our movements cannot be echo-chambers or just social milieus. We need to be engaged with the broader society, in a way that exemplifies what we are fighting for. What better way to do this, than maintain our opposition to colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, the state, and other systems of oppression, but ground it in meeting the material needs of the people. Once people experience a moment of liberation, of communal solidarity and coming together in real and powerful ways to meet each other’s needs, they won’t settle for anything less. It breaks the spell of powerlessness that was upon them. We want to stretch out these temporary autonomous zones, where people are able to share goods and services with each other freely, where we reimagine new social relationships outside of the dictates of the market, where we work for something real, and build something together, even if it is just an idea, that can withstand the crisis that are sure to come.
Doing mutual aid work is planting the seeds that will take root and bring the fortress down. We see this most recently in Puerto Rico, where what began as self-organized responses to disasters (autogestion), organically grew and fed into mobilizations and uprisings that brought down the governor, and again are shaking the ground beneath the powerful.
Have you seen dangers of co-optation of the mutual aid work you have done? What structures or methods have the organizations or projects you work with put in place to address that danger?
Both from nonprofit institutions and the far right we’ve seen dangers of co-optation. After Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle there were neo-nazis attempting to do their own disaster response work for only white people in white neighborhoods. And also after Hurricane Michael, there were nonprofit professionals who came to a self-organized tent city, appointed themselves the managers, and thereafter worked with the police to clear the camp. We can’t control what groups like these do, but we can build and expand our own infrastructure, and out-perform them, hopefully making them irrelevant in the process.
“Nonprofit professionals came to a self-organized tent city, appointed themselves the managers, and worked with the police to clear the camp.”
As far as structure, we are a decentralized network and share decision-making power with each other and with those impacted. So it’s very fluid and centered around autonomous action and leading by obeying. But we also have unifying guiding principles and core values that shape our individual and collective efforts. And then we also have a steering committee made up of folks with long-term commitment to the project, who help with continuity and can step in if needed.
What are the pitfalls of mutual aid work, from your experience?
Share power with each other and those you are assisting, organize horizontally, but don’t let process lead to paralysis, you don’t want to be an anarchistic version of a bureaucracy. Don't let interpersonal conflicts destroy the movement. Beware the nonprofit industrial complex and its strings. Don't be inaccessible, whether through too much security culture or too much radical subculture positioning. This is an opportunity to be a gateway into social justice/activism/organizing for liberation for people of all kinds of different backgrounds and perspectives.
This work can hurt. Exposing ourselves to the suffering of others can lead to trauma. Going hard and not pacing ourselves is definitely a big pitfall. Try to make caring for yourself and each other and healing justice a central part of all that you are doing. We often talk about mutual aid and charity as a binary, but it is also a spectrum. Maintain self-awareness, and always strive to avoid falling into charity approaches. Avoid disaster patriarchy, or intersectional gender injustice that can manifest after disasters, which often includes the valorization of hard and constant physical labor, a crisis-laden environment, militant posturing, minimization of emotion and basic human needs.
And always look for ways to connect direct aid with addressing root causes and advocating for systemic changes.
Do you think mutual aid work has any special or particular role in the current conditions/crises?
Mutual aid work is a powerful strategic path forward for our social movements. It’s a tactic that unites disparate elements of our movements for justice. It is transformative, and it opens people’s minds to what is possible. People connect, share, and that better world we are constantly fighting for isn’t a distant hope but a current reality. This communal solidarity is an echo from a future that we bring closer to existence through each small simple act of kindness and courage.
Think of all the things we rely on our opposition to do for us. Our food, our water, energy, transportation, entertainment, communications, our medical care, our trash pickup. If the traditional political establishment takes care of people’s survival needs, they will most likely maintain power, but due to capitalism eating itself, the political establishment seems to be on a trajectory of eliminating any and every social program and only funding the military and prisons. In this changing context, if instead, corporations or fascists meet people’s needs, people will probably look to them for leadership. And if autonomous, liberatory movements for collective liberation facilitate the people’s ability to meet their own needs, the better world we know is possible very well may become a reality.
Storms are coming, climate-related, economic, and political. They are already on the horizon. And there is no calvary coming. If we wait on the nonprofit industrial complex or the state to save us, we are not going to survive. Only the people save the people. And mutual aid is how we do it.
Do you have ideas about how mutual aid could expand or mobilize more people?
Technology can be a force-multiplier. We are working on a companion website/toolkit to help facilitate more decentralized action and better highlight diverse mutual aid initiatives in the network and beyond. We can also strive to be more inclusive. We’re not trying to build a social club or a subculture. We’re building a mass movement for revolutionary change, and there’s no need to speak or act in ways that isolate ourselves unnecessarily. And we need to keep a seat at our table open for people who come from other backgrounds and experiences, maintaining and expanding opportunities for people to begin on the road towards consciousness and liberation.
Are there any examples of other mutual aid work, historical or contemporary, that particularly inspire you or that you have used as a model?
We are very influenced by the survival programs of the Black Panther Party. Many folks involved with autonomous, solidarity-based disaster relief in the U.S. got their start by responding to a call from Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In the words of the former chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, survival programs are meant to “meet people’s immediate needs while simultaneously raising their consciousness.” They are survival programs pending revolution. The Panthers survival programs included a free breakfast program, community-wide pest control, sickle cell anemia testing and education, self-defense, free groceries, and a free ambulance program. Their prison chapters organized to put an end to rape and other abuses in prison. Their influence on our work cannot be overstated.
“Survival programs are meant to ‘meet people’s immediate needs while simultaneously raising their consciousness.’”
The Zapatistas are also a big inspiration. They say questions are for walking and to lead by obeying. Their example and approach definitely informs and inspires our own. Food Not Bombs, the decentralized networks of street medics, the IWW, and Catholic Workers, and of course the long history of spontaneous manifestations of mutual aid that arises after disasters, from the San Francisco earthquake over a century ago to Common Ground and Occupy Sandy more recently. And, oftentimes we think of mutual aid in these movement-rooted manifestations. But just as important if not more so, is the informal networks of mutual aid that are often invisible to all but those participating. People survive extreme poverty and post-incarceration because of these informal networks.
What can readers of the Black Agenda Report do to support your work?
We are always looking for people rooted in social movement organizing and capable of communal work and self-initiative willing to put in time and effort on the ground after disasters. Readers can also donate to continue our work at MutualAidDisasterRelief.org/donate and expand our survival programs – we make even a little stretch a lot because we are an all-volunteer network with little to no overhead costs. But our greatest need is for people to do what they are already doing, but to the nth degree possible. We are facing, with climate change, profound and terrifying shifts in our political, economic, and climate futures. Storms are coming. They are already on the horizon. Learn the skills you need to learn to take care of each other.
Everything now is a learning opportunity for what will come next. Experiment with ways of living that give you the freedom to do what you know needs to be done. And don’t give up because we need each other now more than ever. If a disaster hits your community, consider doing what you can to take care of people impacted in a spirit of solidarity, and if you need backup, reach out to us, and we’ll do everything we can to have your back.
Dean Spade is the creator of the mutual aid toolkit at bigdoorbrigade.com. He has been working in various poverty-focused and abolitionist mutual aid projects for the past 20 years. He is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law (Duke University Press 2015). His video projects and writing are available atdeanspade.net.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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