This is, perhaps, one of the few truly good stories to emerge from this horrible year: an entire architecture of social support, blueprinted on Facebook, managed via text messages and Slack, accessible to everyone, and built seemingly overnight. And mutual-aid groups offer lessons not just for how social-service agencies and nonprofits might serve communities better, but also for how to imagine communities that meet everyone’s needs.
Mutual aid has a long history in the United States, particularly among Black Americans and other communities subject to racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. Black mutual-aid groups are as old as the country itself; in the late 19th century, more than half of Black women living in New York City were part of one. Today’s groups take inspiration from the actions of the Black Panthers, which ran a school breakfast program in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil-rights group that set up free health clinics, meal programs, and day cares.
The current mutual-aid explosion has more recent roots in the rise of civil-rights and protest groups, especially Black Lives Matter, and the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America and other leftist political organizations. For years, local BLM chapters have organized food drives, raised money to pay rent and utility bills, and set up bail funds. Similarly, for years, the DSA has supported organizers in creating community funds.
Mutual-aid groups function a bit like traditional nonprofits or charities in many ways. They identify community members who have needs, whether for food, household goods, transportation, gas, a safe place to stay, help with a utility or student-loan bill, or rental assistance. Then they fill that need.
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The Michigan Mutual Aid Coalition does grocery delivery. Buddy System organizes and stocks community fridges, which anyone can use for free; it also matches up people in the community—seniors who need help getting to the store, for example, with college students who have a car and some free time. Para Todus Hit helps its community members with rent and utility relief, as well as food and household basics.
But mutual-aid groups differ from standard charities. For one, many strive to be as fast and simple as possible: see need, meet need. For that reason, many focus on moving cash from families with a little extra to families falling behind on their bills, via services such as Venmo and Cash App. When the deep freeze hit Texas this winter, mutual-aid groups immediately routed donations to afflicted families and communities. If someone needs cash to get the electricity on, or put gas in the car, or buy diapers, or get on a bus to be with a dying family member, mutual-aid groups can help in a matter of hours, even in the middle of the night.